Anna Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches

Just a quick thought about Anna Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (Rivers Oram, 1995).

Every time I try to write something about the role of women in popular politics in the early nineteenth century, I ask myself, 'What did Clark write about this woman/year/event?' I pick up Clark's book from my shelf, look in the index, then in the relevant chapters 8 to 10, and inevitably find very little about what I'm looking for.

The book is in fact not about radical women at all. Certainly for the period 1816-20, there are very few radical women in it. I was trying to look up Jemima Bamford - she's not in the index, and Samuel her husband, the more famous radical leader who wrote reams about his relationship with her in his Passages in the Life of a Radical (1849) is only mentioned once. We don't hear the voices of the female radical societies that proliferated in 1819 nor do we read their many addresses published in the newspapers in the lead up to Peterloo. The chapters on 1816-20 are surprisingly thin. For Jemima, I had to go to Paul Custer's article, Refiguring Jemima, in Past and Present (2007), and also the work of Michael Bush on the women of Peterloo.

Clark's book is much more about attitudes to and representations of political women in this period, and many more of the chapters are about gender relations in family and work. Separate spheres basically, as would be expected for a book published in the 1990s.

So why do I have this Pavlovian reaction about Clark's book when referencing works on popular politics and gender? 

I think it is because the book has become canonical in citations about female political history because of what the book represents rather than what it actually contains.

As the title suggests, it was designed as a counter-part if not a counter-blast to E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, which was criticised for its lack of attention to gender issues in politics. So that's what it is - a synecdoche for all books representing a challenge to a traditional male labour or political history. So I still have to cite it, even though it's not actually that useful for learning more about what the actual women of 1816-20 thought or did themselves....


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