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10-08-2015, 15:20

The Social Structure of Mass Societ

At the top of European society stood a wealthy elite, constituting but 5 percent of the population but controlling between 30 and 40 percent of its wealth. This nineteenth-century elite was an amalgamation of the traditional landed aristocracy that had dominated European society for centuries and the emerging upper middle class. In the course of the nineteenth century, aristocrats coalesced with the most successful industrialists, bankers, and merchants to form a new elite. Increasingly, aristocrats and plutocrats fused as the members of the wealthy upper middle class purchased landed estates to join the aristocrats in the pleasures of country living while the aristocrats bought lavish town houses for part-time urban life. Common bonds were also created when the sons of wealthy middle-class families were admitted to the elite schools dominated by the children of the aristocracy. This educated elite assumed leadership roles in the government and the armed forces. Marriage also served to unite the two groups. Daughters of tycoons gained titles, and aristocratic heirs gained new sources of cash. Wealthy American heiresses were in special demand. When the American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt married the duke of Marlborough, the new duchess brought £2 million (approximately $10 million) to her husband. Below the upper class was a middle level that included such traditional groups as professionals in law, medicine, and the civil service as well as moderately well-to-do industrialists and merchants. The industrial expansion of the nineteenth century also added new groups to the middle class. These newcomers included business managers and new professionals, such as office workers, engineers, architects, accountants, and chemists, who formed professional associations as the symbols of their newfound importance. At the lower end of the middle class were the small shopkeepers, traders, manufacturers, and prosperous peasants. Their chief preoccupation was the provision of goods and services for the classes above them. The moderately prosperous and successful members of the middle classes shared a certain style of life, one whose values tended to dominate much of nineteenth-century society. They were especially active in preaching their worldview to their children and to the upper and lower classes of their society. This was especially evident in Victorian Britain, often considered a model of middle-class society. It was the European middle classes who accepted and promulgated the importance of progress and science. They believed in hard work, which they viewed as the primary human good, open to everyone and guaranteed to have positive results. They also believed in the good conduct associated with traditional Christian morality. Such values were often scorned at the time by members of the economic and intellectual elite, and in later years, it became commonplace for observers to mock the Victorian era—the years of the long reign of Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901) in Great Britain—for its vulgar materialism, its cultural philistinism, and its conformist values. As the historian Peter Gay has recently shown, however, this harsh portrayal of the “bourgeois” character of the age distorts the reality of an era of complexity and contradiction, with diverse forces interacting to lay the foundations of the modern world. The working classes constituted almost 80 percent of the population of Europe. In rural areas, many of these people were landholding peasants, agricultural laborers, and sharecroppers, especially in eastern Europe. Only about 10 percent of the British population worked in agriculture, however; in Germany, the figure was 25 percent. There was no homogeneous urban working class. At the top were skilled artisans in such traditional handicraft trades as cabinetmaking, printing, and jewelry making. The second Industrial Revolution, however, also brought new entrants into the group of highly skilled workers, including machine-tool specialists, shipbuilders, and metalworkers. Many skilledworkers attempted to pattern themselves after the middle class by seeking good housing and educating their children. Semiskilled laborers, including such people as carpenters, bricklayers, and many factory workers, earned wages that were about two-thirds of those of highly skilled workers (see the box on p. 8). At the bottom of the hierarchy stood the largest group of workers, the unskilled laborers. They included day laborers, who worked irregularly for very low wages, and large numbers of domestic servants. One of every seven employed persons in Great Britain in 1900 was a domestic servant. Urban workers did experience a betterment in the material conditions of their lives after 1870. A rise in real wages, accompanied by a decline in many consumer costs, especially in the 1880s and 1890s, made it possible for workers to buy more than just food and housing. Workers’ budgets now included money for more clothes and even leisure at the same time that strikes and labor agitation were winning ten-hour days and Saturday afternoons off. The combination of more income and more free time produced whole new patterns of mass leisure. Among the least attractive aspects of the era, however, was the widespread practice of child labor. Working conditions for underage workers were often abysmal. According to a report commissioned in 1832 to inquire into the conditions for child factory workers in Great Britain, children as young as six years of age began work before dawn. Those who were drowsy or fell asleep were tapped on the head, doused with cold water, strapped to a chair, or flogged with a stick. The position of women during the Industrial Revolution was also changing. During much of the nineteenth century, many women adhered to the ideal of femininity popularized by writers and poets. Tennyson’s poem The Princess expressed it well: Man with the head and woman with the heart: Man to command and woman to obey; All else confusion. The reality was somewhat different. Under the impact of the Second Industrial Revolution, which created a wide variety of service and white-collar jobs, women began to accept employment as clerks, typists, secretaries, and salesclerks. Compulsory education opened the door to new opportunities in the medical and teaching professions. In some countries in western Europe, women’s legal rights increased. Still, most women remained confined to their traditional roles of homemaking and child rearing. The less fortunate were still compelled to undertake marginal work at home as domestic servants or as pieceworkers in sweatshops. Many of these improvements occurred as the result of the rise of Europe’s first feminist movement. The movement had its origins in the social upheaval of the French Revolution, when some women advocated equality for women based on the doctrine of natural rights. In the 1830s, a number of women in the United States and Europe sought improvements for women by focusing on family and marriage law to strengthen the property rights of wives and enhance their ability to secure a divorce. Later in the century, attention shifted to the issue of equal political rights. Many feminists believed that the right to vote was the key to all other reforms to improve the position of women. The British women’s movement was the most vocal and active in Europe, but it was divided over tactics. Moderates believed that women must demonstrate that they would use political power responsibly if they wanted Parliament to grant them the right to vote. Another group, however, favored a more radical approach. Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928) and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, in 1903 founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, which enrolled mostly middle- and upper-class women. Pankhurst’s organization realized the value of the media and used unusual publicity stunts to call attention to its insistence on winning women the right to vote and other demands. Its members pelted government officials with eggs, chained themselves to lampposts, smashed the windows of department stores on fashionable shopping streets, burned railroad cars, and went on hunger strikes in jail. Before World War I, demands for women’s rights were being heard throughout Europe and the United States, although only in Norway and some American states as well as in Australia and New Zealand did women actually receive the right to vote before 1914. It would take the dramatic upheaval of World War I before male-dominated governments capitulated on this basic issue.

 

 

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