W. Seccombe, Weathering the Storm: Working-Class Families from the Industrial Revolution to the Fertility Decline (London: Verso paperback, 1995.) Pages vii + 286.
This is an important study of the working-class family over approximately two centuries which it is good to see now available in paperback. While primarily a synthetic work rather than one putting forward new research findings, it brings together in a productive and stimulating way evidence from, and arguments which have been advanced in, several historical sub-disciplines--historical demography, women's and gender studies, economic history, social history, the history of the family and historical sociology. Central to Seccombe's thesis is the claim that the debates in these areas have been operating in isolation from one another in a way that has been unproductive and even sterile for advancing discussions about the proletarian family during an era of rapid social change.
While Seccombe takes a broad view of north-western Europe as a whole during the period of the rise of industrial capitalism, he also argues that too many historians have focussed on the big picture and the statistical aggregate. Thus they have failed to be sensitive both to the dynamics of gender that operated within individual family units and to the differences that could exist between families as a result of the paternal wage-earning capacity, the ability of other members of the family to assist financially, and the housewifely abilities of the mother. He emphasizes that this latter important contribution became increasingly invisible with the rise of the individual wage system of paid labour. The wife and mother, excluded from paid employment in the workplace, made no visible monetary input to household economy, at least for a significant period while the children were still young. Nonetheless her budgeting and domestic skills could prove vital for the family's survival. Possibly the contributions that many women may have made to the family income through home-working of various kinds (often underrecorded in the first place) are under-emphasized, as well as contributions that children might make through informal employment even after regular waged child-labour had been outlawed. Thus to some degree he fails to get completely outside the workplace versus home paradigm of which his study is explicitly critical.
However, on the whole this is a nuanced study, in which the central thesis, that the family is not an unchanging historical entity--although even so it has demonstrated a good deal of stability precisely by mutating under the pressure of changing circumstances--is convincingly argued. Seccombe amply demonstrates what he describes as a 'ratchet' effect between the demands of the labour market and the changing structure of the family.
In his analysis of the means by which rapid decline in the birth rate was achieved during the last decades of nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth, the common canard about the eugenics movement's support for birth control is repeated (p. 164). Certainly before the First World War, and (in Britain) well into the 1920s, eugenicists were not proposing 'mass distribution of birth control information and devices'. The eugenic views of a handful of birth control propagandists (e.g., C. V. Drysdale, Marie Stopes) did not imply a reciprocal commitment to contraception among most proponents of eugenics. A few might murmur about sterilizing the 'unfit' (of the lower classes) but shrank from birth control from fear that its employment might reduce the reproductivity of the desirable elements in society, and general squeamishness.
However, apart from this persistent cliché, Seccombe's discussion of the role of birth control in the decline in size of the working-class family is excellent. His arguments about the role of increasing medicalized intervention in the lives of working-class women during the earlier twentieth century make particularly good sense. The pathologization of childbirth could well have provided professional and scientific authority in support of women's desires to avoid further debilitating pregnancies. The impact of ideas of preventive health care promoted by health visitors and social workers as well as doctors, and the radical idea that something could be done about common threats to infant well-being, would surely have tended to erode fatalism about health matters and reproduction and to generate the feeling that action could and should be taken. The pro-active approach to infant health in the interests of Imperial nationhood being urged from all sides on working-class mothers in particular in the early twentieth century thus may have had effects very different from those intended!
This explosion of the myth of transhistorical 'family values' and Seccombe's decoupling of any assumed connection between an industrial capitalist system and such values, is highly recommended.
LESLEY HALL, Contemporary Medical Archives Centre, Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine, London