‘SETTING UP FOR THEMSELVES’: MODELS OF INDEPENDENCE AMONG SINGLE WOMEN IN THE LONG NINETEENTH CENTURY

Mogg, Caroline (2018) ‘SETTING UP FOR THEMSELVES’: MODELS OF INDEPENDENCE AMONG SINGLE WOMEN IN THE LONG NINETEENTH CENTURY. PhD thesis, University of Lincoln.

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Abstract

This thesis examines the lives of independent women in small-town and rural England during the long nineteenth century. It takes as its focus never-married women who lived alone, or as heads of households, deriving income from a variety of sources, but not reliant on husbands or other family members. Previously under-acknowledged in the historiography, these women populated the pages of the nineteenth-century trade directories that document the economic, social, and civic life of the principal villages and market towns of provincial rural England; female landowners, farmers, property holders and business proprietors who possessed the resources to establish and maintain an autonomous identity, head their own households and, in some cases, act as titular head to their wider family and kinship network.
On their own, the binaries of gender and marital status utilised in standard historical narratives, fail to explain the independent woman, those seen to occupy male subject positions but who also transcended the negative tropes associated with the category ‘single’. Drawing on the work of feminist theorists Joan Wallach Scott and Judith Butler, this thesis sets out to understand how gender combined with other factors – class, family, property, and occupation – to position and empower these women.
This thesis begins by considering the different sites where the independent woman was created. A sample of mid-nineteenth-century didactic literature and periodical articles - in which the debates about women’s ‘nature’ and position were played out – is examined. It is argued that this literature shows that when ideology collides with economic reality, it creates a discursive space in which the idea of female independence became both possible and desirable. This translated into other discourse, thus this thesis will explore how influential fictional representations created by nineteenth-century novelists populated this discursive space, presenting a range of autonomous female characters – from modest householders to wealthy heiresses - who demonstrate that a woman in possession of property, occupation and/or wealth, can act independently in the nineteenth century.
This thesis uses a range of sources to test the reality of these fictional portraits. Trade directories and census records reveal the spatial distribution of female-headed households and landed proprietorship in a sample of English rural counties. These statistical representations are fleshed out in a series of case studies, linking business and personal correspondence to other documentation, detailing women’s independent lives in small town and countryside. The significance of household formation in the performance and articulation of an independent self is explored, including the relationship between household headship and enterprise. The ways in which women in rural areas - used power objectified through property and land - is shown. By foregrounding their occupational identities to run farming and estate enterprises, women demonstrated agency. Finally, the thesis explores how women used the status and reputation they derived from customary forms of power, to intervene in their neighbourhoods and further afield, transcending the traditional feminine sphere to construct houses, churches, and hospitals – showing the lasting impact that independent female agency had on the shape and function of space in both rural parish and small town.

Keywords:rural England, independent women
Subjects:V Historical and Philosophical studies > V214 English History
Divisions:College of Arts > School of History & Heritage > School of History & Heritage (History)
ID Code:34379
Deposited On:18 Dec 2018 10:06

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