It’s fashionable to assume that fatherhood has changed out of all recognition during the last century, and that dads are now hands on, in touch with their feminine side, entirely different from their stiff-lipped, uncaring forefathers, who beat their children and spent their wages at the pub. A new book about working class fatherhood in the late 19th and early 20th century shows that such myths have always abounded, but they do not reflect reality.
The book’s author, Dr Julie-Marie Strange of Manchester University, finds that fathers in that era were affectionate and involved in their children’s lives. Crucially, the book demonstrates that fathers could be both hard-working breadwinners and devoted dads.
“Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914” is published by Cambridge University Press, and draws on a wide range of source material to provide a social history of the family often lacking from other studies, which have predominantly considered family life in the light of the mother-child relationship, leaving fathers out of the picture. Strange finds that mothers were, as we have assumed, the main carers of children, but that their husbands, despite working long hours in manual, routine and often physically demanding jobs, were loving and attentive fathers.
Interviewed last week on Woman’s Hour, Strange explained to Jenni Murray that the vast majority of working class men handed their wages over to their wives at the end of each week, expecting – at most – to receive a little beer money for themselves. Their motivation in working was to feed and clothe their their children, but rather than slip off to the club or pub at the first opportunity, they would spend their limited leisure hours with their children – helping to educate them, playing with them, showing them how to carry out tasks, telling them stories or making them laugh.
Murray was keen to point out that her own father and grandfather – in the 1920s and 1940s – had been hands-on dads, but that she had always assumed this was the exception not the norm.
Neither she nor Strange suggested that this misunderstanding might have anything to do with feminism, yet it seems to me glaringly obvious that in the last 50 years or so the depiction of traditional fathers as harsh and uncaring has been largely the work of the feminist movement, and is still fed by feminism today.
It is a convenient fiction that men working in tough jobs took little interest in the day-to-day lives of their children, and that women shouldered a dual burden of looking after their menfolk as well as their children. The truth is far more complex, as Strange’s study helps to point out. Men understood that their family’s basic needs – to be housed, warmed and fed – had to be met, even if it meant doing hazardous and gruelling work. But they were also concerned for their children’s emotional and educational needs, and enjoyed spending time with them.
In seeking to correct these fatherhood myths, the book will I’m sure be a useful sociological insight. More than this, it might help to illuminate the sad betrayal of the British working class family by a lethal combination of feminism and ill-conceived welfare policies. By scorning the working class father as an unfeeling brute and displacing his breadwinning role with benefit cheques, he has been left high and dry without a role.