The Historical Journal



THE FEMALE CONSUMER AND THE POLITICS OF CONSUMPTION IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY BRITAIN 1


MATTHEW  HILTON  a1
a1 University of Birmingham

Abstract

This article traces the history of women's participation in consumer politics and the gendering of the consumer in twentieth-century Britain. It does so by focusing on two important moments in the official discussion of the consumer interest: the Consumers' Council of the First World War and the Molony Committee on Consumer Protection, 1959–1962. It argues that notions of consumer-citizenship have been varied and forever in flux and that the involvement of women in consumer issues within the state apparatus has always been at once both disputed and encouraged. Within this complex history, however, a number of discernible trends are apparent. In the first half of the twentieth century, consumer issues were articulated by women's organizations on the political left and the consumer was considered largely a working-class housewife within official consumer politics. By mid-century, an increasingly dominant view of the consumer was that of the middle-class housewife, and a host of socially conservative women's groups came to speak for the consumer. By the 1950s, while the definition of the consumer remained contested, it had increasingly become a gender-neutral category, as business groups defined consumer interests in government committees and an emerging affluent consumer movement inscribed consumerism with the values of a male professional class.



Footnotes

1 Earlier versions of this article were presented to the North Amercian Conference on British Studies in Pasadena, the Institute for Contemporary British History, and the ‘Gender and Consumption’ workshop in Berlin organized by Gisela Boch, Billie Melman, and Pat Thane. I am grateful for the many comments received there, as well as the useful suggestions made by Margot Finn, Helen Laville, and two anonymous reviewers.