Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Middle-Class" Domesticity Goes Public: Gender, Class, and Politics from Queen Caroline to Queen Victoria

Dror Wahrman traces the political treatment of the middle class of England through the decades of the 1820s and 1830s. As the title denotes, the main development he is tracing is the incorporation of women and the domestic into the political conception of the middle class. The brunt of his argument is found in one of the concluding sentences of the article which reads: “The picture of the ‘middle class’ as the epitome of hearth and home, in sum, should be viewed not as a straightforward snapshot of essential social practice but, rather, as a charged and contingent historical invention.”

Wahrman’s article opens on comparing two statements made by novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The first statement, contained in an 1831 essay, establishes a clear dichotomy between public and private, leaving public opinion to men and fashion to women. However, two years after that statement was published Bulwer-Lytton again discussed public opinion and fashion but did not divide relegate the categories to men and women respectively; rather, the categories were relegated to the middle class and aristocracy, respectively. Wahrman suggests that the difference in texts is not coincidental but reflects that the categories “middle class,” “public,” “private,” “masculine” and “feminine,” “invoked changing ranges of meanings and . . . carried different stakes at different moments.”

The trial of public opinion surrounding the episode of Queen Caroline in the 1820s asserted the opinion of the “middle class” was altogether male. The instance of women engaging in the public discourse surrounding Queen Caroline contained in the article was an address to the queen which was printed in the Examiner and the women are excessively meek in their writing saying at one point, “We are unaccustomed to public acts.” However, Caroline was considered “a woman’s cause” as “women acted as defenders of familial values and communal morality.” Nevertheless, at this time women were not considered part of the middle class voice speaking out against the injustice facing Caroline.

The rhetoric used to discuss the middle class changed with the passage of The Reform Bill of 1832, although there is some debate as to whether or not some social change on a longue duree level had not occurred earlier. Nonetheless, the middle class began to be associated with familial values, particularly with religious devotion and soberness, all which placed increased emphasis on the domestic—traditionally the woman’s realm. Wahrman evokes Joan Scott in his discussion quoting from her “Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis” the following phrase: “the concept of class in the nineteenth century relied on gender for its articulation.” Wahrman’s article and his tracing of notions of what defines middle classness reflects the validity of Scott’s statement.

Thematic Categories: Categories of Difference (Middle Class vs. Aristocracy—something I didn’t mention much, but very explicit in the discussion of Queen Caroline), Gender, Marriage and Family, Feminism (discussion of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Thompson, among other feminist writers)

1 comment:

  1. This makes me think of how we look at the middle class now. I think we still often associate the family life as more private, and of course women are still very much considered the master of the house. I don't however feel that that it is still true that middle class is overly considered masculine. That has certainly changed since the 19th Century.