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Reviews185 challengingly argumentative extension of Habermas and communicative ethics. SALLY MITCHELL Temple University Works Cited Gerin, Winifred. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1976. Joan Perkin. Victorian Women. London: John Murray P, 1993. vni + 264. £19.99 (cloth). In the days when women's history was a relatively new field, many historians of women saw themselves as directly contributing to the cause of Women's Liberation, and the histories they wrote were intended to be read outside as well as inside the academy. At the Women's Liberation Movement conference held at Oxford's Ruskin College in 1970, the effort to reclaim "herstory" for all women was a central, if ultimately illusory, goal. Times have, of course, changed. Particularly in North America, women's history has been (albeit precariously) institutionalized; it has developed into a specialized discipline with its own journals and conferences. New approaches and methodologies have revolutionized the field, producing important new insights, but often at the cost of accessibility. Much of this work is intellectually demanding, and appears esoteric even to those working in related fields. The gap between "academic" and "popular" then, has grown very wide. Joan Perkin's Victorian Women is an effort to bridge this gap. It is, according to its introduction, "not a book for scholars." Instead, it is "for those ordinary women — and men too — who would like to know how their forebears fared at the hands of inequitable man-made laws and customs" (5). This is a lively and eminently readable survey of English women's lives in the "long nineteenth century," from the French Revolution to the Great War. Here Perkin provides a wealth of intriguing detail. That, for example, when women's underpants were first introduced in the 1840s, they were slit at the crotch and down the inseams so as not to too closely resemble trousers, a male prerogative (95). Or that, contrary to assumptions about the "prudery" of the 1 86Victorian Review Victorians, nude bathing was common even among the respectable until weU after mid-century (106). The great strength of Victorian Women is its innovative approach. Perkin rejects traditional political and economic chronologies to organize the book around the stages of women's lifecycle. She devotes separate chapters to topics such as childbirth, schooling, marriage, spinsterhood, and widowhood. This approach allows her to emphasize an all-too-uncommon perspective on the material conditions of women's lives: she argues, for example, that "control of the number of children they had was vastly more important to most Victorian women than getting the vote . . ." (238). Given the statistics she presents — more than one in two hundred women died in childbirth in the nineteenth century, compared with about one in sixty thousand in England today (65) — Perkin's point is well-taken. If marital status was crucial, so too was class position. Together, Perkin argues, these factors defined the limits and the possibiUties of women's lives. To underscore this point, she devotes separate chapters to unmarried working class ("Cheap Labour") and middle class women ("Making Their Own Way"), as well as to married women workers and to their middle class counterparts, the "Ladies Bountiful." While there are significant advantages to this approach, it does militate against a more sophisticated analysis of the profound structural changes taking place in English society over the course of the nineteenth century. That the same forces which produced the "idle" middle class wife also produced the "factory drudge" is explored only cursorily. Equally problematic is the lack of attention to questions of race, ethnicity, and empire, all of which have begun to attract significant attention from historians of women and of gender relations. The book focuses on "English" women as if EngUshness were an unproblematic category; there is little or no discussion of the experiences of women in, for example, the Irish or Jewish communities of the rapidly expanding urban centres of industrial England. Even the existence of the British Empire itself is mentioned only incidentally, as in the context ofPerkin's discussion of shopping in which she notes (rather naively) only that "the world sent its wares to London: silks and spices from the East, teas from China and India, wool...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 185-188
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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