Scientific couples lived gender theory

October 18, 2002

Early social science couples such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb were influenced by theories of complementarity devised in the mid-19th century by single women trying to break into public life, a Strathclyde conference on gender, culture and power has heard.

Eileen Yeo, professor of social and cultural history at Strathclyde University, said that these early feminists argued that they had to play a part in intellectual and professional work because men's abstract vision and women's moral intuition were complementary. They needed to be combined to achieve the "stereoscopic vision" necessary for effective social science.

Professor Yeo said that the division of labour practised by couples such as the Webbs, Patrick and Anna Geddes, and Victor Branford and Sybella Gurney often coincided with this "communion of labour" formula.

Men were reckoned to have the capacity to plan large-scale institutions and systems. Women, on the other hand, were thought to be sensitive to suffering, particularly among the young and the aged, and to have a propensity for practical service.

This often resulted in the husbands writing the "big books" while the wives had more of a social work role.

After Gurney died, Branford tried to record how she had progressed from an interest in lower matters such as politics and economics to a concern with the spiritual, Professor Yeo said.

Beatrice Webb attempted to defy the conventions, working with Sidney on the institutions of the English state, despite being advised to study the industrial situation of women.

But Professor Yeo said she "still had vestigial ideas that some kinds of practice were more womanly".

Beatrice Webb saw documents as the most important source, rating interviews as less important: women were thought particularly well suited to interviewing because of their abilities of passive observation.

Professor Yeo said there were still signs today of tension between "abstract theory and the caring, listening intellectual", although this no longer necessarily split along gender lines.

"But there is a certain kind of high-theory sociology, which on the whole is developed by men, that does not talk all that much of the actual experience of people, particularly the experience of inequality," she added.

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