Fatherhood and family shame: masculinity, welfare and the workhouse in late nineteenth century England

Doolittle, Megan (2009). Fatherhood and family shame: masculinity, welfare and the workhouse in late nineteenth century England. In: Delap, Lucy; Griffen, Ben and Willis, Abigail eds. The Politics of Domestic Authority in Britain from 1800. Palgrave MacMillan.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230250796_5

URL: http://www.palgrave.com/PRODUCTS/title.aspx?pid=35...


In this chapter, stories of shame, anger and resistance are used to explore the tensions surrounding domestic authority and masculinity in families which struggled for survival in the face of poverty. The interdependent relationships of support and care in such families challenged two touchstones of adult masculinity: the role of provider for dependents and the position of head of household. Multiple sources of income and support for poor families could undermine a husband and father's position while the vital work of a wife in managing scarce resources further blurred questions of domestic authority. The wider context of working-class demands for employment rights and the suffrage demonstrated a desire to resolve these tensions as the labour movement focussed on measures which would enable men to successfully assert these two roles. The dominant model of family life of clear, hierarchical distinctions between the place of men, women and children for both respectable working-class families and middle-class philanthropists thus sat uncomfortably with the day-to-day exigencies of life for the poor. It is in the encounters between those in need and the many sources of welfare to which they resorted that these domestic and political tensions became visible.
The Poor Laws were directly aimed at disciplining the poor through the pauperisation of men who were forced to turn to its provision to keep their families alive, explicitly removing rights to family life and citizenship, challenging men's domestic authority and social standing. Thus it is not surprising that the Poor Law was widely hated by the working classes, and formed the focus of day-to-day acts of resistance and wider political action which became more intense by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of the long-term results was to be the shaping of benefits around the model of friendly societies which supported dominant ideals of family authority rather than challenging and undermining men's positions as husbands and fathers.

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