Essay: Gender and the North

by Helen Smith .

The North of England, particularly the towns and cities created and expanded by the Industrial Revolution, has famously been seen as a place where men were men and women...well women made the best of it.

When Morrissey sang ‘will nature make a man of me yet’ in 1983, it wasn’t just his gender identity that seemed to be in flux.[1] Men and women all over the North of England were having to readjust and reconfigure ideas of masculinity and femininity alongside new regional identities. Modern assumptions about the North and gender tend to focus on ‘laddishness’ of the kind demonstrated by Liam Gallagher, The Stone Roses and the like. Or on drinking culture so, how can I put it, ‘eloquently’ portrayed on shows like ‘Geordie Shore’. However, these expressions of Northern masculinity and femininity would have been unrecognisable 100 or even 40 years ago. I would argue that the North and all its diverse regions had more of an impact on how men and women experienced their gender identity than anywhere else in the country and not always in the ways most expected.

Gender is not a biological identity but one shaped by all sorts of different influences including, but not limited to, culture, family life, space, place and education. According to the philosopher and feminist theorist Judith Butler, gender can also be performative. In this reading, gender is performed or acted and therefore, people are able to ‘make’ themselves the kind of man or woman that they want others to see. It is not a fixed identity and never has been - as social and cultural understandings changed throughout the 20th century, so did what it meant to be a man or woman.

If that introduces gender, what about the North? The North covers a massive geographical area and, depending on which statistics you look at, an enormous number of people. Throughout the 20th century, this figure sat at around 13,000,000 and until the seventies, the vast majority of those people were working class. Industrial work such as mining, steel working, factory work and shipbuilding dominated the occupational landscape as the pit-heads and factories dominated the skylines. Much of this is well known but what hasn't been considered is the effect that this had on identities.

The North of England, particularly the towns and cities created and expanded by the Industrial Revolution, has famously been seen as a place where men were men and women…well women made the best of it. As with most stereotypes, this is far too simple a reading. The North has a varied and surprising history when it comes to notions of gender and sexuality, and space and place have been key to establishing how men and women formed their identities, particularly throughout the 20th century.[2] The spaces in which people worked and socialised, as well as lived, had an important role in shaping how men and women developed their ideas of gender. It was not just the home and the gender dynamics within it that had an impact on the way people saw themselves, but the way in which towns, cities and workplaces were structured. For many people in the North in the first half of the 20th century, work was a same-sex affair. Mines, steel works, shipyards and many factories were dominated by men, women rarely entered into these worlds. Jobs could be dangerous and, particularly in the mines and steelworks, workmates had to rely on each other for their safety and wellbeing. Women often did unpaid labour in the home or worked in female dominated areas such as service, dress making, piecemeal factory work or retail. Much has also been written about the matriarchal nature of the working-class home, mothers tended to be the dominant figure in the family and often controlled the household and family budget. These gender roles were rigid and constricting for many women but, as is most often the way with history, liberating for many men. Northern men could take their sense of masculinity from their work and this protected them from having to ‘perform’ their gender in certain ways. Because of this, they were able to do traditionally ‘unmanly’ things, such as cultural pursuits and same-sex encounters, without it having a negative impact on their own sense of masculine self. 

Socialising was often done separately. The pub, working men's club and sports club were the man's domain and the home, the street, the shops and cafe were the woman's. This fairly rigid demarcation of space in Northern towns and cities, alongside the rigid roles of breadwinner and homemaker in the home, means that it can be difficult for us to imagine the daily lives that men and women led. Until well into the fifties, many men and women seemed to get their emotional needs fulfilled by friends and workmates rather than partners and spouses, this was also tied to the fact that life for the majority of working-class in the North could be hard. Not everyone had the financial luxury of marrying for love. A lack of knowledge about birth control combined with fears and prejudice around illegitimacy meant that sex before marriage often led to ‘shotgun weddings’. This all had an impact on the construction of gender identities.

Traditional ways of understanding male and female roles began to break down with the onset of working-class affluence in the fifties. This led to better housing, higher wages and an opportunity to become part of the burgeoning consumer society sweeping Britain. Women began to have more opportunities outside of the home after the war and all male work places became less common. The position of work to masculine identity began to be eroded and replaced by a ‘work to live’ attitude rather than the other way around. Of course, this attitude could also be shared by women and this led to tensions between generations and between sexes. These tensions are best exemplified by the ‘Angry Young Men’ literary movement of the fifties and sixties and its cinematic cousin, Northern Realist Cinema. The iconic opening sequence of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960) shows its anti-hero Arthur Seaton scoffing at the men he works with for having pride in their work - a pride that had been key to working-class masculinity. Seaton also mocks other cornerstones of old working-class masculinity such as restraint (both in terms of sex and beer) and respect for women. He’s all about as little work as possible for as much money as possible and long live the weekend. Tensions between the sexes also play out in A Kind of Loving (1962). Vic, its main male character, represents a more traditional kind of working-class man, while Ingrid, its main female character,  represents the new ‘affluent’ working-class woman. They have a sexual relationship that results in a pregnancy and get (unhappily) married because it’s the respectable thing to do. Along with other novels and films of the genre, such examples linked the North with social and cultural change and gender in flux. Similarly, characters such as Seaton, who were played by young, good-looking actors, sowed the seeds for later depictions of lad culture.

Affluence also led to the creation of the teenager, an identity that, for a while at least, replaced that of the Northerner for many young people. Young people no longer had to contribute so much to the family economy and had more money to spend on clothes, music, make-up and going out. With this newfound freedom came subcultures, first the Teddy Boys and the Rockers, then the Mods, Skinheads and more Rockers, then the Hippies (not many up North though) and the Northern Soul boys and girls. Next came the Punks and Metal Heads, another round of Skinheads (although these were more sinister than the last lot), New Wavers, New Romantics, Indie Kids - the list is endless. All these different groups had an impact on notions of gender that, for some, overrode issues of class and region. For all the young men and women involved, clothes and engagement with the culture of their particular group became a way to declare their masculinity and femininity. This could be in a more traditional way (see the Mods) or a challenging and even aggressive way (see the Punks and New Romantics).

De-industrialisation and the legacy of Thatcher changed everything. I should be a good academic and aim for objectivity here, but who am I kidding? I'm a Northerner who grew up in South Yorkshire in the eighties and nineties. What I feel about Thatcher and her legacy is not objective at all. The decimation of old industry that overwhelmingly targeted the North of England removed all the old solid notions of masculinity and while this was positive and freeing for many women, it was the opposite for many men. Unemployment and the loss of manufacturing caused economic and social distress throughout the North and some of this is still felt today. Working-class culture, in many places, could not survive without work and uncertainty about the future became pervasive. Many areas were written off, as were the many young people who were left without the ‘jobs for life’ that their families had experienced. From the early eighties, sociologists conducted studies to try and measure the impact of all this and it soon became clear than many young men began to reject education; ‘what’s the point if there’s no job at the end?’ This is where we can see the rise of 'laddishness'.

There had always been a culture of drinking in the North, particularly amongst the working classes however, this came with strict codes of behaviour and conduct. These codes were policed not by the police and authorities, but by ordinary people. It was ok to drink in public but not to be drunk in public. Despite what has been written by many, most communities did not tolerate violence towards men or women, and some sort of restraint was expected. Men secure in their masculinity - due to work and decades of tradition - didn't need to get hammered and punch someone to demonstrate their masculinity. So what happens when that security is taken away? The drinking, drug taking, casual sex, misogyny and violence associated with 'laddishness' ensues. This comes back to Butler’s theory about performative gender - all of these behaviours can be seen as ‘masculine’ and are continually reinforced by the media, advertising and some forms of popular culture. We can all think of musicians, actors and sports people who subscribe to this kind of masculinity.

So, if the North is embedded in our modern notions of ‘laddishness’, it’s worth going back to the beginning of the piece and remembering that this kind of masculinity has not developed unchallenged. Northern artists such as The Smiths, Joy Division, Human League, and more recently Richard Hawley, Pulp and Arctic Monkeys have all helped an alternative to thrive in terms of music and gender norms. They emerged out of the same turmoil of the Thatcherite North but found different ways to work out and express what it could mean to be a man or woman in this new post-industrial landscape. This project is a timely reminder that regional identity has always been key to the way that we understand ourselves, culture and the world around us. The ‘clichés’ and ‘habits of imagination’ that have dominated cultural understandings of the North have been present in history too and by breaking through them, we can understand the history of 20th century Britain and gender in a way that was previously unimaginable.

 

[1] Johnny Marr, Morrissey, This Charming Man (Rough Trade, 1983).

[2] The research that underpins this essay can be found in my book, Helen Smith, Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Images used with permission from Sheffield Local Studies Library www.picturesheffield.com