When she was ten years old, May Owen (b. 1895) moved with her family to a small mining village near Sheffield, in South Yorkshire. In an autobiographical letter she wrote some seventy years later, she still vividly remembered her initial shock at a particular custom in the community: “If a woman misbehaved herself,” she wrote, “the colliers used to perform a certain act. They would take a large barrow, build an effigy of the woman and wheel it round the parish, and stones and mud would be thrown.”
I believe this account fits well with what most people imagine sex and gender relations to have been like in Yorkshire in the early twentieth century. Within popular imagination, Yorkshire working-class culture, with its industrial history and its mining and steel workers’ communities, conjures an image of sexual conservatism and gender antagonism. While this image may correspond to reality in some parts of Yorkshire at the time, this generalisation also obscures a great deal of variation in experiences and behaviours. Helen Smith’s recent book on same-sex desire between working-class men in the north of England in the first half of the twentieth century provides a much needed antidote to these kinds of generalising assumptions. As Smith also explained in a NOTCHES post, work, region, and class defined working-class masculinity in a way that was not incompatible with casual sex with other men.
As I was reading surviving personal stories of Yorkshire working-class women who lived in the early twentieth century (most of which came from the valuable Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies), I was faced with accounts of gender relations and sexuality that ranged from very conservative, patriarchal attitudes, to far less rigidly policed sexual experimentation. After all, ‘Yorkshire working-class women’ were in no way part of a homogeneous group, and just as their lives were shaped by their work, gender, class, and region, so too were their sexual lives. For this reason, I argue that looking at occupational patterns and cultures, and exploring their impact on gender and sexuality, can shed light on these overlooked variations and forgotten experiences, and contribute to a better understanding of working-class sexuality in the past.
If we take the example of mining communities, as well as towns organised around heavy industry such as Sheffield or Middlesbrough, what we get is a picture of a primarily male-dominated culture. An all-male working and social environment fostered a culture of virility, which depended on the systematic exclusion of women and a patriarchal social structure. Men did not see their spouses as companions with whom they could discuss ideas, and preferred the company of their mates. In this context, it is possible, as some historians have suggested, that husbands and wives lacked the tools to communicate on issues such as birth control. And yet, this does not mean that women refrained from sexual experimentation before marriage: a young Bessie Wallis (b. 1904) once warned her older brother, “You’ll be in trouble with Pops if you land a lassie with a bairn!”, only to be answered by the fifteen year-old that, “[t]he lasses egg us on. (…) Anyhow, they like it.”
Towns organised around mills and factories, and in particular textile towns such as Bradford and Leeds, provide an interesting contrast. While it was commonly expected that women would leave the workforce after marriage, economic necessity meant that they tended to stay longer in employment. The higher rates of female full-time employment produced a female occupational culture that shaped sexuality and gender relations in different ways. For instance, because most women worked the double-shift of wage and domestic labour, they supported access to birth control. The workplace also facilitated the creation of informal networks of information and emotional support for women. Mrs. Brown (b. 1895), from York, remembered how her mother told her that there was “[n]o need to tell girls anything,” as they would get to know all they wanted when they started working at Rowntree’s factory.
In the mills and factories, women usually worked alongside men, which created different possibilities, as well as potential dangers. Workers engaged in courting and sexual play, and remembered weddings of pregnant brides as a matter of fact. At the same time, anxieties about male predators and the consequences of sexual promiscuity also fed into this female occupational culture. Maggie Newbery, who was twelve years old when she started working in a mill in Bradford in 1913, recounted in her autobiography how “Old Harriet” warned her on her first day to be careful around machinery, and “cheeky buggers.”
Female solidarity against sexual exploitation sometimes took on extreme forms. The Bradford mill girls, in particular, were renowned for their sexual aggressiveness. The tradition of ‘sunning,’ a ritual form of sexual humiliation, was one of the ways in which these women used their sexuality to reverse the power relations which put them at risk of sexual harassment. J.B. Priestley, who lived in Bradford before the war, remembered in his memoir, Margin Released, how he felt intimidated by the crowd of loud women leaving the mill on his way home from work: “something (…) would set them screaming at me, and what I heard then, though I was never a prudish lad, made my cheeks burn. And it was still the custom (…) for the women to seize a newly-arrived lad and ‘sun’ him, that is, pull his trousers down and reveal his genitals.”
These accounts could be compared with those of farming villages in the countryside, where “everyone knew everyone else’s business,” or with port towns such as Hull, with the infamous reputation of the docks and their sailors and casual prostitutes. It would be impossible to go through an exhaustive list here, of course, but my point is that because sexuality never happens in a socioeconomic vacuum, the study of working-class sexuality can gain much from a regional approach, which allows us to get a richer understanding of these people’s concerns, opportunities, and experiences. Engaging with social history by looking at occupational patterns and cultures can be one way of producing a more nuanced account of sexual attitudes in the past.
Claire Martin is a PhD candidate in modern history at the University of Leeds. Her thesis focuses on Yorkshire working-class women c.1900-1940 and examines the relationships between knowledge and experience in relation to menstruation, sex, pregnancy, and menopause. She tweets from @claireplmartin
This post originally appeared on Notches: (Re)marks on the History of Sexuality, a blog devoted to promoting critical conversations about the history of sex and sexuality across theme, period, and region. Learn more about the history of sexuality at Notchesblog.com.