We might be forgiven for thinking that a pretty thorough job has now been done to put women back into history, that enough stories have been reclaimed to make clear that women have not been the sidekicks of the human race. This volume of essays, however, addresses a startling assumption that scholarly history still makes: that the ‘normal family’ consists of a breadwinner-husband, wife and children, and that women deprived of a male household head would fall into poverty relieved only by charitable or state assistance. This volume, even while masquerading as a fairly dry work of historical research, tackles this assumption head-on.
In her Introduction, Moring states that the aim of the book is to examine “to what extent women relied on their own work, inherited or other family resources or on assistance from public or private bodies” when acting as household heads (p.3). This investigation is explicitly set against the scholars named by Moring, who continue to work from the assumption of the ‘normal family’. This concept, formalised in the nineteenth century by statisticians who “created a phenomenon, ‘the normal family’, a unit of husband, wife and two or more children under the age of 10, 15 or 18 depending on time and place” (pp.1-2), remained the basis for surveys and histories of the family well into the twentieth century. As a result, “the normal family regularly appear in surveys of budgets focusing on the household economy of ‘the working man’. Such households, as a rule containing young children and babies served their purpose in boosting male breadwinner ideologies. Bowley, however raised the issue, whether the normal family was normal, as in his studies of early twentieth-century household economy he found that actually only a minority of families fitted the criteria” (pp.1-2). The venerable Bowley, then, is the guiding light for this volume, which builds a detailed picture of the varied family arrangements which have actually been normal throughout the centuries, and how the women who headed these households really coped.
The main problem addressed by these essays is the “defective registration of female work. Women were often registered by marital status, rather than by profession like men” (2). Therefore, even the work of a women who headed a household might not have been recorded, giving the impression that her family could only have survived with assistance. Each essay in the volume takes snapshots in place and time – from Richard Wall’s “Widows, Family and Poor Relief in England from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century” to Verónica Villarespe Reyes and Ana Patricia Sosa Ferreira’s “Mexico: Women and Poverty (1994–2004)” – explaining just how these women supported their families.
Even across such disparate centuries and countries, patterns quickly emerge. Almost every essay notes the substantial role of casual work in poor families, especially ‘women’s work’ such as cleaning, laundry and sewing, which was rarely registered in official surveys. Income from lodgers and the work of the family’s children also features everywhere from Lola Valverde Lamfus’ study of “Survival Strategies of Poor Women in Two Localities in Guipuzcoa (Northern Spain) in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”, to Moring’s own “Women, Work and Survival Strategies in Urban Northern Europe before the First World War”. Often, women who did have husbands also supported their families in these ways, when their husbands were absent, unemployed or simply could not earn enough alone.
A second strand of research concerns the rights of women and the laws surrounding marriage, inheritance and property. Richard Wall, Susannah Ottaway and Anne-Lise Head-König pay particular attention to the ability of widows to own property, run businesses and receive state or charitable assistance, finding widely divergent practices across Europe. While widows consistently had more rights than married or single women, they were also subject to arbitrary and ever-changing criteria for who ‘deserved’ assistance and who did not. It is no wonder that almost every widow examined had a portfolio of income streams, and many were adept at playing the system, be it the strategic entrance to workhouses or exercising their right of ‘usufruct’ – in which an eighteenth-century Austrian widow, “although not enjoying the status of owner, would be able to manage her deceased husband’s property and use its profit for herself” (Margareth Lanzinger, p.145).
Another key strategy covered extensively in the essays is that of female clustering, amusing as it is to think of moving back in with one’s mother in such elevated terms. Across the essays it is clear that very few women have historically lived alone: it was not economically feasible. Even those who did, as Wall observes, tended to be near neighbours with close social or familial ties. So women lived with their single or married children, with fellow lone women, or took in lodgers. They also spent less money, and Wall and Moring manage to discuss many tables detailing how much men insisted on spending on meat, alcohol and tobacco without any acknowledgement of how relieved many women may have been to be free of them.
This volume is well equipped with tables and figures, making it an excellent resource for scholars seeking concrete details of this reworked female history. Although the essays jump between time and place without a clear ordering structure, Moring does state in her Introduction that this range is intended to show the differences and similarities across a very wide picture. Considering the close range of each study, on small regions and handfuls of subjects, it could be questioned whether the volume succeeds in this, but what it does succeed in is thoroughly proving its point: there is no normal family, and women have always been able to manage their own.
Carina Hart has a PhD in contemporary fiction and aesthetic theory from UEA, and blogs about human beauty at Beautiful in Theory [ beautifulintheory.com]. She works in the Research Student Office at Loughborough University, and runs The Gradgrind [thegradgrind.com], an online magazine and proofreading service for PhD students.