- Remembering Leonore Davidoff:Subjectivity in Thicker than Water
I arrived at Essex from Melbourne in 1985 with the intention of beginning an oral history PhD on the feminization of clerical work in Britain. Sitting in on Lee’s Gender History MA seminars, however, and encouraged by her emphasis on the relational aspects of gender, my focus began to shift towards the study of masculinity. Although taking part in the Gender History seminar was not always comfortable – I was the only man in the group, and there were discussions both about the potentially diluting effects of a focus on women and men, and indeed about whether the seminar should be open to men – it was a really stimulating experience. Family Fortunes was then in the final stages of preparation, and we read draft chapters. Motivated by Lee’s insistence that areas like business and economic history needed to be opened up to a gender perspective, I began a study of management culture in Britain after the Second World War. I came away from the seminar with a feeling of having stumbled into a new field and being set free to explore it. It was a great skill of Lee’s to be able to inspire you without necessarily seeming to want to exert a strong imprint on what you ended up producing. Lee remained an important figure throughout my subsequent life as an academic. She examined my PhD, giving me a detailed commentary that proved invaluable when I was preparing Masculinity and the British Organisation Man for publication. She wrote an effusive report for Routledge on Manful Assertions (1991), the volume edited by John Tosh and me. She brought me back to Essex to teach on the MA in Social History and helped me get a full-time post in the Sociology Department in 1991. She read the manuscript of The Secret Battle, my book on family relationships in the First World War, and remained an energizing and creative presence among the cultural and social historians at Essex. I count myself as very lucky indeed to have had Lee as a colleague.
My own work in recent times has shifted somewhat from the study of masculinity to the history of subjectivity, and in what follows I want to reflect on how Lee understood subjectivity. She was always interested in the interior aspects of experience. Forty years on, her 1974 essay ‘Mastered for Life’ retains a contemporary feel, partly because of Lee’s concern with the subjective experiences of servants and wives.1 She writes [End Page 329] about Arthur Munby’s erotic fascination with hands – the delicate hands of the lady and the ‘brick red, coarse-grained’ hands of the servant girl.2 She points out the tensions in service relationships between identification and social distance. She wonders how far servants ‘internalized’ a belief in their unworthiness, and considers the affective strategies that they might use to counter feelings of inferiority; for example by emphasizing the mistress or master’s dependence on their skill and emotional support.3 In short, ‘Mastered for Life’ gives a powerful portrayal of the emotionally fraught world of service.
For Lee the psyche formed part of a holistic approach in which, along with social and intellectual history, literature, anthropology, economics, demography and sociology were brought to bear on gender history. Keeping abreast of all these fields required an extraordinary level of scholarship and dedication. Here I will focus on her last book, Thicker than Water, as I think it marked a new departure for Lee in its attention to the emotional aspects of sibling relations. In a way the book’s structure mimics a movement toward the psyche. It starts with demography, family structure and the social history of siblings; the final section contains a chapter on sibling intimacy and incest, another on the emotional dimensions of close marriage, a case-study of the Freud family, and a closing chapter on sibling loss. Lee had decided that Thicker than Water would be her last book, and in the last chapter she reflects on the pain of mourning and the psychic impact of loss, preoccupations which we might recognize in the way that Lee...