MARY SUMNER is the celebrated founder of the Mothers’ Union (MU). She started it in the late 1880s as an informal and then a diocesan network of women’s meetings, and, in the early 1890s, structured it into a national Anglican institution. She was a patron of the Girls’ Friendly Society and envisaged the MU as an extension of the moral and religious training of girls into the stage of marriage and family life, specifically to uphold marriage and support motherhood as a sacred calling devoted to the formation of character and faith in children.
The MU encouraged women to exercise initiative and responsibility as mothers and “helpmeets” of men. In encouraging philanthropic and educational activity, taking its vision to women of the labouring classes as well as to “educated women”, it enlarged the “proper” sphere of activity for Victorian Christian women.
Sue Anderson-Faithful has written a well-researched and minutely documented life of Mary Sumner, from her upbringing in a Unitarian family influential in Manchester’s Cross Street Chapel, and the family’s move into the Anglican Church when they left the North for Winchester and entered an elite Anglican circle. Mary’s marriage to the Revd George Sumner, son of the Bishop of Winchester, gave her both opportunity and authority to use her liberal education in Church, family, and community.
The key to the kind of biography offered here lies in the third part of the title: Thinking a Life with Bourdieu. Bourdieu and his theory are a more defining focus than Mrs Sumner and her achievements, which serve to exemplify Bourdieu’s critique of elite, patriarchal, white domination, and the “symbolic violence” it inflicts. A sentence from the author’s summary conveys the effect. “For Mary Sumner, received pedagogic action gave her an internalised unquestioning conviction (that is, misrecognition) of the legitimacy of the gendered cultural arbitraries of Church, class, nation and empire that she sought to uphold through her pedagogic action.”
The Bourdieu vocabulary — “doxa”, “arbitraries”, “capital”, “pedagogy”, “field strategy” — is liberally sprinkled in case the reader unwarily accept as legitimate what Mrs Sumner and her like took for granted (doxa). All the evidence for a life is there, but the empathy that the best biographies display is wholly absent. The Truth lies in the Bourdieu theory, marshalling the rich stuff of a human life into an ideological charge sheet.
Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the University of London.
Mary Sumner: Mission, education and motherhood: Thinking a life with Bourdieu
Lutterworth Press £25