Women, class and social action in late-Victorian and Edwardian London
This thesis explores the relationship between class, gender and feminist identity through an examination of women's involvement in philanthropy and social reform in London from 1870 to 1906. Middle-class women's engagement in such work — termed collectively here as 'social action' — has long been claimed as the nursery of first-wave feminist political identity. Numerous historians have framed social action as the means by which women moved from the 'private' to the 'public' sphere and the ground where women developed their claim to a place in national political life in the three decades prior to the upsurge of suffrage campaigning in 1906. Whilst agreeing with this broad narrative of the relationship between social action and feminism, the thesis addresses the lack of discussion of class differences between women in the existing literature on the subject. The forms of social action examined in detail in this thesis were predicated upon this very difference between women: on the belief in the power of the lady to reshape the bodies, characters, homes and workplaces of poor women. Women social activists themselves had a central role in making identities of class, through the dissemination of their expert opinions on the domestic life of the urban poor. In the context of the changing understanding of duty in the later nineteenth century the thesis argues that the agency of femininity in effecting social change came to be seen as of less significance as the century progressed. Women social activists instead drew upon codes of class to justify their work, constructing themselves as authoritative professionals, licenced to speak and act for working-class women. The thesis brings to the fore the (often strained and contested) encounters between lady social activists and the women and men who were their objects of reform using detailed case studies of philanthropic rent-collecting schemes, the London Charity Organisation Society and the women's factory inspectorate. It concludes that social action was indeed the material from which modern feminist identity made itself, but that this identity was founded on middle-class women's differentiation of themselves from working-class women.