Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890-1914

This post was contributed by Dr Louise Hide, Honorary Research Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology.

In July 1905, a young draper’s assistant from south-east London was admitted to Bexley Asylum. Gertrude L. was 25 and this was her third admission into a lunatic asylum.

Initially, she was described as ‘strange and irrational in manner’. But by January 1906, she was corresponding with her friends on the outside. One letter that was copied and left in her case file provides an intriguing insight into asylum life from the patient’s point of view:

in this so called asylum … you are … treated like the worst form of cattle … We work all the hours God sends without proper nourishment or a proper bed … our hours of work are from 8 in the morn to 20 or 30 minutes past 7 in the evening … and you never see the colour of a copper coin.

From the 1960s to the late ‘80s, Marxist and feminist scholars set out to disabuse Whiggish historians of the notion that the understanding and treatment of mental illness had followed an uninterrupted upward trajectory called ‘progress’ from the late 18th century. As a result of this work, we know a great deal about why and how people were admitted to asylums, but far less about what actually happened to them once the ward door had been shut and the key turned.

What was life like inside these vast ‘monster’ institutions? And how were relationships between doctors, nurses and attendants, and patients constructed by shifting ideas around masculinity and femininity?

Book coverMy book, Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890-1914, sets out to answer these questions through a detailed analysis primarily of asylum case notes, committee minutes and annual reports. I have focused on two institutions, Claybury and Bexley. Each was built for 2,000 patients by the newly formed London County Council and opened in 1893 and 1898 respectively.

The turn of the century was an important moment in asylum history. Late Victorian psychiatry was experiencing a ‘clinical turn’ away from the old prison-like asylums towards the new mental hospitals, from the ‘lunatic’ to the mental patient, the attendant to the nurse. That, at least, was the idea even though the reality took some time to catch up.

Location is important, too. London had far higher lunacy rates than any other part of the country. Why?

Migration into the city was one reason. Lack of space and desperate poverty was another; families were simply unable to look after members who could not contribute to the household budget. But there was another reason, too: the abhorrent notion of degeneracy, which claimed that physical, mental and moral ‘defects’ (criminality, prostitution etc.) were passed on from one generation to another, creating an increasingly ‘unfit’ population. And this hereditary ‘taint’ was believed to be particularly prevalent in large, overcrowded urban areas, such as London.

Indeed, degeneracy theory fed directly into eugenics, making the early 20th century one of the darkest periods of psychiatric history.

My book looks at the impact of some of the overarching ideologies that were circulating at the time – degeneracy, feminism, socialism, science and the medicalisation of madness – on people in the asylum.

General hospitals had a powerful influence on the faltering discipline of psychiatry. Gradually, a new generation of well-qualified and scientifically-minded physicians, including a handful of women, started to take up asylum posts. Nurses began to receive formal training and gain recognised qualifications. And, perhaps most controversially, female nurses were moved into male wards shaking up these men-only bastions.

As a result, the highly gendered male doctor/female nurse binary was reinforced, marginalising many male attendants and reducing some to little more than nursing auxiliaries.

To return to Gertrude L., the patient experience is an important part of the book. During a period when virtually every aspect of asylum life was intended to act as ‘treatment’, I endeavour to reveal the effects on patients of the admission process, drugs, seclusion and restraint, the ward environment, work and amusements.

Why, for example, were the ‘rougher’ women put to work in the laundry? How were ward interiors designed in order to distract patients from their dark and troubling thoughts? In what way was food rationed according to a patient’s sex? And what were the consequences of forcing pauper patients to wear communal clothes?

There was, of course, no single patient experience. However, my book does, I hope, provide greater insights into how wider social and medical discourses influenced the lives of men and women living and working inside London’s late Victorian asylums at the most quotidian levels.

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Parents in Parliament: The Motherhood Trap

This post was contributed by Dr Rosie Campbell, a Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics and Professor Sarah Childs (University of Bristol). It was originally published on the British Politics and Public Life blog.

Men’s over-representation and women’s under-representation in the UK Parliament is pretty well known, even if the public sometimes over-estimates just how many women MPs there are, bedazzled by their bright clothing in the Chamber.[1] In fact, men outnumber women by more than 4:1. (In his 2009 survey conducted by YouGov, Professor Phil Cowley (Nottingham) asked respondents what they thought was the correct percentage of women MPs was. At the time the average response was 26% when the actual figure was closer to 20%.)

Some people may not find this particularly troublesome. Lord Hurd has recently been cited saying that there is a “ludicrous” obsession with ensuring there is equal representation of men and woman in parliament and other areas of public life. We believe very strongly that a diversity of background and experience does matter. And there’s another serious flaw with the Hurd line of reasoning. He says that if voters didn’t want a “good looking chap from a public school” as prime minister they wouldn’t keep choosing them. But the reason feminists have campaigned for All Women Short-lists as a means to get more women at Westminster is precisely because it’s political parties not voters who choose our candidates and party leaders. We the voters don’t get to choose our parliamentary candidates, and therefore who our MPs, are. The reasons there are too few women in politics stems from both a lack of demand for and supply of women candidates: voters don’t punish women candidates. But in the absence of equality measures such as Labour’s All Women’s Shortlists, parties are much less likely to select women in winnable seats, even if fewer women seek selection as parliamentary candidates overall.

Having children is frequently cited as a barrier that holds women back from seeking parliamentary selection. But of course not all women are mothers. And both men and women are parents. So we need to question whether the problem is less about the equal representation of men and women – or parents and non-parents – and perhaps more about the exclusion of mothers?

Until now, the UK Parliament simply did not know how many mothers or fathers sat on its green benches. During the new Labour years, and again since 2010, a number of women MPs have given birth: the latest being the Liberal Democrat Minister Jo Swinson, who is currently facing criticism for wanting to have her child with her in the division lobby. We doubt that the vocal hostility to the needs of a new mother, that her comments have generated, are likely to increase the supply of mothers seeking selection for the 2015 general election.

In our survey (supported by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Commons Diversity and Inclusion Unit )of MPs in 2012 we found a startling set of facts about mothers and fathers in Parliament:

• 45% of women MPs have no children, compared to 28% of male MPs, and compared to an average of about 20% of the population who remain childless. (According to the Office for National Statistics 20 percent of women born in 1966 remain childless.)
• Of all MPs with children, male MPs have on average 1.9 children, whilst women MPs have on average only 1.2
• The average age of women MPs’ eldest child, when they first entered parliament, was 16 years old ; the average age of men MPs’ eldest child when they first entered parliament was 12 years old
In sum: women MPs are (1) less likely to have children than male MPs; (2) more likely to have fewer children than male MPs; and (3) enter parliament when their children are older than the children of male MPs.

These staggering differences are clear evidence that there are serious barriers to Parliament for those with caring responsibilities, most often mothers.

Reactions to these statistics will likely vary depending on whether you believe that the House of Commons should look like the society it represents for reasons of justice; or whether you think that good-looking public school educated men are equally capable of understanding the complexities of juggling work and family life. There will be those who have no fear that without mothers in Parliament the soaring costs of childcare and the disproportionate effect of the economic crisis on women in low paid and part-time work (mostly mothers) will reach the top of the political agenda. We’re not so sure. And that’s why we want more mothers in Parliament.

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What is the point of banning discrimination on grounds of sex in insurance?

This post was contributed by Professor Deborah Mabbett, from Birbeck’s Department of Politics.

On 21 December 2012, a ban on the use of sex as a criterion in pricing insurance came into force throughout the European Union. In a forthcoming article in the journal Regulation and Governance (pre-publication version available now), I have examined how the ban came about and what its significance is.  The ban was originally proposed by the European Commission in 2003, but the Commission was persuaded to drop the proposal. Instead, insurers were required to publish the statistical basis for discriminating between men and women, to show that differences in premiums were justified by differences in risk. This compromise was successfully challenged in the Court of Justice of the EU by the Belgian consumer association, Test-Achats.

At the root of the debate about sex discrimination in insurance was the question of whether discrimination was necessary for the market to function efficiently. Insurers do not use every relevant piece of information when pricing their products. Some information is too expensive to acquire, some is already subject to legal prohibitions (such as information about ethnicity or religion) and some is subject to voluntary restraint (such as genetic information). Furthermore, long-established practices of risk classification become entrenched in insurance. Long use yields long data series that enable insurers to check that their assessment of risk is robust, and consumers get accustomed to conventional discriminatory practices.

What drew the European institutions to disrupt the convention that sex is used in pricing some forms of insurance? One answer is that the Commission was concerned about the rise of defined contribution pensions, where individuals buy an annuity with their accumulated pension savings. Women get smaller annuities than men because they live longer, on average. However, on a straightforward cost-benefit analysis, this did not make a strong case for banning discrimination, as women are likely to pay more now for car insurance. Furthermore, insurers can find other indicators for long life expectancy (such as occupation and family history), and they will find new ways of identifying safer drivers too.

A stronger answer is that discrimination was already prohibited in some states of the EU, so different countries had different rules despite the supposed existence of a single market in insurance. The Court of Justice held that there should be a common rule across Europe. Since non-discrimination is a fundamental right, it held that this should be the basis for regulating the single market.

While insurers resisted this strongly, arguing that it would disrupt the market, their reaction now that the matter is decided is rather muted. On the Today programme on 21 December 2012, the spokeswoman for the Association of British Insurers emphasised that the effects on premiums were unpredictable, that the market remains highly competitive, and that consumers should shop around. The fact is that insurers do not want an extended public debate about discrimination. They prefer the legitimation provided by market competition, which leaves insurers autonomy in determining their pricing strategies, subject to regulatory constraints. Public scrutiny is uncomfortable because it is prone to reveal that insurers’ practices have a weaker technical basis than they like to imply. During the debate on sex discrimination, statistical studies were done which suggested that premium differentials were not always explained by underlying differences in risk, and that some potential alternative predictors were ignored. This should not really surprise us. While insurers have competitive incentives to search for good predictors, they also have marketing reasons to set prices to the advantage or disadvantage of particular groups.

It is tempting to see the ban on sex discrimination as a step towards a more ‘social’ Europe, going beyond the creation of a free trade area and regulating market transactions for social purposes. However, it is not clear what the social purpose really is: the Court of Justice has upheld a principle rather than pursuing a goal. The case highlights that markets are based on conventions which come under scrutiny when they are exposed to cross-national comparison. The ban reconstitutes the European insurance market and adjusts the ‘playing field’ for competition, rather than addressing a social policy problem or promoting equality of outcomes.

(Woman next to car image via Shutterstock.)

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Age at Work

On Friday 21 September 2012, Dr Katrina Pritchard and Dr Rebecca Whiting from the Department of Organizational Psychology will be holding a seminar at Birkbeck to present findings and insights from their research on age at work. 

In September 2011 we began a year-long project, funded by the Richard Benjamin Trust, to map the language of age at work, using web-based data. It has involved collecting stories, accounts, images and discussions about age at work published on the internet, for example online news media, blogs, tweets and other electronic forms. We decided to adopt this novel research approach to address both the lack of discourse studies that use web-based data and the increasing dissatisfaction with current conceptualisations of age based on chronology.

The voices in our data include campaign and lobby groups, labour market intermediaries, job seekers, government, professional bodies, employers, charities, academics, recruitment and management consultants and the press. The conversations have covered topics such as age, gender and aesthetic labour; the discursive construction of generations; and the ‘weary woman.’

We have adopted an inclusive approach to defining ‘age at work’ by examining how people are talked about in relation to both ‘age’ (younger, older etc) and ‘work’ (employment, unemployment, under-employment etc). This has also involved looking beyond the terms ‘young’ and ‘old’ to consider particular concepts such as generations and the inter-relationships between them.

Both the media and academia have tended to present certain issues as either impacting or being caused by specific generations, for example the effect of the ‘baby boomers’  on subsequent generations; or the ‘lost generation’,  namely the young unemployed affected by the credit crunch of 2008 onwards.

We are now in the early stages of examining our data and we expect more to emerge as we continue our analysis. The seminar is a starting point at which we will share our initial thoughts with other researchers and with practitioners and others working in this field.

By following various conversations, we have looked at how identities are co-constructed across web-based media, for example, the entanglement of age and gender constructions in discussions of competence with technology  or aesthetic labour. We have also been examining how emerging media are implicated in the practices and processes of constructing ‘generations’ in debates on age and employment.

Organizational management and educational, employment and retirement policy within the UK are tied to various conceptualisations of age. Our research will be able to provide a basis for examining the limitations of current thinking in this area. We aim to open up opportunities to explore new ways of talking about age at work as well as to address methodological challenges and insights from our e-research project.

Age at Work seminar: 21 September

A limited number of places are still available. Attendance is free but booking is required.

More information about the seminar, including how to register, is available on the project’s research blog.

 
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