I was in my second year of graduate school when E.P. Thompson published The Making of the English Working Class in 1963. At the time there was no identifiable field of Labour History in the United States academy. Such work as there was tended to focus on trade unions and generally came out of economics departments. My own dissertation, which was about the history of Jewish immigrant workers in the 1890s, fell into the then rather filio-pietistic field of immigration history. But I was lucky. I came under the wing of an early twentieth-century historian named Charles (Pete) Forcey, a Wisconsin PhD and graduate school friend of Herbert Gutman’s. Pete Forcey introduced me to Gutman around the time that Gutman introduced Thompson to America.
Thompson (I only later learned to call him Edward) did two things for US historians: he redefined class in a way that opened that once ostracized term to usage among Americanists; not unrelatedly, he legitimized the field that became labour history. The two are deeply intertwined in multiple ways, among them, their receptivity to gender as an important explanatory variable. This was almost certainly not the aim of Thompson or his generation of historians, whose conception of historical change rotated around more formal political activity than we now conceive. Yet without Thompson’s persuasive reformulation, we Americanists might not so readily have incorporated gender or women. [End Page 248]
In his oft-quoted definition, Thompson identified class as a “social and cultural formation, arising from processes which can only be studied as they work themselves out over a considerable historical period.” Explicitly rejecting the notion that class was a structure, Thompson insisted that it was “defined by men as they live their own history.”1 His explicit use of the male subject in that sentence and throughout the book has drawn appropriate criticism. Joan Wallach Scott eloquently took him to task. Appreciative of his willing inclusion of a handful of female activists and leaders, Scott argued that Thompson’s use of language “created a sense of class that though described as universal was indelibly male.”2 The criticism was echoed by Catherine Hall, who noted that Thompson theorized class identity with a male subject.3 I don’t disagree with these assessments, and yet I note that in opening the door to a meaning of class that incorporated the daily lives of ordinary people, Thompson introduced a new realm of power that specifically and inevitably included women.
Class and class consciousness, Thompson insisted, did not emerge exclusively from the realm of production, but were rooted in the breadth of human experience and the social roles played by actors. This formulation moved a generation of self-defined labour historians to explore the customs and belief systems embedded in the social organizations of workers, in their community lives, and in the families that sustained them. Family formation, social reproduction, migration and mobility aspirations, all became subsets of a new labour history, each of them the objects of investigation. Under these circumstances, historians could no longer assign women to peripheral roles in class formation; rather, their participation, as family and community members, in shaping behaviour and transmitting values became central to conceptions of evolving class consciousness. Political activities, historians began to suspect, arose as much from gendered ideas of masculinity and femininity, of respectability and independence, of appropriate and inappropriate jobs and wages, as from relations to production.
By the late 1960s, just half a decade after The Making of the English Working Class entered our reading lists, labour historians, who might earlier have paid attention to women only when they were engaged in wage-work, began to notice workers, male and female, who worked in paid and unpaid positions inside the home as well as in factories and pits. They noted as well that workers imbibed the cultures of their ethnic, racial, and religious communities, their rural or traditional backgrounds, and their extended kin networks. Tracing the dispersion of culture, and its relationship to the changing values and expectations [End Page 249] of ordinary people, transformed definitions of the political. If only men, for...