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Swimming Natationists, Mistresses and Matrons: Patriarchal Influences on Female Careers in Victorian Britain.

Day, DJ (2017) Swimming Natationists, Mistresses and Matrons: Patriarchal Influences on Female Careers in Victorian Britain. In: 10th Meeting Transnational Working Group for the Study of Gender and Sport, 23 November 2017 - 25 November 2017, University of Vienna, Austria.


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The Victorian period has been studied from several perspectives, including through the lens of 'separate spheres', a notion that suggests a compartmentalization of markers like gender and class into discrete areas exemplifying typical relationship patterns. As Poovey (1995) argued, however, the margins surrounding class and gender were full of fissures, leading scholars to argue for a more nuanced approach involving specific case studies to explore how gender and class intersected at a micro level (Vickery, 1993). Because sport was a means of reinforcing social inequalities it provides a useful vehicle for micro study and this paper uses biographical methods to try to understand the degree of self-determinism that women had in selecting swimming-related careers. Serious swimming had utilitarian value and provided feminine-appropriate activity in segregated surroundings, making it increasingly acceptable for women of all social classes, especially after facilities expanded following the Baths and Washhouses Acts of 1846 and 1878. A moral imperative, which required women to be attended to only by women, meant that gender-specific career routes emerged as the activity became more widespread. For some working-class women, swimming, packaged as entertainment, provided an attractive working environment and by the end of the century, professional female natationists were appearing in front of all classes of society on the stage, in the baths and at the seaside. Their activities stimulated interest at all levels of the social hierarchy and generated a demand for female swimming teachers, whose numbers increased significantly. Other women were employed in supervisory capacities with married couples normally being employed as superintendent and matron. They generally lived above the baths and other female family members were often employed as swimming teachers or baths employees. This paper initially adopts a prosopographical approach to the census data collected at ten-yearly intervals in England and Wales between 1841 and 1911 to explore the class origins, familial connections, and marital status of these women and to trace their career trajectories. Collective biographies are then outlined and the life courses of some key individuals are described to place them within the contemporary social context. While more work needs to be done to uncover what Bale (2011) calls the 'layers of truth' surrounding these biographies there are indications that these could tell us something interesting about females, sport and ‘separate spheres’. For example, the data highlights the ongoing patriarchal influences on the shaping of women’s lives. Female natationists were almost always introduced to the activity through fathers and brothers, swimming mistresses entered their careers through male connections, and matrons were almost exclusively engaged as an adjunct to their husband’s appointment. In these respects, even though their lives might apparently challenge any rigid notion of ‘separate spheres’ it seems that few women really exercised any significant degree of self-determinism in their career choices. The paper concludes with reflections on the usefulness of different biographical approaches. Higgs (1996) argued that census data cannot be used uncritically to study divisions in Victorian society and it is essential that prosopography is combined with more traditional approaches to biographical research to produce what Jockers (2013) calls, a 'blended approach'. Keywords: References Bale, J. (2011). 'Ernst Jokl and Layers of Truth', in Sporting Lives, ed. Dave Day Manchester: MMU IPR Publication, 1-15. Higgs, E. (1996). A Clearer Sense of the Census. London: HMSO. Jockers, M.L. (2013). Macroanalysis: Digitial Methods and Literary Theory. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Poovey, M. (1995). Making A Social Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Vickery, A. (1993). Golden age to separate spheres? A review of the categories and chronology of English women's history. The Historical Journal, 36(2), 383-414.

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