Review: "The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class"

Updated on April 11, 2017
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Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree in History at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

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Synopsis

Throughout Anna Clark’s book, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class, the author explores how gender played an instrumental role in the development of the British working class during the Industrial Revolution era. Clark explores the impact of gender through an analysis of both artisan and textile workers from the late 18th Century to the middle of the 19th Century. With so many social changes occurring as a result of industrialization in both British society and Europe (some good, and some quite bad), Clark argues that gender issues became more prominent as traditional notions of manliness and womanhood were forever altered during the Industrial Revolution.

Do you find Clark's thesis to be compelling?

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Clark's Main Points

According to Clark, some of the most important questions facing British society during this time included: what were the proper roles of women within the household? What should be their proper role within society at large? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, to what degree should women be allowed to work and serve as the “breadwinner” of their families (Clark, Pg. 203)?

As a result of these questions, Clark contends that these newfound social and gender issues created great tensions upon the social structure of families and British society. Men, who felt increasingly threatened by this encroachment on traditional male authority and dominance, found themselves at odds with women who were becoming more independent, more industrious in the workforce, and more resourceful in their day-to-day lives. Because women provided a much cheaper means of labor, men also found themselves facing a higher degree of competition as more and more women continued to enter the workforce as a means of providing for their families. As conflict grew, unions and political groups increasingly began to work towards solutions aimed at excluding women and creating separate spheres between men and women. In turn, the principles of “domesticity” (rather than equality among the sexes) took center stage as the working class gained political inclusion within British society (Clark, Pg. 268). While this “softened class conflict on the industrial level,” Clark contends that it also broadened inequality among the sexes, and “increased divisions between men and women” (Clark, Pg. 269-270).

Personal Thoughts

Overall, Clark does a great job at tracing the social and economic changes that arrived with the advent of industrialization in Great Britain. Her analysis of gender and its overall impact upon the British working-class is both informative and compelling. Furthermore, her incorporation of specific examples and her use of multiple primary sources adds a high-degree of both credibility and veracity to her overall arguments. The only drawback to Clark’s work, however, is that her book is clearly not intended for a general audience or newcomers to the topic of gender in 19th Century England. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but an inclusion of more background information would have certainly benefited this work. Clark’s overall thesis is relatively difficult to understand and interpret as well. While she is clear with her overall description and analysis, a more upfront and direct approach to her main arguments would have added far more clarity. None of these issues take away from the overall meaning and value of Clark’s book, however, and it is apparent that her interpretation of the British working class will continue to be relevant to modern historiography for quite some time.

All in all, I give this work 4/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in a social and gender history of 19th Century Britain. Definitely check it out!

Questions for Discussion

1.) What was Clark's thesis? Did you find her arguments to be persuasive? Why or why not?

2.) Did Clark have an objective in writing this book? If so, what was it?

3.) What sort of historiographical interpretations does Clark challenge with this work? What does her book add to modern scholarship?

4.) What type of primary source material does Clark rely on most? Does this reliance help or weaken her overall argument? Why or why not?

5.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this book? Are there any specific areas that Clark could have expanded or improved? If so, what?

6.) What did you like most about this work?

7.) Did you find this book to be engaging with its content? Why or why not?

8.) Did Clark organize her work in a logical manner? Does her chapter-by-chapter analysis flow well?

9.) What sort of audience was the work intended for? Can scholars and non-academics (general public) equally benefit from the contents of this book?

10.) What did you learn from this book? Were any of the facts surprising to you?

Works Cited

Clark, Anna. The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

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