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

Day, David (2019) Swimming Natationists, Mistresses, and Matrons: Familial Influences on Female Careers in Victorian Britain. International Journal of the History of Sport. ISSN 0952-3367

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Abstract

The long Victorian period has often been interpreted through the lens of ‘separate spheres’, a notion that compartmentalizes markers such as gender and class into discrete areas. However, the margins surrounding class and gender were full of fissures and scholars have argued for more nuanced research involving specific case studies at a micro-level to uncover the breadth and boundaries of female experience. Adopting this micro-approach by using archives and biographical methods to investigate the communities of women involved in swimming-related careers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries yields new insights into the complexities of ‘separate spheres’ ideologies. Serious swimming became acceptable for women of all social classes after facilities expanded following the Baths and Washhouses Acts of 1846 and 1878, and a moral imperative, which required women to be attended to only by women, meant that gender-specific career routes gradually emerged. The class origins and familial connections of female natationists, swimming teachers, and baths employees are explored, to place them within the contemporary social context and to draw some tentative conclusions about the influence of patriarchy on female occupational choices. Reflections on the potential for combining different biographical methods to produce a 'blended approach' are then offered.

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