SEX AND WORK
A more enduring argument was that charity was the best way of turning orphan girls and prostitutes into economically productive members of society. This consideration, too, had long antecedents.
Forced labour in houses of correction had been introduced in Tudor times as a means of accustoming the idle and the dissolute to economic as well as moral discipline. The general idea of improving national prosperity by systematically training up the poor and putting them to work had been around for at least as long, and had gained new momentum in the later seventeenth century.
Initially it was not easy to envisage using prostitutes in this way. In the 1690s Thomas Bray could only think that penitent whores should be ‘put to work at whatsoever they are found fittest for’; whilst in 1726 it was still possible for Daniel Defoe to doubt that any fallen woman could ever reacquire habits of industry. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, it had become a powerfully attractive proposition. ‘Do but employ them,’ it was now said of prostitutes, ‘and you will save them.’ Underlying this new optimism was the perennial hope that charitable institutions might be able to finance themselves from the labour of their inmates, perhaps even to turn a profit. It was in anticipation of ‘a great increase of national wealth’ through such means that the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce offered its gold medal in 1758 for the best plan ‘to receive and employ such common prostitutes as are desirous to forsake their evil courses’.1
This change in attitudes arose from a new way of thinking about the connection between prostitution and work. The older view, largely unchallenged before 1700 and still easily traceable half a century later, was that women became whores because of the kind of work that they did and the dissolute habits that it bred. Maid-servants, milliners, and seamstresses were so generally exposed to temptations, opportunities and dangers, the argument ran, that many of them ended up selling their bodies as well as their skills. Nine out of ten girls apprenticed to milliners, warned an occupational survey in 1747, were ‘ruined and undone: take a survey of all the common women of the town, who take their walks between Charing Cross and Fleet Ditch, and, I am persuaded, more than one half of them have been bred milliners’ (see illustration 15).2
Implicit in this outlook was one of the most cherished presumptions of the propertied classes: that an honest living was available to any man or woman who wanted one, and that poverty was a consequence,
15. In the first scene of this satire, one milliner fondles her lover, whilst the
other gets drunk. In the second, a man invites her into his bed; the final
image shows the discovery of their bastard child, abandoned in the street.
The motto below sums up how milliners make their living.
never a cause, of whoredom. ‘Better for you to work hard and to submit to the meanest service than to make yourselves odious to God and man,’ John Dunton had urged immoral women in 1696: fecklessness was no excuse for vice. A few years later, the societies for reformation of manners took to distributing free pamphlets to prostitutes, in which the same message was spelled out with uncompromising clarity. ‘To such as plead that their poverty drives them to this accursed way of life’, proclaimed the author of one such tract,
1. There are many honest ways of providing the necessaries of life. And if they have not been bred to labour (which is their usual answer to this), yet they ought now to accustom themselves to it, rather than sell their souls to the Devil. . .
2. The real necessaries of life are easily provided; if once humility, mortification, and self-denial come to prescribe the quantity and quality of our food and raiment.
3. God has promised to add these outward Things to such as seek his Kingdom, and the Righteousness thereof. . . (Matthew 6. 33).
4. If the case were really as you put it, you had better starve here, than perish to all eternity.
It was but ‘a wicked and a false pretence’ for any prostitute to plead poverty, agreed another, ‘it was the inordinate love of sensual pleasure, it was idleness, and an aversion to honest labour, which first corrupted their minds’.3
Yet the evident defensiveness of such arguments from around the turn of the century points to the emergence of alternative ideas. Thomas Bray was moved to hear ‘that many of those thievish and lewd women who are committed to Newgate, as also those strolling gilts [i. e. street-walkers] which are whipped in Bridewell, do often complain with tears in their eyes, that it is for want of employment, and to get bread, that they betake themselves to or continue in that abominable course of life’. It was ‘very plain’, he concluded, that ‘their necessities and lusts together are too violent to restrain their licentiousness’. The same unease about the distinction between enforced poverty and inherent fecklessness permeates the work of other social commentators of the period. ‘We find’, wrote Dunton of common whores, ‘that those criminals consist generally of idle or poor persons. If there were care taken to compel the former to work, and to find out means to employ the latter, much of this lewdness might be prevented.’ Many other Londoners appear to have thought the same; a few months later a new corporation of the poor began its campaign against idleness and poverty along similar lines.4
In the course of the eighteenth century such tentative distinctions came to be developed into an essentially new and more sophisticated view of the relationship between work and vice. This was not just because of the general shift towards structural rather than personal explanations of sexual behaviour. It also reflected an important economic trend: in the course of the eighteenth century many traditionally female branches of urban employment came to be increasingly subjected to male competition and monopoly. By the 1780s the matter was so notorious that The Times urged parliament to ‘lay a heavy tax on shopmen in all such branches as ought to afford employment to women’; drawing attention in particular to the pernicious masculin – ization of perfumery, millinery, haberdashery, and linen-drapery.5
As a result, what was perceived to be the causal connection between whoredom and impoverishment was more or less reversed. Towards the end of the century, for example, the first sustained feminist analyses of prostitution focused upon the evils of female unemployment. The fact that ‘multitudes of men’ had encroached on such female avocations as selling ‘linen, gauze, ribbons, and lace. . . perfumes and cosmetics. . . feathers and trinkets. . . bonnets and caps’, argued Priscilla Wakefield in 1798, left no means ‘of gaining a creditable livelihood to many destitute women, whom a dreadful necessity drives to the business of prostitution’. The male monopolization of employments, agreed Mary Ann Radcliffe in The Female Advocate: or an Attempt to Recover the Rights of Women from Male Usurpation (1799), forced women directly to ‘the absolute necessity of bartering their virtue for bread’. Both of them knew from personal experience how difficult it was for women to maintain a family without the support of a husband.6
In the work of more radical thinkers such as Mary Hays and Mary Wollstonecraft the critique went further still, and prostitution sometimes was held up as an epitome of all female suffering. In Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel The Wrongs of Woman, when the protagonist hears the horrific story of a former prostitute, it makes ‘her thoughts take a wider range. . . she was led to consider the oppressed state of women’ more generally. Such assertions had particular force in the difficult economic climate of the 1790s. Yet by then the idea that inadequate opportunity of employment was one of the main causes of prostitution had been long established. ‘Women have but few trades and fewer manufactures to employ them’, it was observed in 1758: small wonder that so many ended up as whores. It was an absurd affectation, warned another writer in 1760, to refuse countenance and employment to fallen women, and suppose that they should rather ‘die martyrs to chastity’ than support themselves in the only way left to them.7
As a consequence it was commonly argued by mid eighteenth – century philanthropists that some form of employment should be provided to prostitutes, to allow them to live honestly and to harness their untapped industry for the greater good. John Fielding suggested that the Magdalen House be run as a public laundry, so as to maximize its utility. The Lambeth Asylum sought to apprentice its girls to useful trades. The further such ideas were pursued, however, the clearer it became that they could not easily succeed without putting other women out of work. ‘If all the linen washed out were done here, what would become of the poor washerwomen?’, asked one critical commentator, ‘would it not be necessary to immediately establish an infirmary or hospital for them?’ As for training up orphans and penitents to sewing, dress-making, and other such skills, that would but ruin, and drive into prostitution, the women already established in those trades.8
It was partly to escape this paradox that many philanthropists proposed to open up entirely new spheres of employment. It was the burgeoning market for Persian rugs, and the prospect of cornering it by producing them domestically, that first impelled Hanway to take the whole idea of a penitential hospital seriously (see illustration 16). Others suggested a lace-making enterprise, so that ‘vast sums would be saved that are now sent to France and Flanders’, or the manufacture by English women of ‘Dresden Work, so much now the mode’. Every aspect of the scheme, agreed the economic theorist Joseph Massie, should be aimed at undermining foreign imports.9
An even more inviting target was the sexism of the domestic labour market. ‘There are many trades, now in the hands of men,’ explained Hanway, ‘in which women might do as well, and some in which their natural ingenuity would enable them to carry on much better.’ John Fielding drew up a list of them – ‘the closing and braiding of shoes. . . the making of all sorts of slops for the use of the Navy. . . the studding of watch-cases. . . the making of wig and band-boxes’. The possibilities appeared to be limitless: pin-making, the weaving of hair for wig-makers, artificial flowers, children’s toys. If the range of female
16. Jonas Hanway’s early vision of life in the penitential hospital: prayer, healthy food, and useful, carpet-making, industry.
employments could be widened, it was hoped, fewer women would be forced into prostitution in the first place. In Birmingham, one writer noted, women were employed in all sorts of male occupations, such as watch-making and engraving. ‘I have likewise been told,’ he concluded triumphantly, ‘that there is no such thing as street-walkers in Birmingham’.10
Yet when the Magdalen House and the Lambeth and Dublin Asylums opened, their inmates’ work was conventional and the income from it minimal. Apart from an early experiment in making carpets ‘after the Turkey manner’, they spun wool and flax, wound silk, and sewed clothes: not at all the ‘new trades for women’ that had been envisaged. The Lambeth Asylum repeatedly tried to drum up trade by advertising publicly. Its girls offered to sew ‘a full-trimmed shirt’ for two shillings; a ‘plain’ one for a shilling and sixpence; or a servant’s shift for only a shilling. But there was very little demand. As a consequence the charity was forced to get by on the cheap. Parts of the premises were sublet to a fish merchant. A converted stable served as its first chapel; the gardener doubled as an usher; and a blind boy of fourteen was found to play the organ during services (until ‘great complaint’ was made about his performance and a paid musician had to be engaged instead).11 Once again, there proved to be a considerable mismatch between the ambitions and the immediate achievements of sexual charity.