Save the Womanhood!
Vice, Urban Immorality and Social Control in Liverpool, c.1900-1976
Liverpool: University Press, 2018
Hardcover. ix + 234 p. ISBN 978-1786941251. £75
Reviewed by Helen Glew
University of Westminster
Samantha Caslin’s focused study is an excellent and important intervention in several fields of twentieth-century British history. Focusing on several voluntary organisations assisting working-class women arriving in Liverpool – most predominantly the Liverpool Vigilance Association, connected with the often-notorious National Vigilance Association – the book traces policies, rhetoric and action around assisting often young, often single women coming to the city to seek employment and a fresh start. In so doing, it illuminates much about the continuities in attitudes to female sexuality, working-class women’s employment, and the self-appointed role of the middle classes.
As a significant port city, Liverpool’s docks and railway stations functioned as the liminal space where women arrived, or through which they passed en route to new destinations either abroad or elsewhere in the UK. As such, the middle-class organisations perceived themselves as instrumental in ensuring that these women did not fall victim to temptation or ‘white slave traffickers’. At its heart, then, the LVA operated around a near contradiction: they were constantly warning apparently innocent and inexperienced young women to stay away from strangers who might wish them harm, all the while relying on their own middle-class self-presentation and the power of the insignia on their badges  to get young women to trust them. There was, as Caslin highlights, a particular potentially fine line between the LVA and female ‘traffickers’ as the LVA had to be ‘equally adept at winning the trust of vulnerable young women’ .
The LVA and similar organisations saw the (parental, nuclear) family as the best and safest place for women, as Caslin’s investigation shows, regardless of the circumstances which had driven the women towards Liverpool in the first place. Moreover, the book highlights the extent to which these voluntary organisations were, in many respects, unwilling or unable to consider how the socio-economic circumstances working-class women found themselves in might exacerbate their situations. The ways in which the organisations justified their own existence points also to their lack of willingness to embrace more radical solutions.
Furthermore, as the book traces the history of policing prostitution (or in some cases perceived or potential prostitution), the largely static attitudes towards solicitation – and the gendered and classed assumptions contain within these – come to the fore throughout. The fact that the former chief of women police in Liverpool in the late 1920s was unable to declare whether solicitation was a criminal or a moral issue  and was not alone in this encapsulates the difficulties in evolving a policy to deal with street prostitution. One of the key themes is the long continuities with the late Victorian period.
Caslin details how organisations like the LVA positioned themselves as bodies distinct from the police and other state agencies who contributed to their communities. As she documents, the voluntary bodies had to walk a fine line between arguing that their work was making a difference and the situation was improving, versus advertising for more funds to continue their crucial work. This is particularly apparent in chapters discussing the Second World War and postwar years where changing social contexts and attitudes meant that the LVA was less relevant and struggled for support, but had to continue a narrative of their work being as needed as ever.
Being a book about a single city is a strength. It allows us to appreciate the fine-grain detail of policy-making and enactments of that policy. At the same time, Liverpool provides a lens for the continuity in attitudes to working-class female heterosexuality across the later nineteenth and early-mid twentieth centuries. It also illuminates attitudes to Irish female migrants, some of which were in part cultivated by rhetoric in the Irish press. Indeed, some more discussion of what this illuminates about national identity and perceptions thereof would have been welcome. In all, though, this is a very well-written, focused and insightful analysis.
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