Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Beatrice Potter Webb


by Nicolle Bettis


Born in Gloucester in 1858, Beatrice Potter was the eighth born to a businessman, Richard Potter and Laurencina Heyworth who was a daughter of a Liverpool merchant (Britannica Online). Although her mother died while she was still quite young, Beatrice states that she remained "in the shadow of my baby brother's birth and death" (1998, 278). This major disappointment of loosing a male heir seemed to devastate the family for the rest of their life. Another important note that seemed to play an important part in her life was the fact that Beatrice's mother "regarded her as the only ungifted child in the family" (1998, 278). Even though Beatrice describes her family life as one which "habitually gave orders" (Britannica Online). After the death of her mother she found herself forced to make a decision regarding the course of her life. She had the option to remain with her father and take care of the home, she could have married, community service through the church or to be a "lady novelist" (1998, 280).

The governess in their home schooled Beatrice, along with all of her siblings. Because she was often ill she often did not complete a full term, as a result she began to educate herself by reading material from her father's library and speaking with his friends and acquaintances such as Herbert Spencer and other intellectuals (1998). A significant amount was learned from these conversations which prepared her to be "self-identified as a sociologist, taught sociology, worked as a social investigator on the major empirical study of her age (Charles Booth's Life and Labour of the People of London), and did her own independent investigations, leading to the socialist reform classic The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain (1891)" (1998, 5).

As a young woman she worked as an associate for her father for six years. This experience enabled her too to learn about business (1992). It was during this time that she began to "question the assumptions of her father's business world" due to uncertainties about his intentions (Britannica Online). It was during the time she spent with relatives in Lancashire town she was introduced to the working class and the improvements they were trying to make for themselves. The fact that the family was well off financially did not seem to get in the way of her ideas about the classes of individuals (Britannica Online).

Had it not been for the difference in personalities she would have been the third wife of the Liberal statesman, Joseph Chamberlain. It was after this upsetting event that Beatrice began to practice social work in London but soon became upset with the charities and their methods of solving the problem of poverty. Her "charitable work" included the Charity Organization Society, managing the Katherine buildings (1998). When she helped her cousin, Charles, an owner of a ship and a social reformer, research for his book The Life and Labour of the People in London, Beatrice learned a lot about the life of the poor first hand.

After the death of her father Beatrice inherited 1,000 pounds a year which helped her support herself while researching and doing other non-paid work. In 1891 she inquired enough information about the working class from her stay in Lancashire to write The Cooperative Movement in Great Britain (Britannica Online). It was after this research that Beatrice realized that before she could address social problems she must learn more about what she wanted to correct. She began to realize it was not the individual, which was entirely at fault but the structure (1998). She also inquired more about labor unions and the economic conditions of the working class to better understand not only where they were coming from but also how to help them more efficiently.

It was during this time which she was introduced to Sidney James Webb, "later Baron Passfield (1859-1947)", who was a member of the Fabian Society (1996, 679). It is suggested that although looks played a part in their attraction for each other they enjoyed the fact that they had found someone in whom they could share ideas. Because Sidney's political views were very different and extreme compared to Beatrice's family they waited until 1892 to marry (1998). When they married they created a " remarkably complementary partnership" which strictly abided by the Fabian Socialist beliefs which introduced a new way to look at the reforming of societies (1996, 679). Their honeymoon consisted of a trip to both Glasgow and Dublin to look at the records of trade unions (Britannica Online).

After this project was complete, they both decided to return to London and live off of Beatrice's inheritance from her father in order to do more social research, political work, and writings (Britannica Online).

Even though their marriage seemed to be completely egalitarian Beatrice expressed her sense of unhappiness when she wrote, "I never write, except in my diary in my own style", she continues "I have constrained my intellect, forced it to concentrate on one subject after another; on some of the dullest and least illuminating details of social organization . . . I vividly remember the nausea with which, day after day, I went on with this task'" (1998, 283).

It has been suggested that her autobiography,My Apprenticeship, is not only a source for information concerning gender discrimination it is also a source in which one can find information about "women's intellectual journey to a vision of society" (1998, 283). Knowing all this it is hard to understand how Beatrice could believe the she had "never suffered the disabilities assumed to arise from my sex" (1998, 280).

The outcomes of the Webb's efforts included, The History of Trade Unionism and Industrial Democracy (Britannica Online). It has been suggested that Beatrice practiced "permeation" which is "attempting to push through Fabian policies or parts of policies by converting persons of power and influence irrespective of their political affiliations" (Britannica Online).


In 1887, Beatrice Potter Webb wrote her first book which discussed working conditions. The following year she wrote on the working conditions of the poor in the East End of London, information she had shown to the House of Lords. She had also developed reform laws for which she was acknowledged (1992). She was "interested in the general problem of how to use facts to generate policy-relevant theory" (1998).

Even though she tried to deny the unfair treatment of women, Beatrice does mention in her autobiography a conversation she had with Cambridge professor, Alfred Marshall in which he tries to dishearten her from writing The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain. He said to her that, "A book by you on the Co-operative Movement I may get my wife to read to me in the evening to while away the time, but I shan't pay any attention to it" (1998).

In 1913 in London, along with her husband, Beatrice created the New Statesman, which was an "influential periodical" (1997, 287). Both also created the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1895 (1996). Edith Abbott who was also a well known within the Chicago circle took one of the Webb's classes titled "Methods of Social Investigation"(1998).

It was during this time in which Beatrice was involved with the Poor Law Commission. She was only one of many in Chicago which tried to "measure urban poverty and serve as a guide to reform legislation" (1998). Others, which tried to form a social science, which could be researched and legitimate, were Jane Addams, Edith Abbott, and Kelley. Because the University of Chicago's Department of Sociology looked at empirical studies as "women's work" they did not look at the social sciences in the same way as the Chicago Women's School of Sociology (1998). They also wrote books on the economic history of Britain (1997). Both made a large impact both socially and politically suggesting that "Most of the social and political reforms of the time came about as a result of the Webb's research and political insight" (1996, 679).

Women's Firsts describes Webb as an "English socialist leader"(1997, 287), this may have been to her involvement with socialist political parties such as the Labour Party which she and her husband supported starting in 1914 providing "intellectual leadership" (1996, 679). The Webb's wrote decay of Capitalist Civilisation in 1923. In 1932 they visited the Soviet Union, as a result of their excitement they wrote Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? Which was completed in 1935 (1996). Together, Beatrice and her husband wrote more than 100 books and articles on the conditions which labors had to endure (1992). In 1901, Beatrice wrote Factory Acts (1996).

The Webb's, together, wrote eleven "voluminous works of empirical sociology that formed the blueprint for the British welfare state" (1998, 5).

In 1928 both Beatrice and her husband Sidney retired in Hampshire, where they lived until their deaths Beatrice's sociology has been described in three ways:

  1. The Proposition that any social science claim must be arrived at inductively and grounded in the practice of rigorous empirical investigation (1998, 286).

  2. Empirical investigation shows society to be a system of emergent social structures rather than the by-product of individual action (1998, 288).

  3. The project of sociology is to discover how economic equity can be arrived at through democratic decision-making (1998, 289).


Even though Beatrice Potter Webb did a great amount when it comes to the reformation of laws concerning the poor she is criticized "for writing about it as an undifferentiated mass, with little regard for the individuals among the group" (1992).

Unlike other women during this period, Beatrice was not forgotten because she was so intricately intertwined with her husband Sidney in their writings. A result she has been included into "discussions of sociology's empirical tradition" (1998, 277).

On December 12, 1947, the ashes of both Beatrice and Sidney were "ceremoniously interred in Westminster Abbey" (1998, 277). The British Prime Minister Clement Atlee stated, " Millions are living fuller and fuller and freer lives today because of the work of Sidney and Beatrice Webb" (1998, 277).


Autobiographical Works

Biographical Works


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