The post-industrial era marked a change in lifestyle among the middle classes (or bourgeoisie) that was...
In The Age of Empire: 1875–1914, Eric Hobsbawm describes the evolution of the bourgeoisie across much of Western Europe and the US, and how this impacted the status of women in society.
The post-industrial era marked a change in lifestyle among the middle classes (or bourgeoisie) that was marked, first and foremost, by their changed addresses. The suburban house and garden came to represent how upwardly mobile classes wished to live, in homes that were reminiscent of the aristocratic dwellings of landowners in earlier times:
The ideal middleclass house was no longer seen as part of a city street, a “town house” or its substitute, an apartment in a large building fronting a city street and pretending to be a palace, but an urbanized or rather suburbanized country house (“villa” or even “cottage”) in a miniature park or garden, surrounded by greenery.
However, even though the bourgeoisie had moved into homes that mimicked the earlier stately homes of aristocrats, they did not wield power in exactly the same way. Hobsbawm attributes this to four factors. The first was the democratization of politics which opened the way for mass movements and made only the “grandest and most formidable” among the bourgeoisie retain any power. The second is described as
a certain loosening of the links between the triumphant bourgeoisie and the puritan values which had been so useful for capital accumulation in the past ...
This means that the middle classes were no longer driven by ideals of working hard and saving for a rainy day as much as they used to be in the past. Hobsbawm talks of these former values as being the markers the bourgeoisie used to distinguish themselves from both the rich and idle aristocracy and the laborers they looked down upon. In this departure from traditional values, spending became as important as saving to the bourgeoisie, and this led to the creation of a new “leisure class.”
The structures of the bourgeois family also loosened as children were no longer required to apprentice into their fathers’ businesses or vocations as soon as they came of age. In fact, as the period between children coming of age and getting married lengthened considerably and was classified as “youth,” forms of modernity developed that had a strong influence on arts and literature. In addition, they led to a greater role for women in bourgeois homes.
Hobsbawm describes other changes in terms of the much greater number of people who became members of the bourgeoisie in this period. Businessmen and traders, independent professionals like doctors and lawyers, and senior salaried state servants all formed the burgeoning middle class by the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. This was due to the benefits of higher education and its availability on a much larger scale. Schooling provided the basis for building distinctions of class, creating “old boys” networks that wielded power in government and business circles. The emergence of “Ivy League” universities also contributed to these class distinctions.
Sports, too, reinforced the separation of the bourgeoisie from the laboring classes. Initially part of those “collective recognition signs” of how the middle classes were different from those inferior to them on the social scale, sports and games brought women opportunities to compete and excel in a manner that had not been possible before. While tennis, skating, and cycling were taken up by both men and women, golf clubs were places of masculine privilege. Here, businessmen could strike deals amidst carefully cultivated rolling greens.
Hobsbawm considers the middle strata of society (and, to a smaller extent, the upper class) to be most significant for the cause of women’s emancipation in this period of 1875–1914. As men and women began to marry at a later age, as many chose to stay unmarried, and as people began practicing some forms of birth control, the fertility rate dropped in the developed countries of the West. This lowered birth rate meant that women had more time away from household and parenting duties. The period of children’s education became longer, and children could no longer be regarded as additional hands for earning due to child labor laws enacted in various countries. Thus, it became more important to provide them with advantages that would enable them to do better than their parents. Education also enabled the rise to prominence of several exceptional women, such as Rosa Luxemburg, Annie Besant, Eleanor Marx, and Marie Curie.
Women from the lower classes had previously been earning money as domestic help. Peasant and farmer women earned money from domestic industries like making knitted goods, lace, or food items. However, as the working world began getting separated into two domains—the outside world of offices and factories, and another representing the home—women acquired a managerial role. With men often being the primary breadwinners and working outside the home, women became the de facto managers of resources within the home.
This perception then became the dominant template within the middle class: that women were dependents who had clout within the home, and men were providers who needed to earn enough money for all their dependents. It was this that made women seek a dependent existence post-marriage as their main career choice by the beginning of the twentieth century. When women did step out and take jobs, they were paid less than men and confined to jobs that were considered appropriate, such as sales assistant or clerk.
While describing the broader contours of the status of women in the expanding bourgeoisie of the pre–World War I years, Hobsbawm underplays the importance of more conscious movements for women’s emancipation, such as the Suffragettes’ movement for votes for women. Instead, he considers that women had a better chance to speak about equality within the mainstream socialist parties.
The rise of labour and socialist movements as major movements for the emancipation of the unprivileged unquestionably encouraged women seeking their own freedom: it is no accident that they formed one-quarter of the membership of the (small and middle-class) Fabian Society—founded 1883. And, as we have seen, the rise of an economy of services and other tertiary occupations provided a wider range of jobs for women, while the rise of a consumer economy made them into the central target for the capitalist market.
During this time period, changes in women’s status within the bourgeoisie were influenced by their being seen as the wielders of the “shopping basket”; products and advertising that targeted them became common. This was accompanied by freer modes of dress and appearance that placed fewer restrictions on women’s bodies than the yards of cloth and whalebone used in the Victorian period. Ideas of sexual liberation also pushed women to choose between the Church and the left-socialist parties. While the Church defended the traditional rights of women within the home, it also asked supporters to accept women’s traditional subordination.