By Morag Rose, University of Sheffield
The impact of austerity, welfare cuts and the retreat of the state means voluntary organisations play an increasingly important role in the lives of many people. For example, The Trussell Trust have reported that use of food banks is at a record levels and the recently published UK Civil Society Almanac 2016 provides further evidence of the impact of the third sector. There are many important questions raised by this but in this post I will focus on volunteers. Individuals volunteer for many reasons, including altruism, and in turn often benefit from the experience of volunteering.
Francesca Moore offers a fascinating historical insight with ‘” A Band of Public-Spirited Women”: Middle-Class Female Philanthropy and Citizenship in Bolton, Lancashire before 1918’, a paper recently published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Archive material contributes to her group biography of the eponymous women. Moore uses a Foucauldian analysis of power to consider what voluntary work meant for them and wider society. Philanthropy has moral, political, spiritual, philosophical, social and cultural dimensions, and she also explores what citizenship can mean for those without a vote or other legal rights.
The philanthropists Moore studies primarily focused on ‘poverty, child welfare, infant health, prostitution and drunkenness. These social issues were often understood at the time as a form of personal inadequacy, or moral failure, which rendered them solvable by behavioural change’ (2016: 153). This resonates with many current debates about entrenched inequality, unemployment and obesity amongst others. After the Boer War (1899-1902) there were widespread concerns about falling birth rates and an unfit population so philanthropists fought for moral and physical health. A focus on children’s welfare illustrates a concern for the future not just of individuals but of the nation. Moore suggests ‘women philanthropists engaged in what could be termed race work through infant welfare clinics, improving the quality and vitality of the population…. Biopolitical concerns were addressed in a bottom-up fashion… (as) a biopolitical patriotism’. (2016:157). As a disabled person I am deeply concerned eugenics still lurks behind much contemporary rhetoric about welfare and we must beware of its pernicious influence.
It is clear class was an important constituent of the philanthropic relationship. The work the women engaged in was also profoundly gendered, being considered maternal and caring. Such endeavours were one of many ways women challenged and transcended the divide between private and public spheres. The divide between “citizen” and “other” is also blurred and complex. Philanthropy demonstrated an ability to contribute to civic society and staked a claim for full citizenship. These women campaigned for, and influenced, social policy in many areas. Many of Moore’s sample were active in the Suffrage movement and their philanthropy was, at least in part, a way of demonstrating they had earned the vote. Moore’s study ends in 1918 when the First World War had changed the landscape and The Representation of The People Act gave women over 30 the right to vote. Today in Bolton something of the legacy of those “public-spirited women” lives on. The Greater Manchester for Voluntary Organisation (GMCVO) profiles a thriving and diverse voluntary sector which continues to provide valuable support services to many people.
GMCVO online at https://www.gmcvo.org.uk/
Moore, F. 2016 “A band of public-spirited women:” middle-class female philanthropy and citizenship in Bolton, Lancashire before 1918 in Transactions of The Institute of British Geographers 41 pp 149-162. doi: 10.1111/tran.12114
NCVO 2016 UK Civic Society Almanac online at https://data.ncvo.org.uk/
The Trussell Trust online at https://www.trusselltrust.org/2016/04/15/foodbank-use-remains-record-high/