opening doors

I happened upon a wonderful thing yesterday. A link to an MA thesis by Heidi Whiteside on women and respectability in Lyttelton 1851-93. As in the thesis in its entirety. What a completely brilliant thing, to find it outside the walls of a university library. It turns out that there is lots more at the online UC research repository. I have yet to google elsewhere, but I'd like to know and favourite this function at other universities (especially NZ ones) if anyone has the links to fast track me on this.

Why does this matter? Oh baby it matters alright. I get to read an entire dissertation (I stayed up and read the whole thing with fascination last night) from my position as a non-academic living in a small town. A world in which I once enjoyed to live but moved away from more than ten years ago no longer has the doors on reading the unpublished research of others closed to non-practising academics.

Why this thesis? It's not so far removed in topic and scope from my own thesis on women and the liquor industry on the goldfields of 19th century Otago. Whiteside (whom I'd never heard of until yesterday) writes beautifully, with a grip on the theoretical issues that I admired particularly. Her work prompted me to think further about the relationship between working class women and, not just history more generally, but also the politics of subsuming stories into an academic framework.

The whole idea of discourses around respectability is a worthwhile pursuit but as I read on last night, I came top see it as a circular kind of discourse and analysis of it seems to end up saying nowhere near as much as Whiteside deserved for the time she put in. Sometimes I felt that Whiteside downplayed any reality that discourses of respectability had any relationship to practical concerns. She observes that several times that working class women may not have had the same values around respectability, particularly in relation to time spent in public places. Well I did wonder about the particular vulnerability of women who were known to be alone, or young and without the support of two parents and who thus were more likely to need to work in the public sphere yet lack the protection of local men knowing that strong men in her household were looking out for her. Or of someone to walk her home. This surely was a reality more frequently for working class women than for their wealthier sisters.

I liked the section on women hotelkeepers. Not being much of a temperance girl myself, I've long had an interest in the women who made their livings in hotels in an era where women's emancipation was supposed to be through temperance. Something I didn't consider when I wrote my thesis as a woman without children, was the role and power of motherhood (and perhaps marital bargaining), and I 'd suggest that Whiteside hasn't really either. Have a look at the following quote from Whiteside, p.145

Generally, however, female licensees had no choice but to be visible
publicly active. Their role called for assertiveness and demanded they
have authority
over male behaviour, which was at odds with idealized
femininity. A female
hotelkeeper’s respectability was equated with her
ability to keep an orderly house, and
this required power and authority.
Respectability for female publicans was thus
specific to their position and
stretched the definitions of female respectability. It is
significant that
there is no evidence in Lyttelton at this time of unmarried women
pubs on their own behalf unless they were the daughters or sisters of
licensee; this illustrates the limits of what was acceptable. Women who
ran hotels on
their own account were most often widows, and some of these
women left traces of
their activities in civil court actions recorded in the
Plaint Books.

I don't think this focus on idealised femininity looks explicitly at the power of motherhood. Boys were neither raised or expected to only follow the instructions of their fathers. Just as I see marital bargaining as an essential part of marriage, including all those idealised ones with submissive wives (how the hell did they think these women stayed submissive? With God pills? All of them?), it is clear to me that women as mothers exerted a lot of power. It is no accident at all that single women were a minority amongst female hotelkeepers and that in 1893, single women were legally banned from holding hotelkeeping licenses. It is not just that a single women is a sexualised figure and that a married woman, in particular a married mother, is much less so, it is that a large proportion or men have experience of behaving as their mother directs.

So. Brilliant thesis and it was nice to realise I still wanted to engage in history stuff. Rather tellingly, when I went to find my own thesis (I never bothered to get my own copy bound) to check a few things as I wrote this post, I pulled down A Guide to Healthy Pregnancy & Childbirth by the Auckland Home Birth Association instead. That can go in the Great New Year's Cull.

The Great New Year's Cull is one reason I have been neither gardening nor blogging about my garden. The other reason of course is that it has been raining most of the time. The great New Year's Cull has so far yielded 14 black sacks for the local dump, nine bags of clothing for friends and family, several boxes of no longer wanted books and about 50 magazines. Oh the magazine stupidity. I'll save that for another post.


Bryce Edwards said…
Yes - it's fantastic having access to electronic copies of PhD and MA theses. Below are the RSS feeds for new theses from various NZ universities:


What a superstar Bryce! Thank you very much. Are Otago going to create a similar facility?

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