Rethinking Women and the Professions, c. 1870-1920: Methods, Scales, and Sources

Session Abstract : Often denied access to the institutions and training regimes that credentialled their male counterparts, women are routinely left out of accounts of ‘professionalization’ or the ‘professional project’ in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Britain. Our panel emphasizes the importance of using a variety of methods, scales, and sources, to most effectively ‘find’ and describe the lives of women who began to craft new ‘professional’ roles in this era. Rather than simply being committed to recovering these women’s lives—although we recognize that to be an important task in its own right—we wish to explain more fully what their place was within the economic, social, and cultural structures of specific occupations and the professional class more widely. In our individual papers, we turn to the records of overlooked and understudied institutions, to ego-documents, to census data and to often-dismissed ephemera such as receipts and calling cards. We use methods and approaches drawn from biography and statistical analysis, alongside exploration of the built environment, embodiment, and material culture, to investigate who these women were, how they understood themselves, what their lives were like, and what it actually meant to be a ‘professional’ for different women of this era. We are proposing this panel at a moment when many historians of gender seem to be returning to a focus on women as historical subjects and to their intersections with feminist politics, revisiting literatures and subjects of research from the heyday of women’s history. We hope that our papers and the ensuing discussion will help us to take stock of where we are at this juncture in writing the history of women in Britain, and to develop creative and exciting ideas about where to go next.

Session Chair: Professor Susan Pedersen, Columbia University

Paper 1 Abstract: Institutions and Interpersonal Relationships: Women Academics, 1880-1914

Emily Rutherford, Columbia University

In the late 1870s, Bristol and London Universities admitted women students, and the first women’s colleges were founded at Oxford and Cambridge. A decade later, a small trickle of women who benefited from this new access to qualifications began to be hired as lecturers, overwhelmingly in single-sex institutions. By 1914, about ten percent of university academic staff in Great Britain were female.
We have yet to understand the lives and work of this first generation of women academics. What did a day in their lives look like? How did they perceive themselves? How did they build professional and personal relationships with women and with men? How did they interact with the institutions which they governed and by which they were governed? My paper argues that we can only answer these questions by amalgamating methodological perspectives. It offers three in particular: biography and emotions; institutional politics; and spatial analysis. I illustrates this by looking at two examples: the first generation of university teachers at Oxford, who founded a parallel university before women were admitted to degrees; and Rose Sidgwick and Margery Fry, the couple who established a women’s hostel at Birmingham University. These cases suggest that women academics had a variety of perspectives about their roles as professional pioneers, not all of which map easily onto familiar ideological or political lines; and that they were often ambivalent about the relationship that the single-sex communities which sustained their work lives bore to the wider mixed-gender universities which employed them and in which those communities were physically situated. Taking a closer look at the lives of this particular professional cohort can offer a new perspective on the rapidly-changing roles and norms for gender relations at the turn of the twentieth century.

Paper 2 Abstract : Women and the Professions: The View from the Census

Harry Smith, Oxford University

There have been numerous studies of women and the professions in particular locations or particular occupations; however, the limited form and availability of occupation data has restricted the potential for nation-level surveys of women’s employment in the professions. The recent creation of the I-CeM database, a standardized, digital version of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century censuses covering England and Wales from 1851 to 1911, allows the question of female employment in the professions to be considered in far greater detail and scope. This paper offers an overview of the changing employment of women in the later nineteenth century. It examines which professions women could enter and how this changed over the second half of the nineteenth century. It also considers the structure of the occupations: how many female professionals owned their own businesses or were self-employed compared to how many were employees. The census data also allows consideration of how the characteristics of female professionals compared to other employed women and to male professionals. Were female professionals older or younger than their male counterparts? Were they more or less likely to be married than female business owners? The rich and easily manipulated data provided by I-CeM allows these questions and many others to be considered at the national level for the first time. Furthermore, this paper will examine the geography of female professionals, in order to consider whether female employment in the professions was an urban phenomenon. If there was a female ‘professional project’ in later nineteenth century England, then this paper provides the structural outlines in which that project operated, illustrating which professions women could enter and the socio-economic characteristics of the women who entered those occupations.

Paper 3 Abstract : Women in the applied arts: ‘Feminism’, space, and institution building in London, 1870–1920

Zoë Thomas, University of Birmingham

This paper provides a new model for understanding what being a ‘professional’ meant for women working in the applied arts—in fields such as metalwork, textile design, and doll making—in late nineteenth and early twentieth century London. It seeks to bridge the disciplinary divide between socio-cultural, women’s history, and art history, in particular to encourage women’s historians to include female artistic lives in debates about the changing nature of work for middle-class women of this era. The project of professionalization for men has been well studied by social historians such as Harold Perkin. However, Perkin’s focus on institutions, class hierarchies, and education is of limited use when trying to conceptualize how artistic women fashioned new roles. Women routinely received limited formal artistic training and were often barred from male-only cultural institutions. Using the Women’s Guild of Arts as a case study—now unknown, it was the most prestigious guild for women in the applied arts in Britain during this era—this paper reveals no single factor, such as a secure income or art school training, guaranteed the designation of ‘professional’ and a successful reputation for its members. The reality was more fluid. Most members spent their lives negotiating gendered restrictions, but they did rhetorically start to claim the term ‘professional’ for themselves with increasing authority from the 1870s onwards in letters, periodicals, and artistic manuals. Women also began to work together to subvert the built environment, creating new transitory sites for professional performances, at studios, shops, rooms at home, exhibitions, and through the formation of their own cultural institutions. Rethinking professionalism through a spatial lens, and being more sensitive to the ways women individually and collectively self-fashioned and asserted new modern roles, provides a more sophisticated way of historicizing professional identity, which paints in richer detail the ways these women would have actually been regarded during their lifetimes. Finally, the paper argues that this commitment to professionalism was an important, little-recognized ‘feminist’ current which must be considered—alongside suffrage—as having considerable influence in channelling women’s political and creative energies across this era.