The feminine public sphere

Middle-class women in civic life in Scotland, c.1870–1914

Author: Megan Smitley

Middle-class women made use the informal power structures of Victorian and Edwardian associationalism in order to participate actively as citizens. This investigation of women's role in civic life provides a fresh approach to the ‘public sphere’, illuminates women as agents of a middle-class identity and develops the notion of a ‘feminine public sphere’, or the web of associations, institutions and discourses used by disenfranchised middle-class women to express their citizenship. The extent of middle-class women's contribution to civic life is examined through their involvement in reforming and philanthropic associations as well as local government. Feminist historians have developed increasingly nuanced understandings of the relationship between ‘separate spheres’ and women's public lives, yet many analyses of middle-class civic identity in nineteenth-century Britain have conformed to over-rigid interpretations of separate spheres to largely exclude an exploration of the role of women. By examining under-used Scottish material, new light is shed on these issues by highlighting the active contribution of women to in this process. Employing a case study of women's temperance, Liberal and suffrage organisations, this analysis considers the relationship between separate spheres ideology and women's public lives; the contribution to suffrage of organisations not normally associated with the Victorian and Edwardian women's movement; and the importance of regional and international perspectives for British history.

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