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the guide to historical resources • Issue 13: The City •

The City

Book cover: Poor Women's Lives: Gender, Work and Poverty in late-Victorian London

Author's response


Poor Women's Lives: Gender, Work and Poverty in late-Victorian London

by Andrew August
Cranbury NJ, London, Mississauga Ontario: Associated University Presses, 1999
ISBN-13: 978-0-83-863807-1; 218 pages, price £25.50

Anna Davin

Middlesex University

I am grateful to Anna Davin for her complimentary review of my book and for its accurate portrayal of my methods and arguments. I am particularly pleased given my deep respect for her scholarship and her extraordinary understanding of the lives of Londoners in this period.

The review notes the lack of a broad comparative context in what is, at its heart, a set of three case studies. I share her interest in finding out more about poor women's employment, households and experiences of gender relations in other locations. This project was designed as a comparison of three London neighborhoods, two in North London and one in the heart of the East End. I expected to find significant distinctions, but as the review points out, the common characteristics of women's lives in these areas appear far more significant than the differences.

Poor women in the three neighborhoods experienced similar economic and cultural constraints. The local labor markets shared many characteristics including widespread casual and seasonal irregularity and sharply drawn sexual divisions of labor. Women's employment patterns in all three neighborhoods reveal a culture of female work in which women sought paid employment when their other responsibilities allowed it. Despite their essential contributions to family economies, women suffered under conditions of severe gender inequality that were bolstered by economic conditions and ideas about gender.

The book considers a small number of other studies that offer some bases for comparison, but it is difficult to know the extent to which my conclusions apply beyond the London poor. Too little of this kind of work has been done, and unfortunately social history of this sort is not as fashionable as it once was. However, Anna Davin's enthusiasm can only help encourage scholarship in this area.

October 2001

Original review

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