A Woman’s Work is Never Done? Women and Leisure in the Nineteenth Century and Beyond
- Ruth Robbins
The modern idea of leisure – free time in which to do what one wishes – has not always been the way the word has been understood. For the Victorians and beyond, leisure was strongly marked by prohibitions relating to both class and gender. Indeed, leisure may even be defined by the choices available depending on class status. The development of women’s leisure during the nineteenth century is a story of increasing freedoms in some domains, and increasing regulation in others. Both the freedoms and limitations of women’s leisure are marked by the social expectations of relative class positions.
The idea of modern leisure as time that is free from remunerative occupation, as time that can be used for pleasurable activity, is an idea of fairly recent invention. As Peter Bailey shows in Leisure and Class in Victorian England (1987), prior to the Victorian age, the idea of free time for amusement can only be glimpsed as a rare respite from toil, at least for the labouring classes: the leisured classes, by definition of course, always had more leisure. For the poor, though, in the pre-Victorian age, if leisure existed at all it was a series of quasi-religious holidays, fairs and rural pursuits, centred on the village green and to some extent sanctified by the church. And it meant the pub at least for men. It consisted of the cyclical events – harvest suppers, hiring fairs, and Christian holidays often with pagan roots – which punctuated the agricultural year. It was communal and not specifically organised except by tradition. Thus although fairs, for instance, had a professional element to them (one person’s leisure is almost always another person’s work), they were by far the rarest of the activities that rural (and increasingly urban) folk might enjoy.
The mass migrations to the cities of the early nineteenth century in the wake of the Enclosures and the redistribution of paid work from agriculture to industry led to very different notions of leisure, particularly popular or working-class leisure. In Bailey’s words ‘modern leisure made its debut in Victorian England’ (Bailey 1987: 4). He defines it as ‘man’s general pursuit of enjoyment’, as
a certain kind of time spent in a certain kind of way. The time is that which lies outside the demands of work, direct social obligations and the routine obligations of personal and domestic maintenance; the use of this time, though socially determined, is characterised by a high degree of personal freedom and choice.
Freedom and choice, however, are not quite what the experience of leisure has tended to display, and this is especially the case for women. The word’s roots in the Latin verb licere – to be permitted – via the Old French leisir, to allow, to be permitted – contain hints about leisure that were certainly true in the nineteenth century and beyond: that leisure and pleasure had to be regulated. They were not about absolute freedom of choice, and where class and gender intersected in the public performance of identity, what was permitted constituted severe constraints on choice. At the upper ends of the social scale, ideals of propriety and respectability curtailed the options women made about their leisure time; at the lower end of the scale, lack of access to money and time also limited what one might do for fun. Increasingly through the nineteenth century, the imposition of middle-class notions of respectability and propriety also had their effects on the choices that working women were permitted to make. In neither class does this mean that there were no choices, but in both cases, the choices were far from free.
Bailey’s account is foundational for the history of leisure, though as he notes himself in the introduction to the second edition of his book, women’s leisure is often absent from the social histories of the phenomenon including his own: ‘women’s leisure remained mostly private, and its interweave with other activities further obscures its practice and function’ (1987: 18). The separate-spheres debates of the nineteenth century, which argued for women’s activities as primarily private and domestic and which permitted only men a role in the outside world, hid much female activity from public gaze and from the public records. Moreover, in defining leisure as free time for pleasurable occupation separated from paid work, the social presumption that women did not work, however wrong this was, made the idea of female leisure almost nonsensical, at least at the beginning of the period. Women were always leisured if they did not have work outside the home. Work inside the home, of course, unless it was the work of domestic servants and therefore paid for, was not perceived as work at all, no matter how hard it might actually have been.
The account of women’s leisure that follows here is of necessity divided by questions of social class. Indeed modern conceptions of class might actually be understood in part as focused on the choices made of what we do with our disposable income and our free time. The choice of going to the pub or the music hall on the one hand, or to the theatre or the opera on the other, for instance, are economic questions, but they are not merely economic: they speak also of the relationship between cultural capital and actual capital, which is a matter of class. It is also important to note that the opportunities for women changed enormously in the hundred years after Queen Victoria’s birth in 1819. What was true of the early part of the Victorian era should not be taken as indicative of women’s positions and perspectives on leisure towards the century’s end and beyond. If Victorian values remained very firmly part of the public discourse about women and their doings, the reality did not quite match up – it never does.
Upper- and middle-class women’s leisure
In 1864, Elizabeth Barrett Browning published her novel-in-verse, Aurora Leigh. In its first chapter, Aurora details her lacklustre education at the hands of an unsympathetic aunt. This is an education in lady-hood (the upper-class version of femininity) which consists of minimal training in languages, a passing acquaintance with science and maths, and a rigid programme of appropriate pastimes for a young lady, so that her time might be well filled, it being well-known to the Victorians (or at least well-believed by them) that the devil makes work for idle hands.
Beyond her formal education, Aurora details her aunt’s preferred accomplishments and pastimes for a young lady. She learns music (for performance in the private space of the drawing room, not for public performance), drawing – but never from life, always only copies; she learns to make ‘washed-out’ watercolour painting of landscapes; she learns the kinds of dancing that a respectable woman would be expected to master for the marriage market of the ballroom. She also ‘spun glass, stuffed birds, and modelled flowers in wax’. Her aunt’s preferred reading for her ward includes ‘books on womanhood’, effectively conduct books which teach her the social conventions of feminine submission and not much else. And she learns to sew – both decoratively and ‘usefully’:
I learnt cross-stitch, because she did not like
To see me wear the night with empty hands,
A-doing nothing […]
By the way,
The works of women are symbolical.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you’re weary–or a stool
To tumble over and vex you . . ‘curse that stool!'
Or else at best, a cushion where you lean
And sleep, and dream of something we are not,
But would be for your sake.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (1864), Book I, ll. 446–65.
Aurora’s needlework labours are here deemed a waste of time, unappreciated by the women who prick their fingers doing useless embroidery and tapestry, and disdained by the men for whom they ostensibly are labouring. Aurora’s programme of education and activity is designed to give her very little free time for pernicious activities such as reading novels or works of political economy, the former dangerous because they foster romantic notions in malleable femininity, and the latter because a woman who thinks is not attractive to the opposite sex (which is, of course, what matters most).
This description is, of course, satirical. Barratt Browning exaggerates the constraints on upper-class women’s activities to make her political point: the constraints are ridiculous and need to be broken down. If it is an exaggeration, however, it is not so grotesquely exaggerated that it does not find its echoes in multiple other accounts of economically privileged femininity, in fiction, in diaries and letters, and in the very conduct books that Aurora despises so heartily. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe (Villette) and Shirley, George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke (Middlemarch) and Maggie Tulliver (The Mill on the Floss) – to pick only the most obvious examples – would all have recognised this narrow training in femininity, and the surveillance of feminine activity that was designed to prevent independent thought. I have chosen Aurora to exemplify the discussion because she makes such an important point in her comment that women’s work is ‘symbolical’. Forty years later, Thorstein Veblen, writing of the leisured class in late nineteenth-century America, pointed out that upper-class femininity exists solely to bolster the impression of economic unassailability for her menfolk. She toils not, neither does she spin, at least not for economic gain, but she does provide the public sign of her husband’s (or father’s) wealth, focusing her enforced leisure on extremes of dress, of home decoration (‘“curse that stool!”’), social gatherings and entertaining, and other economically unproductive activity, enacting what Veblen calls the ‘conspicuous consumption’ which is the hallmark of the leisure class and which those who are not leisured class often seek to ape. What women’s pastimes symbolise, that is, is the economic stability of their families.
The amount of print devoted to the proper roles, activities and behaviours of women in the more fortunate classes in Victorian England is truly astounding. The things that women chose to do for amusement were always suspect, even when their choices focused on activities recognised as appropriately feminine. Useful or decorative sewing is one thing; but if it led to an obsessive interest in fashion that was quite another. Vanity was deemed harmful to moral health and the corset actually was hazardous to physical health. Novel-reading is presumably mostly harmless, at least to our eyes, but as Kate Flint argues in The Woman Reader, 1837–1914 (1993), the dangers of reading were at least as much discussed as their benefits:
From one point of view, reading was a form of consumption associated with the possession of leisure time, and thus contributed to the ideology … which supported the middle-class home. Yet it could also be regarded as dangerously useless, a thief of time which might be spend on housewifely duties. Although a means of extending one’s knowledge and experience beyond the bounds of one’s personal lot – hence, perhaps, becoming a fitter marital companion in the process – reading was often, none the less, unavoidably associated with woman’s ‘inappropriate’ educational ambition.
(Flint 1993: 11)
Novels and romances, speaking generally, should be spurned, as capable of calling forward emotions of the same morbid description which, when habitually indulged in, exert a disastrous influence on the nervous system, sufficient to explain that frequency of hysteria and nervous diseases we find among the highest classes.
(Tilt 1851: 31)
At the mid-century, then, a relatively well-off woman may have had some leisure to enjoy, but she did not necessarily have the freedom to do so according to her own desires. The money for leisure activities was highly likely to be in the charge of her menfolk who exercised some authority over her choices as they wielded the purse-strings. Nonetheless, things did change across Victoria’s reign. Those who inhabited a comfortable social stratum were increasingly likely to receive a less narrow education than that afforded to Aurora Leigh or to Jane Eyre. And the medical advice and conduct books do loosen up a little towards the end of the century as my collection of Medical Advice for Women (2009) attests. The biggest shift is the move towards the acceptance that women need physical exercise. The horse-riding hoydens of sensation fiction (Mary Braddon’s Aurora Floyd ran off with her groom in the 1860s – a clear sign of what physical exercise might lead to) were originally regarded as scandalous. But later in the century, a certain amount of riding, country walking, genteel outdoor games (lawn tennis and croquet in particular) and well-ordered dances, were part of the décor of middle-class courtship rituals and of middle-class life in general, at least in the very well-to-do social echelons. And the invention of a manageable bicycle was nothing short of revolutionary.
What we see towards the end of the century for middle-class women is a very gradual loosening of the rules about propriety and proper behaviours. For some women, this might have included the opportunities to study – university extension schemes, which offered free or very modestly priced classes to working people and women who could not otherwise study at university at all, began to develop from the 1870s onwards and were, eventually, regarded as a suitable evening occupation for a middle-class woman who sought to use her leisure to educate herself. These courses did not lead to degrees, and they involved their participants in a certain amount of what we would certainly identify as work. But for some women they were undoubtedly a leisure activity.
The campaigns to open up education to women in general were part of movements that we now identify as proto-feminist (often called First Wave Feminism). They reach their apotheosis in the Victorian period with the birth of the New Woman, whose goals were the right to education, remunerative work, social equality and opportunity. They continued in the suffrage campaigns of the late-Victorian period and beyond – and for some of their participants, social campaigning was itself a leisure pursuit, borne of the wish to be useful in philanthropic endeavours from the 1850s onwards (charity, being unpaid work, was also respectable work). The New Woman, who did have some existence in reality was also in part a media invention. As Chris Willis and Angelique Richardson have shown in their collection of and commentary on the range of discussions of the phenomenon in the 1890s and the plethora of satirical attacks in the cartoons of Punch, New Women were outspoken campaigners for their political rights in relation to marriage and the state, and therefore very serious; but they were also demanding in terms of their leisure rights too. The cartoons portray women who refuse to be conventionally attractive to men (they wear mannish clothes); they read widely in infamously unsuitable texts; and they are most easily identified by their twin accoutrements of the bicycle and the cigarette.
Of the two, the bicycle was perhaps the more publicly shocking because it represents mobility free from the constraints of chaperones. Early bicycles were very difficult for women to ride. The boneshaker (from the 1860s onwards) was very aptly named, and gave an uncomfortable journey; the penny farthing was a hazard to both male and female health, given its height, but was particularly dangerous for women because of the long skirts and voluminous petticoats they habitually wore, which risked getting tangled up in the spokes with potentially disastrous results. It was only in the 1880s that something approximating the modern bike was invented: smaller of wheel, with pneumatic tires, driven by a chain, and relatively light in construction, the bicycle appeared to offer the freedom of the open road to both men and women. Bikes were not cheap, but they were certainly cheaper than carriages. And the New Woman cartoons, which generally mock feminine pretensions to freedom, nonetheless suggest that freedom was attainable on two wheels. Because feminine clothing was impractical for riding, some brave women also flouted public opinion on propriety by adopting ‘rational’ dress: a split skirt, far less underwear and other scaffolding and no corsets. A lady cyclist in plus-twos breeches who appears in a Punch cartoon in September 1899, asks a local out in the countryside, ‘Is this the way to Wareham, please?’ ‘Yes, miss,’ the countryman replies: ‘yew seem to ha’ got ‘em on all right!’ (Richardson and Willis 2001: 14–24). Guffaws all round, because a woman in trousers is clearly a figure of fun. The laugh might just have been on Punch, though. The young lady on her bike is, after all, enjoying an unprecedented freedom, an unchaperoned physical mobility and some healthy exercise. (For a more detailed history of women and cycling see Macy .)
The cigarette, of course, is not nearly so healthy. From our standpoint, when we know the harm that smoking causes, there is a horrible irony in the widespread adoption of the tobacco habit by educated, middle-class women in the later part of the nineteenth century as a badge of their liberation. It also might not immediately seem like a leisure activity per se – less a choice than an addiction. But as Penny Tinkler has shown in Smoke Signals: Women, Smoking and Visual Culture (2006), cigar and pipe smoking had traditionally been male pursuits which were associated with masculine privilege. At a well-to-do dinner party, there would always come a point where the women would withdraw (to the [with] drawing room) leaving their menfolk to their port, cigars and risqué or political or intellectual conversation. To take up the smoking habit was a deliberate affront to ideas about feminine propriety and it staked a claim to forms of social intercourse (serious discussion over a cigarette, not gossip and scandal over the teacups) that the men had always enjoyed after the ladies had left the dinner table or in their men-only clubs (Tinkler 2006: 17–36). By the 1920s, the girl of the period took up smoking as a matter of course, whether she actually liked it or not, encouraged by slick marketing campaigns for ladies’ cigarettes, which emphasised the glamour and freedom with which smoking became associated. This was a mistake, of course, but the disapproving messages about women and tobacco between the 1890s and the 1940s were all about propriety and none about health.
Economic privilege buys greater opportunity. The poor little rich girls were, of course, never quite as poor as those who actually worked for a living. Working-women’s leisure was always a more complex issue. Less available because of lack of time and funds; less acceptable to the onlooker, since the presumption often was (and often rightly) that working women’s leisure was centred on hoydenish behaviours, lubricated by the demon drink. When Mr Sleary, the circus owner in Dickens’s Hard Times lispingly pronounces that the people ‘mutht be amuthed’, it was not only the Gradgrinds and Bounderbys who would have disagreed (Dickens 1854; 1985: 308). The story of working-women’s leisure is the story of a battle waged between the commercial factions of the pub and its entertainment wing, the music-hall and public dances, and the Church with its evangelical call for what came to be called ‘rational recreation’ for working women. Towards the end of the century, the evangelical movement was supplemented by some ‘enlightened’ employers, who provided respectable leisure activities (not all of which are really leisure) as a ‘perk’ of the job.
Our own society is extremely exercised by women’s drinking just as it is by women’s smoking; in official discourse, disquiet is primarily expressed as anxiety about women’s health when they drink to excess. This might appear as the fear that we will injure ourselves if drunk, or be easy prey to predatory masculine sexualities. It also appears as the fear (which is real and has scientific backing) that women’s bodies are less tolerant of alcohol, and women are thus more prone to chronic and life-threatening diseases of the liver and kidneys.
But the public health messages that we consume also have their origins in a much older set of ideas about feminine respectability, ideas which can be traced back easily to the eighteenth century when William Hogarth (1697–1764) produced his infamous image of ‘Gin Lane’ (1751) in which the central figure is a drunken mother, so inebriated on gin that she is in the very act of dropping her baby into the Thames. This image is one starting point for a set of assumptions that are focused on the female role as being primarily domestic and maternal. It speaks of the horror and disgust society feels when those roles are disrupted by pleasure-seeking.
During the nineteenth century, then, drink was regarded as the curse of the labouring classes, both male and female, but particular horror was expressed when the drunk was a woman. And a great many of the commercial opportunities for working-women’s leisure were centred on the pub. As Peter Bailey has shown, entrepreneurial landlords attached entertainment spaces to their premises as part of the expansion and diversification of their businesses. In some cases these were resolutely masculine domains – cock- and dog-fighting, and boxing matches did not attract large female audiences. Other spaces though were deliberately constructed to bring women out of the home and into the milieu of the tavern. In larger cities and towns, dance halls were one of the attractions of the pub, bringing punters of both sexes, since dancing was one of the courtship rituals of the age: girl meets boy, girl dances with favoured boy, and with luck, the story ends with a respectable marriage. The attachment of the dance to the pub, though, meant that the story sometimes ended with a roll in the hay and the ruin of a respectable girl’s chances of marriage and a happily-ever-after. By the 1870s, the supplements to the tavern’s offering could also include primitive theatre spaces where penny-dreadful melodramas were performed at very minimal prices and with drink on tap to add to the atmosphere. And landlords also encouraged their customers to make their own entertainments, with what were effectively open mike nights (though there were no microphones of course), where professional performances were interspersed with songs and recitations by the crowd. This is the origin of the music-hall.
Bailey’s chapter on the music-hall (1987) still offers one of the best accounts of the process by which the informal leisure economy became more formalised and finally more regulated. By the 1870s, he shows, mixed audiences of men and women could enjoy the very cheap entertainment of a professional bill at purpose-built music-hall theatres. The early music-halls showed their origins in the pub outbuilding by mixing the ballads and dance routines on the stage with booze in the stalls. Because the halls had mixed audiences, however, by the end of the century there were concerted efforts to regulate their activities much more firmly, led by middle-class campaigns to enforce propriety on potentially riotous working-class crowds. A number of the bigger venues in London especially were perceived as little better than venues for prostitutes to meet their clients – and drink was certainly viewed as part of the problem. Social purity campaigners opposed entertainment licences, and to a very large extent managed to drive the alcohol out of the halls. John Stokes’ In the Nineties (1989) provides a fascinating history of the will of respectable folk being imposed on their working-class neighbours.
The accomplishments of upper-class femininity were much less available to working women than to their wealthier contemporaries. Music and art both need some teaching and some equipment. Decorative sewing is not much of a pastime when you are responsible for making or mending most of your family’s basic clothing – and for many working women, sewing was itself paid labour, so hardly something they would choose to do for fun. No matter the worries about reading that were expressed for upper-class women, it was hardly an option for the lower orders even if they were sufficiently literate to read. Free libraries did exist, but almost exclusively for men, attached as they were to trade bodies, such as the mechanics’ institutes movement; and circulating libraries boasted their select status in their names (Mudie’s Select Library, for instance), making it clear by their fees, their buying policies and their unwelcoming edifices that the labouring classes in general need not apply to join. Buying books, for most of the nineteenth century, until the collapse of the three-volume novel system (effectively a cartel between libraries and publishers which kept book prices artificially high) in the very late years of the period, was simply beyond the pockets of all but the wealthiest (a three volume novel cost 21 shillings or a guinea, the week’s wages of a working man in 1885). So: what was a girl to do?
To keep her out of the pub and the dance hall and the music-hall, and most especially to keep her off the streets in all senses of that phrase, as Catriona Parratt (2001) has shown, concerted efforts by church organisations sought to focus the attention of young women on what they called ‘rational recreation’. Rational recreation was less about pleasure than about good behaviour and self-improvement, as the title of Parratt’s books suggests: leisure was to be ‘more than mere amusement’. The girls’ clubs run in church halls and other rented venues in towns and cities across England were largely focused in the first instance on educating the working girl. As rueful comments from their organisers often suggested, though, education by itself was never a sufficient draw, especially during seasons when there were competing pleasures – the Nottingham Goose fair, for example, depleted attendance in the Nottingham area on an annual basis. Circuses and ‘blood-tubs’ as Arnold Bennett called travelling makeshift theatres, continued to exercise their siren call. It soon became apparent to the organisers of the girls’ cubs that the girls had to be ‘amuthed’ as well as instructed. Using the model of the Sunday school, where good behaviour, regular attendance and diligent application led to prizes and treats, the Working Girls’ clubs offered excursions, occasional dances and other celebrations to sugar the pill of dutiful religious and social education and the learning of useful skills like plain sewing.
That diet of diligence was replicated by paternalistic employers such as the Rowntree’s factory in York, which did not employ married women as a matter of policy. Drawing on the Quaker faith of its founders, the factory management took the view that they were responsible for their workers beyond their shifts as well as during working hours. For men, they offered sports as recreation to use up whatever energy was left after a 10-hour shift on the factory floor. For its overwhelmingly young female workforce, leisure was more about self-improvement and a training for marriage than it was for the fun of the thing. In the 1890s and 1900s, the factory employed teachers of domestic science to impart household management skills to the young girls in its employ: plain-sewing and cooking were the key curriculum, and not surprisingly the take-up was slack. Only towards the end of that pre-war period did organised sports like hockey become available for women. Prior to that, rational recreation did not look much like leisure at all. Just like the accomplishments of the upper-class lady, girls were to be educated in appropriate femininity.
What any history of working-women’s leisure starts to show is that the moment that the women start to enjoy themselves, someone will begin to disapprove. Attitudes to the cinema, for example, and to the dance music of gramophones, and the concerts on wireless from the 1920s and 1930s, repeatedly suggest that women are wasting their time and risking their morals by indulgence in pleasure. The disapproval didn’t stop women from enjoying themselves, but it did curtail their spheres for enjoyment.
The past and the present
This is of necessity a short introduction to women’s leisure between about 1830 and 1910, but some of the concerns of public discourse about what women can be permitted to do – if they have the time, if they have the money – still speak to us now. I noted earlier that there are echoes of the past in contemporary discussions about women and drink: that there is a continuing concern about women going wild. And our world still has very marked class and gender inequalities. On average women still have less leisure time than men, not least because they continue to shoulder a great deal of the burden of domestic work which they shoehorn into their so-called free time. The scandal of women’s pay (in the UK women still earn roughly 75 per cent of male wages) still means that we have less freedom to spend on our own pleasure than men do. Our pleasure choices also remain culturally marginal (compare the coverage given to women’s issues or women’s sport in any major media outlet and that becomes very apparent). Our focus is still meant to be on our appearance and on a more modern (though still rigorously constrained) conception of sexual attractiveness, a concern which our culture both demands of us and mocks us for. My point is that, in the end, like any history of woman’s place in the world, a history of leisure tells us a lot about ourselves – perhaps as much about ourselves as it does about those women from the past. And the lesson of the past is that the problems of the past are not yet over, and the lessons have not, in fact been learned. When we choose our leisure activities we should do so knowing that sometimes we ought to break the rules of ‘what is licensed, what is permitted.’ We have to separate the honest messages about physical health from the dishonest ones about insidious notions of propriety. We might not be the Victorians, but many of the assumptions they bequeathed us have an uneasy afterlife in what we are encouraged and licensed to do.
- Victorian era
- 19th Century
- early 20th century
- Girls Schooling
- Lesbian Studies
- Private Sphere
- Proper Sphere
- Victorian Women
- Public Sphere