We were very lucky to have our new convenor Prof Eleanor Gordon giving this year’s Sue Innes Memorial Lecture on Friday 15 November entitled –‘Sex and the Single Girl: Working-Class Courtship in Scotland, 1855-1939′. The lecture was part of the opening evening of our conference this year entitled ‘Gender Transgressions – Historical Perspectives’ which was generously supported by the School of History, Classics & Archaeology, University of Edinburgh and held in New College.
The lecture followed an excellent session chaired by Rose Pipes, and featuring Maureen Meikle, Jane Rendall and Sian Reynolds, on ‘Gender Transgressions and the New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (Edinburgh University Press, 2018)’.
Fittingly Eleanor was introduced by Esther Breitenbach, who was both a friend and collaborator of Sue Innes. Esther and Eleanor have also worked together editing two seminal collections in the 1990s on women’s history in Scotland: Out of Bounds: Women in Scottish Society 1800-1945 and The World is ill divided: women’s work in Scotland in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In her lecture Eleanor questioned the traditional image and sterotypes of the Victorian era as being characterised by sexual restraint. She took a nuanced and sophisticated approach to illegitimacy, long a topic of scholarship among Scottish demographic historians and an issue of concern among contemporary commentators who expressed disquiet that. Scotland was ‘nearly the most immoral country in the world’. In fact Eleanor suggests that figures of illegitimacy and bridal pregnancy underestimate pre-marital and extramarital sex, although in the context of Western Europe, the Scottish figures were not particularly remarkable.
She cautioned against erasing the agency of women as many historians, even gender historians, have done. In the traditional historiography illegitimacy either led to the ‘downfall of women’ or women were portrayed as innocent victims of selfish and callous men.
Eleanor suggested that sex was a part of courtship for significant numbers of working-class women. She argued that people understood marriage as a process rather than an event, within which sex before an officiated marriage was not transgressive behaviour. Indeed many couples chose not to get married at all, or were unable to marry. The census for Govan in 1911 provides evidence of significant numbers of illegitimate children living in stable households where the parents regarded themselves as married (even though they officially were not) or ‘happily unmarried’. There was also evidence throughout Scotland of illegitimate children living with their mothers in the grandparents houses; ‘unwed mothers’ were not necessarily cast out or socially isolated.
Don’t worry if you missed Eleanor’s lecture – you can catch up on Soundcloud by clicking on the following:
Valerie Wright (University of Stirling)