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Jonathan Lindsell 25/04/2011 'There is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly cooked dinners and untidy ways' (Mrs Beeton). Is it true that the woman had the most important role in the family during this period?
"For the woman, the man is a means; the end is always a child" -Friedrich Nietzsche Together, the views of Nietzsche and Beeton paint a representative picture of the nineteenth-century bourgeois perspective on women. To call it chauvinist, prejudiced or sexist is to fall into the presentist trap - in fact, they in voicing the prevalent views of the time give us an excellent insight into the importance of women in the family during the period, and they show that that position is marginal. Beeton, through supposing that family discontent stems from a woman's petty inadequacies, both highlights how small a stratum of society she is describing, and how blind she is to the vital importance of men. Nietzsche, on the other hand, sees perhaps too clearly the necessity of a family to have a husband before children can be begot. Although nineteenth-century women were as ready and able as any others to play a more prominent role in both family and social life, the paradigms, prejudices and legal institutions of the time limited women's role. The economic and traditional circumstances made men far more vital for the family. We can see from the cultures of non-European peoples that the Victorian gender roles were not universal, but imperialism took steps to making them so. Nonetheless, women's role did grow from 1815-1914, with greater legal freedom and opportunities for teaching and nursing advancement. Mrs. Beeton's quoted view applies only to a very isolate stratum of society, those of the petit bourgeoisie who couldn't afford a culinary maid or cook (one of the first servants a middle-class family would hire) but who were affluent enough to view the woman of the family's occupation as "housewife", suggesting she did not need to contribute to the family's income. This set her and her readers, who saw in her 1861 "Book of Household Management" the importance of "restraint in conversation" and the "balancing of finances"1, apart from the vast majority of women, who worked in proto-, agricultural- or factory- industry at least until they had children. 4,356,000 French women worked, 36.6% of them outside of agriculture2. The overwhelming majority of women laboured in this way to supplement the husband's income. 'Supplement', however, is the operative word. Due to the prevalent idea at Parliament at the time, men were the breadwinners and any wives who worked did so for "pin money", i.e. for money above the immediate needs of subsistence. Furthermore, the literature of the day saw women as delicate and glorified domestic bliss, for example Sarah Ellis' "Mother's of England" and John Rushin's poem "Of Queen's Gardens". Although in many cases the "pin money" argument was simply not true, and both spouses' incomes were needed to support the family, the politicians' views influenced law, which drove down women's wages relative to men's. Therefore the man became by 1815 the dominant wage earner, the vital wage earner, without whom the family would certainly starve, for women earned between one third and half of men, in all occupations3 Working class women, in addition to their marginal importance to the family in terms of support, also found it difficult to fulfil their most fundamental role - motherhood. Because of the strict practise of locking workers in factories for the 1
Changing Lives, Bonnie G Smith, p.186 Housewife or Harlot, James E McMillan, p.32 3 Changing Lives, Bonnie G Smith, p.322 2
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