Hannah J. Oberlander
February 14, 2014
Short Essay 1
Davidoff & Hall’s Family Fortunes and E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class highlight the lives of middle-class and working-class citizens of England during industrialization. Both works give the classes credit for their own formation, but Davidoff & Hall’s work stresses the importance of different gender roles in the creation of the middle-class mindset, whereas Thompson emphasizes the communities of the working class as a whole. While exploring common experiences are important in explaining Industrial Revolution class identity, Davidoff & Hall’s studied and specific exploration of middle-class gender distinctions provides a necessary, analytical dimension to Industrial Revolution era class development.
Both Thompson and Davidoff & Hall acknowledge that the Industrial Revolution time frame marked the advent of a distinguishable working-class and middle-class. Thompson explains that the rise of manufacturing led to the formation of the middle class. Instead of the long-standing separation of high-class gentry and the lower class, an intermediary class emerged that included factory owners and employers.1 Davidoff & Hall similarly bring to light the idea that this new class was developing between the 1780s and 1790s. No longer was prosperity subject to lineage, but rather “was closely tied to middle-class consumption since in many cases they lived by producing goods and services which formed the lineaments of the middle-class culture of which they were a part.” 2 Furthermore, “despite differences from both gentry and [the] nascent working class, . . . the middle strata . . . was crisscrossed by differences of interest,” including professionals and merchants as well as manufacturing families. 3
While both historical narratives support the genesis of this class distinction during the Industrial Revolution, Thompson and Davidoff & Hall offer competing frameworks of analysis for arriving at this common conclusion. Thompson looks at the working class as a whole, and rather than looking through the lens of gender, focuses instead on common shared experiences manifested in working-class social and political affiliations. Thompson observed that the “revolutionary crowd” materialized to form a resistance movement against the “laws of the propertied . . . [and] took the form of . . . piecemeal and sporadic insurrectionary actions where numbers gave some immunity.” 4 When prices skyrocketed, bread and cheese riots ensued and the “artisans, self-employed craftsman,” as well as others “use[d]…the crowd as an instrument of pressure…[that] received the attention which it merits.” 5 Thompson assigns the motivation of this emerging class’ industrial work ethic to their religion, particularly, the motivational “bearing of the Methodist Church.”6 Despite all of these cultural implications, noted historian, Peter Burke, writes that Thompson’s effort to “clump” culture together for the working class is an all-encompassing term that does not point out distinctions like how the specific roles of men and women shaped this cultural evolution.7
Even though Davidoff & Hall acknowledge these common shared experiences like Thompson, they also unpack the middle-class identity by exploring the differing roles and views of men and women. Davidoff & Hall observe that the middle-class man believed that his specific role was to be a “steward” of God; therefore, his moral obligation was to provide for his family.8 For example, Davidoff & Hall depict James Luckock, a middle-class man of the day, who encouraged “young men to be like him; responsible breadwinners whose manhood was legitimated through their ability to secure the needs of their dependents.”9 Davidoff & Hall also observe that for the middle-class woman, her place was “underpinned by legal, political, and social practices which subordinated women.”10 The middle-class woman’s “economic worth”11 was what she contributed to her family, and her place was in the home, a separated space away from the workplace. Davidoff & Hall rely on these distinctions to find that the private sphere of a man’s home and the private life of his wife were what actually measured a person’s success within the middle-class. This observation by Davidoff & Hall contrasts with Thompson’s description of the holistic working-class experience as “family was roughly torn apart each morning by the factory bell, and the mother who was also a wage-earner often felt herself to have the worst of both the domestic and the industrial worlds.”12 Beyond Thompson’s implicit observation, Davidoff & Hall explicitly compare these differences between classes even more when they state:
Working-class men and women were often now bereft of community support and more reliant on charity or the Poor Law. Meanwhile, the middle class, bolstered by networks of family, kind, and the religious community, aspired for the inclusion in the governing stata if only in the parish vestry.13
Davidoff & Hall’s inclusion of middle-class gender distinctions provides a critical key to fully and empathetically understanding the emergence of the middle-class during the Industrial Revolution.
The more thorough framework of Davidoff & Hall reveals that the most profound class differences appear when comparing the working-class woman with the middle-class woman. Davidoff & Hall show that:
One of the strongest strands binding together…[the middle class] was the commitment to an imperative moral code and the reworking of their domestic world into a proper setting for its practice…and the home was strongly associated with a form of femininity which was becoming the hallmark of the middle class.14
With a middle-class woman’s place in the home, her duties included the management of the household as a haven for her husband and family. In this way, she contributed to the enterprise of her family’s well being. “A heavily gendered view of the world,” Davidoff & Hall suggest, “was utilized to soften, if not disavow, the disruption of a growing class system as the master and household was transmuted into employer on the one hand and husband/father on the other.”15 Complimenting Davidoff & Hall’s argument, Valenze affirms that “in a subordinate role to her upper-class female mentor, the nineteenth-century working class woman emerged in contradistinction to the middle-class ideal.”16 Valenze further explains that the working-class woman worked outside of her home, and any thought to value in the workplace had been downtrodden by structural economic developments brought on by the Industrial Revolution; working-class women were “confined to low-paid, exploitive occupations that . . . earned them the designation as a vast ‘surplus army’ of labor.”17 In fact, ironically, Valenze notes that domestic service was the number one job occupation for the working-class woman, who often worked for the middle-class, stay-at-home woman, thus depicting her subservience to the higher class.18 Valenze’s contributions confirm Davidoff & Hall’s conclusion that “gender and class always take a gendered form.”19
Davidoff & Hall show gender is essential to understanding class development, whereas Thompson does not. Thompson’s exclusion of gender does him a disservice, because as Burke suggests, “distinctions need to be drawn between the cultures of social classes [like] the cultures of men and women . . . living in the same society.”20 At best, Thompson’s 800-page work only includes scattered and indirect references to gender distinctions within the working-class. However, Davidoff & Hall use middle-class gender distinctions as a predominant focus of their argument about the development of the middle-class, providing a more thorough explanation that is both an honest and realistic assessment of class development. While both Thompson and Davidoff & Hall go beyond mere technology as the impetus for the social transformations during the Industrial Revolution, Davidhoff & Hall’s work importantly demonstrates through gender comparison analysis that a workable, historical framework explains these deep social transformations.