“Where women are respected, there flourishes civilization.” – Historical antecedents of #MeToo.

by Jane Humphries (All Souls College, Oxford, and London School of Economics)

“Il me semblait, docteur, que c’était dans le dos qu’on écoutait” (“It seemed to me, Doctor, that it was in the back we listened”). Engraving by Jules Renard, 1880s.

Sexual harassment was probably as common and as debilitating for past generations of women as for us in the world of #MeToo.  The threat of sexual predation has long limited women and girls’ capabilities in the sense of what they could do or could be.[1]  It has constrained choice of jobs and security at work as well as threatened wellbeing more generally.  Here evidence of sexual harassment and the anxiety it created are extracted from working women’s life accounts and shown to have entrenched economic discrimination and gender subordination.

Mary Saxby’s peripatetic life was punctuated by a series of encounters ranging from harassment to rape.  While her vagrancy left her particularly exposed to predation, she was clearly vulnerable even when in prison.[2]  Other women were similarly at risk when going about their legitimate business.  Christian Watt reported that ‘[F]ishwives were often attacked both for money and carnal knowledge’ and armed herself with a gutting knife for self-defence.[3] Both working and getting to work created anxieties:  girls in the Hodgson family faced a long walk to the mill where they worked. ‘It was dark when we went and dark going home … we three girls didn’t like it, and Mother didn’t like us having to do it either’.[4]

Ironically, given its status as a proper employment for women and girls, domestic service entailed particular vulnerability.  Christian Watt related a common type of encounter: ‘One morning while giving a hand to make the beds … a Captain Leslie Melville put his arms around me and embraced me. I dug my claws into his face and with all the force I could I tore for all I was worth; his journey into flirtation land cost him the skin of his nose’.[5]   For less forceful characters it was better not to run into such dangerous situations.

Masher Menace. Available at <https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/when-american-women-first-confronted-their-sexual-harassers/&gt;

As today, girls without parental protection were particularly vulnerable.  Ellen Johnston the ‘factory poetess’, who had an illegitimate child while in her teens hints several times at abuse by her stepfather.[6] Sally Marcroft was impregnated by the son of a weaver with whom she was boarded as an orphaned pauper.[7] Lucy Luck, on graduating from the workhouse, was found a job where she was constantly preyed upon:  ‘Well, we reached St Albans at last, and the place of service [the poor law officer] had found for me was a public house … The mistress was very good to me but the master was one of the worst who walked God’s earth.  Always fighting with his wife … and he would beat that woman shamefully … But that was not the worst of him. That man … did all he could, time after time, to try and ruin me, a poor orphan only fifteen years old.[8] Even more appalling, Emma Smith, a Cornish waif who grew up partly in the workhouse and partly in her maternal grandparents’ home, was given by her mother to a hurdy- gurdy man who abused her continuously for years: “This beast — old enough to be my grandfather — grabbed hold of me, a child of about six years of age, if I was that. He undid some of my clothing and behaved in a disgusting way”.[9]  Few suffered such horrendous, and in Emma’s case life-impacting, abuse but fear of assault was common and had significant effects on what girls were able to do and to be.

Workplaces where the sexes mixed were widely regarded as promoting immorality and prudent girls shunned such exposure.[10]  Similarly, agricultural fieldwork was judged damaging once girls reached puberty whereupon it became more respectable to withdraw to indoor activities.  Thus Jane Bowden was a boarded and then bound out apprentice aged 9 and ‘…[A]t the beginning part of my time I was employed in out-door work…..when I was about 16 I was kept entirely to the house, except at harvest time’.[11]  Service in public houses could also bring girls into bad company and threaten reputations.  Hannah Cullwick obtained a place at the Lion Hotel but her father ‘thought it was not good for me at a public house and I was to give warning’. [12]  Remember, Lucy Luck was consigned to this disreputable work: ‘What did it matter? I was only a drunkard’s child. But if they had found me a good place for a start, things might have been better for me’.[13]

 As these cases make clear, the need for circumspection in the face of potential predation and threats to reputation, made negotiating the world of work especially difficult.  Not surprisingly, girls retreated into the ghetto of jobs where respectability was easier to retain and virtue to defend.  Girls found it difficult to support themselves on the incomes they could earn and frequently remained partially dependent on fathers or the state, a foretaste of their situation as married women where the meta division of labour enforced women’s unpaid work in the home and men’s breadwinning.  Dependent on men, women and girls’ lost self-esteem and lacked voice even within the household.  A vicious circle eroding female capabilities was completed.


Original quote in the title by A.Naskar

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[1] The ‘capabilities approach’ to wellbeing originated in the work of Amartya Sen, see ‘Gender and Cooperative Conflicts’, in Irene Tinker(ed.) Persistent inequalities: Women and world development (New York, Oxford University Press, 1990).  For further discussion see B. Agarwal, et al, Amartya Sen’s work and ideas.  A gender perspective (London, Routledge, 2005).

[2] M. Saxby, Memoirs of a female vagrant written by herself (London, J. Burditt, 1806).

[3] C. Watt, The Christian Watt papers (Edinburgh, Birlinn, 1988), 36.

[4] A. Hughes, nee Hodgson,‘Unpublished autobiography’, Brunel, 5.

[5] Watt, Christian Watt papers, 57.

[6] E. Johnston, Autobiography of Ellen Johnston, ‘The Factory Girl’, in Four nineteenth-century working-class autobiographies, edited by James R. Simmons Jr., and introduced by Janice Carlisle (Toronto, Broadview Press, 2007).

[7] W. Marcroft, The Marcroft family (London, John Heywood, 1886) 21.

[8] L. Luck, ‘A little of my life’, The London Mercury, 76 (1926) 354-373.


[9] [E. Smith], A Cornish waif’s story (London, Odham’s Press, 1954) 31.

[10]  J. Humphries, ‘Protective Legislation, the Capitalist State and Working-Class Men: The Case of the 1842 Mines Regulation Act’, Feminist Review, No. 7, Spring 1981, 1–35; J. Humphries, ‘“The Most Free from Objection…”, The Sexual Division of Labour and Women’s Work in Nineteenth Century England’, Journal of Economic History, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, December 1987, 929–950.

[11] J. Bowden, Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, Parliamentary Papers, Vol. XII, 1843, 113.

[12] H. Cullwick, The diaries of Hannah Cullwick (London, Virago, 1984), 36.

[13] Luck, ‘A little’, 365.