Women, patriarchy and kinship

In order to get a fuller understanding of the role of kinship in nineteenth century British society it is important to explore the nuance of the kinship-feminism encounter. The importance of women’s kinship especially kinship between women, matrifocality, to societal patterns is often overlooked but kinship reconstruction and collation brings their choices and consequences to the fore. The real excitement is to discern whether women in the past could operate through and within kinship in such a manner as to be able to disrupt the overwhelmingly powerful cultural patriarchy.

An example of this would be Jane Bell of Bridge Street, Lockerbie, in Scotland’s south-west borders, in August 1889 this 30 year old mother went to register her third child, James. By this stage not an uncommon nor especially courageous act. Even her social position as a single mother was not particularly significant as the Dumfries hinterland like Aberdeenshire in the north-east had high rates of out of wedlock births stretching back decades. Jane registered her second son as James Comrie Turner Bell this known fact creates a number of speculative queries.

Jane was amongst the least well-off residents of Bridge Street whilst census records would indicate that Mr. Comrie Turner, as a saddler, in his early forties with a wife and children was probably a better off neighbour . Turner was part of a family of saddlers, the pater of which had died in July 1889 also called Comrie. Did Jane Bell name her new son in order to honour the more powerful family and the recently dead or was she making a much bolder statement regarding the paternity of the new born? Jane’s next child’s naming, Sarah Hill Bell also reflected upon another descendant of the elder Comrie Turner and it is known that the Jarrow born great-grandchildren visited Lockerbie as George James Turner Hill was enumerated in Lockerbie in 1881 aged 10. The births of the younger Comrie Turner’s children also help pinpoint his families removal to Edinburgh as one son is born in Lockerbie in 1888 and the next son is born in Edinburgh in 1890. Was the move arranged in response to the grandfather’s death freeing up capital for a fresh start or was a fresh start required due to tensions around an illegitimate son living up the road? The answer being unresolvable but the question points to a formidable female decision making.

Jane Bell was not the only woman within her matrifocal kin group to be an unmarried mother, her aunt, namesake and near neighbour had five illegitimate children, one of those children had her own out of wedlock child. Jane Bell’s maternal cousins who lived and worked in rural Kirkcudbrightshire had and were themselves illegitimate. Nor were Jane’s male relatives adverse to marrying and gaining a step-child. Jane herself did not marry but her daughter Sarah Hill Bell brought a nine year old daughter and an 30 week foetus to her first wedding in 1919 aged 27. The 19 year old groom having his own illegitimate cousins but by the 1930s the irregularity of family arrangements for Jane Bell’s descendants had become a taboo subject to be plastered over.

In Scotland’s south-west then births out of wedlock were not necessarily the end of the world. it is likely though that Jane as a working class woman was further insulated against disapproval because her father’s relatives were a numerical social force on Lockerbie’s Bridge Street. Whilst Comrie Turner’s departure with his family to Edinburgh (into the area west of the Records Office that became less than salubrious) can only be speculated against for motives it does hint that the kinship of women could exert some influence against the power of patriarchy. Thus working-class women’s relationships raise signs and signals at personal, familial and communal levels about the nuance of kinship-feminism encounters but Bourdieu contended that women within patriarchy are disadvantaged partly due to the internalisation of the patriarchal forms yet some women with capital resources can make cognitive breaks from parts of the patriarchal dominance. So theoretically women with greater levels of access to social and economic influence i.e., women from the middle classes should have an increased likelihood of influencing, challenging and changing patriarchal notions inherent within kinship especially if they themselves are embedded within matrifocal kin relationships.

A longitudinal study based upon a reconstructed female social networks descended from Aberdeenshire collating evidence regarding the history of elite women of British-American backgrounds is discussed in ‘Change and Continuity, Networking, Newspaper, Kinships and Twentieth Century Elite Women’ in Journal of Family and Community History Autumn 2016.

Author: collating kinship

Iain Riddell is a University of Leicester PGR commencing Nov 2014 focused upon building an understanding of the application of kinship as a tool to explore UK socio-political and economic history post 1800. He has previously worked in inner urban local community and faith-based projects, specialising in marginalised communities.

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