Women's History

E. P. Thompson and the ‘Woman Problem’

In 1988, the historian Edward Thompson was interviewed for a now defunct Canadian journal titled Aurora.

Aurora: Your earlier work was oriented to the male working class. Has the work of feminist historians changed some of your perspectives on the overall experience of working-class life in Britain, in the nineteenth century in particular?

Thompson: Well, I’ve been told that my work is so oriented. However, I’ve many times opened Making of the English Working Class at random, and I’ve always found women on the page. The problem is that the actual organization of many institutions is male dominated; therefore, to write the history of them you write a male-dominated history. The actual process by which the first working-class organizations were formed is one in which you did have a male-dominated position. It is really a question of whether you are going to write a history of becoming or a history of being. If you are writing a history of becoming, then the sources themselves tend to select the male presence. If you are writing a history of social being, then I think the presence of women must be much more widely examined and recorded, which much of my eighteenth-century work now is doing.

E. P. Thompson speaks at a anti-nuclear weapons rally, Oxford, 1980. Wikimedia Commons.

Becoming vs. being – such an interesting distinction when it comes to men and women. The dynamism of men in action, organising for change, making themselves into a self-conscious class vs. – what? Mere existence? Experience without transformative agency?

‘Experience’ was a keyword in Thompson’s lexicon. This emphasis was partly a response to the ultra-theoretical approach of the New Left Review and others on the New Left. It was also a focus of some later criticism, notably from the feminist historian Joan Scott who objected to his implicit equation of working-class experience with male experience. ‘Class’ in Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), Scott argued, is ‘in its origin and its expression, constructed as a masculine identity, even when not all the actors are male’. Thompson was unrepentant: it ‘was so gendered,’ he insisted.

The Making has a brief discussion of women’s participation in working-class politics, which Thompson linked to the impact of industrialisation on family economies. But the discussion was framed by a general characterisation of radical women as auxiliaries: ‘confined to giving moral support to the men, making banners and caps of liberty which were presented with ceremony at reform demonstrations, passing resolutions and addresses, and swelling the numbers at meetings’.

Over the years, feminist-inspired scholarship altered this picture, not by uncovering female radical heroics (although as Anna Clark, Catherine Hall, Dorothy Thompson, myself and others showed, there was certainly more of this than Thompson had recognised), but by probing the gender dynamics of working-class life and politics to expose scenes of conflict unacknowledged in The Making. My own early writings took this path, although rather unwillingly. As an apprentice historian in the 1970s, I was a passionate Thompsonian. Published exactly two decades after The Making, my first book – Eve and the New Jerusalem (1983) – was a study of the feminist dimensions Owenite movement of utopian socialists in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. Looking back at it now, I find not a whiff of criticism of Thompson’s book. The opposite indeed – Eve is clearly framed as a sort of feminist supplement to The Making. It also picked up on themes from other Thompson texts, mostly notably his biography of William Morris with its open endorsement of the utopian element of the socialist tradition.

Nonetheless, there was one point in Eve where I put forward a sideways criticism of The Making. Both Thompson and I identified the London tailors’ strike of 1834 as key to the general unionist upsurge in the early 1830s. What Thompson ignored however, and I emphasised, was the issue of female sweated labour in tailoring where socialist unionists, including a number of highly vocal women tailors, stood fast for female equality in the trade while the main union leadership demanded their exclusion. Here were some women who were not just being but becoming in the Thompsonian sense. But I didn’t draw out the broader implications of these gender divisions for Thompson’s vision of class. When I presented my argument to him, in a teatime conversation organised by my PhD supervisor Eileen Yeo, he said my points were ‘interesting’ and passed on to another topic.

Other, later, feminist historians were much tougher on Thompson – and he never really came to terms with their criticisms. So it’s fascinating to see that one of Thompson’s unfulfilled ambitions was to write a history of the ‘woman question’ in the 1790s. The proposed title was to be ‘The Defeat of the Rights of Woman’ and, according to Dorothy Thompson – a leading historian of Chartism and Edward’s wife – it was intended to explore the impact of counter-revolution on Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist ideals. Thompson began to draft a lecture on the topic before he died and some notes for this were published by Dorothy in 1997 in her edited collection of his writings, The Romantics.

‘This will be a dismal lecture,’ Thompson’s notes began:

For some years I have been keeping files on the rights of women in the 1790s; and also on the[ir] defeat… Something large was happening in feminine sensibility among the middle classes in the 1790s, perhaps even beginning to happen between men and women. But scarcely had this small wave begun to rise and crest than it was overtaken by the far deeper wave of counter-revolution… All that then remained of the movement in the 1790s was the vexed and controversial memory of one [woman], Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797). Wikimedia Commons.

Thompson had laid the grounds for this argument many years earlier in a wonderful piece for New Society, a review of Claire Tomalin’s 1974 biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. To my mind, it is one of the best short pieces on Wollstonecraft. A rich evocation of her political world and what Thompson described as her ‘feminine predicament’, it was expressed in fiercely feminist terms, attacking biographers and critics, including Tomalin, for underplaying Wollstonecraft’s historical importance: ‘She is seen less as a significant intellectual…than as an Extraordinary Woman. And the moral confusions, or personal crises, of a woman are always somehow more interesting than those of a man: they engross all other aspects of the subject.’ Thompson went on to write admiringly about Wollstonecraft’s intellectual originality, political savvy, her personal courage, concluding: ‘I see her as a major intellectual, and one of the greatest of Englishwomen.’

Alongside all this, however, there was a telling swipe at certain present-day women, denizens of ‘literary and feminine north London’. Thompson satirised them as ‘working hard’ at their relationships, ‘coming to terms with their sexuality’, and ‘never manic or extreme in their feminism’. He was always more comfortable with his past heroes and heroines than with his radical contemporaries, whether they were other ex-communists, Althusserians or 1970s feminist activists.  

What of women who were neither outspoken radicals nor politicised strikers? I want to conclude by mentioning a fascinating exchange between Thompson and Raphael Samuel on wife sales. In 1992, Samuel published a piece in History Workshop Journal in which he criticised Thompson’s famous essay ‘The Sale of Wives’. A ‘form of unofficial divorce’ when it was unobtainable by all but the very wealthy, wife selling occurred in England from the seventeenth century and continued into the early twentieth century, although by then incidences were very rare. Thompson represented this public auction of a wife to the highest bidder as ‘usually by mutual consent, leavened by a rough plebeian humour’. Samuel was sharp: ‘He might as plausibly have situated it in relation to wife-beating, or (taking a cue from classical anthropology) the traffic in women, or – returning to the sombre figure of Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge from whom he took his original cue – as a fit of blind and drunken stupor.’

Two issues later the journal published a letter from Thompson objecting strongly to this criticism, saying that all the evidence supported his interpretation of wife sales. In his reply, Samuel stoked the fires further by suggesting that Thompson’s viewpoint reflected the sexual libertarianism of the time when it was written: ‘the article belongs surely that liberal hour of the 1960s when multiple or plural relationships were being widely canvassed as a release from the coils of matrimony’. ‘Had Thompson’s interest been in the subjection of women’, Samuel went on, ‘he might have chosen to put a less favourable glow on the proceedings’. Why, Samuel asked, ‘if marital breakdown was the point of interest’, did Thompson not look at cases of wife-beating, or rape, or ‘the records of the overseers of the poor…with their often poignant documentation of the plight of the abandoned and the deserted?’ Thompson did not respond to this.

The last word went to a woman named Lauren Otter, who wrote to History Workshop Journal in spring 1994. According to ‘unresearched family tradition’, her great-great-grandfather, Tom Stevens, was the original inspiration for Henchard, Hardy’s wife-selling mayor of Casterbridge. Hardy had met Stevens when he stayed on the family farm outside Warminster, as he did on many occasions. On an unspecified date, Stevens sold Lauren Otter’s great-great-grandmother. The sale was the result of his indebtedness, which would have forced his wife, their five children and two foster children ‘on to the parish’. To avoid this, he sold her, giving the money to the eldest child to keep all his siblings. His wife later remarried, telling her new husband that she had been sold.

The letter concluded that the case ‘can obviously be interpreted in either a Thompson or a Samuel sense’, and that the fact that none of Lauren Otter’s relatives were willing to discuss it ‘can be interpreted in any one of a dozen ways’. Indeed, but this reader longs to know more.  

Edward Thompson died in 1993, and Raphael Samuel three years later. Both men were much mourned by left wing historians, including me. But history moves on. In the decades since, feminist scholars have brought new perspectives to histories of sexual relations, marriage, family life. The Covid pandemic opened up a range of difficult issues about the sexual division of labour and the persistence of gender-based inequalities at home and work. Wife sales may be a thing of the past, but the subalternity of women targeted by Wollstonecraft and feminists since is very much part of our political present.

In their different ways both Thompson and Samuel were utopians, believing in a better world even in the hardest of times. This optimism of the will can be seen as an essential ingredient of the radical tradition. But it is no substitute for recognition that the ‘long revolution’ against gender inequality is far from over.


  1. I regret not mentioning E P Thompson’s close friendships with some feminist historians, notably Sheila Rowbotham.

  2. Thank you for this really interesting piece. A small clarification. The source of the wife-selling story, “Lauren Otter”, is actually Laurens Otter, a veteran anarchist peace campaigner, whose name is misprinted in HWJ 1994, obscuring his age and gender. He died in 2022 at 91. His last arrest was in 2008. See https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/feb/18/laurens-otter-obituary#:~:text=My%20friend%20Laurens%20Otter%2C%20who,first%20Aldermaston%20march%20in%201958.

    Although I never met him, he is my first cousin once removed (my maternal grandmother’s sister’s son), which makes the Warminster farmer’s wife, let’s call her Ms Stevens, the reputed model for Hardy’s former Mrs Henchard, my great-great-great-grandmother. Something I never knew.

    For more on Laurens Otter see his memoir:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *