WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the month “June, 2013”

Well behaved women seldom make history . . .

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s popular adage “well behaved women seldom make history” (sadly often attributed to Marilyn Munroe) has been used in a multitude of places and forms to express the need for women to be more subversive of social expectations if they are to truly put their stamp upon the world, and to secure their place in the annals of time. Yet this would suggest that subversion is all that is needed to mark a woman’s place in history, and that being ‘badly behaved’ is a sure way to make an impact and ensure a lasting legacy.

Alas, this is rarely the case. The WaywardWomen  that fill the pages of this blog have clearly been badly behaved enough to ensure a  mention in the footnotes of history, and sure enough in recent decades, as subjects, they have been sought out, identified, and explored more than ever before. But ultimately, it is their illegal activities that are remembered, both in histories and the bulk of primary materials that those histories are drawn from, rather than the women themselves or the more general interactions they experienced and contributions they made to life.

Academics and popular historians alike are starting to flesh out the profiles and activities of such female offenders. But still, little is known about the social and economic contributions that these women must have been making when not committing an offence, standing in court, or serving time in an institution. The entry of data in the nineteenth century census, parish records or birth, marriage and death registers is no better for female offenders than law-abiding women, they were after all created by men, for the use of men, the consideration of women is secondary. And so, often, wayward women are consigned to the same hazy and ultimately forgettable side-lines of history as their ‘well behaved’ sisters.

In fact, contrary to the above well-circulated quote, much of the time it would seem that we do nothing but remember the well behaved, the ideal model of women. Those who were recorded, accepted, presented as the acceptable norm for their period. For example, not just the wives and mothers, but also independent women and young girls, educators, servants, and dutiful factory workers of the past have for some time appeared regularly in a variety of histories – not always as individuals, but certainly as a present mass. These women might often struggle ( in popular representations certainly)  to be afforded the same time, attention or depth of enquiry as their male counterparts, but here is usually no denying that throughout most major developments and moments in history, women were at least there . . . somewhere.

In their excellent 1993 work Women’s Work and the Family Economy Pat Hudson and Robert Lee commented ‘Much of the history of women’s work has been written from a male perspective. This has resulted in a preoccupation with the ways in which women have ‘participated’ in social processes, including work, which are defined in terms of male experience’.[1] These scholars were quite right to lament the continued evaluation of women’s worth and contribution through male dominated definitions and systems, and to highlight the on-going need to integrate women’s experiences into more general social and economic explorations of the past.  In the intervening twenty years since their book was published, there has of course been a wave of works that have really pushed the boundaries in terms of our understanding and acknowledgement of women’s contribution to social, cultural and economic life throughout history – Works by June Purvis, Selina Todd, Kathryn Gleadle, and Ellen Ross to name just a few. But many of the women included in these histories, were ‘good women’, the well behaved sisters of those wayward and subversive individuals that we know must have been present, but yet we remain neglectful of fully documenting their role.

Despite several fascinating works examining female offending and offenders, the picture of the wider contribution these women made to economic life remains clouded. For some, most embarrassingly myself in particular, patriarchal control remains so embedded that we can often find ourselves producing histories that still use a categorisation of women’s lives and behaviours based on a male-dominated systems. That might be categorising a pick pocket that during the majority of her life looked after her own children or carried out domestic labour in her own home as ‘predominantly unemployed’. Or perhaps neglecting to acknowledge that the street prostitute was as self-employed a worker as the casual dock labourer or builder.

Even now, in 2013, whether the subject be ‘well behaved’ or wayward, it seems that few regular women really ever make it into history at all – not properly.  What is a history of Female offending if not, first and foremost, a history of women. One of the main objectives therefore must be to ensure that any woman’s inclusion in the pages of such a history is not measured by conformity, or subversion, nor great and good deeds, or headline grabbing wrongs, but solely by the very fact that she was possessed of agency, present, and contributing to the world. The same privilege that has been (and remains) afforded to her male counterpart without a second thought.


[1] P. Hudson and W. R. Lee, ‘Women’s work and the family economy in historical perspective’, in P. Hudson and W. R. Lee (eds)  Women’s work and the family economy in historical perspective (Manchester University Press, 1990), p . 2.

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