History repeating itself? New book researches women’s social history
I have written on women’s issues and on social and family history, so when Women’s Lives: Researching Women’s Social History 1800–1939 (Pen and Sword Books, £12.99) was published in November 2011 I was keen to take a look.
Written by Jennifer Newby, editor of Family History Monthly magazine and keen writer on women’s history at www.writingwomenshistory.co.uk, it is an accessible and fascinating insight into how our female ancestors lived and experienced the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
It highlights how things have changed for women whilst staying very nearly the same.
Newby examines not just the lives of women but their active roles in history, piecing together the experiences of so-called ‘invisible’ women, millions of whom (denied access to fulfilling careers) had to work in the most lowly occupations to support large families.
I asked Newby, a reader of Women’s Views on News, to reflect on women she met in her research and the relevance of our history to the world women inhabit today.
I wondered first if there were any stories that particularly resonated with her as a 21st century woman?
“Definitely! I came across a surprising number of women with what we might perceive as a ‘modern’ outlook and many who were fiercely independent and bold.
“I read memoirs of domestic servants, like Edith Hall, determined to get beyond working as a skivvy in service during the 1920s.
“I admired working class women I came across, eager to gain an education – women like Dolly Davy, a teenage Yorkshire woman incensed that she was allowed to dust her employer’s books, but never to read them.”
The book shows that many servants were bright young women, but they had few options for any education back then. Newby said:
“I felt closer to these women, seeking to better themselves, than middle class female university students, studying only because their families could afford to pay the fees.”
This sounds like history repeating itself, as students struggle to stay on at college following the loss of Education Maintenance Allowance and the high cost of university fees.
The woman who most inspired Newby was Lady Colin Campbell. Her husband infected her with syphilis and they divorced in 1885, creating a huge scandal.
Called a ‘harlot’ in the press, her life torn apart, she acted with great decorum, becoming a journalist and art critic. As Newby says, how many modern female ‘celebrities’ take this course?
Newby was keen to include women’s own ‘voices’ in her work. How easy was it to find women who had worked for equality out of the limelight?
Rather than focus on well-known suffragettes, she wanted to show how ordinary women felt about their lives and the fight to gain independence.
“I wanted to reveal what life was like for the women who benefitted from gaining the vote – scullery maids spending days in airless kitchens; agricultural labourers weeding fields and stone picking in all weathers; middle class women expected to stay and home and wait for a suitable husband.
“There’s a lot of material; memoirs of domestic servants and of middle class women expressing the frustrations of intelligence kept at home; original accounts from agricultural workers and factory women interviewed by government commissioners; testimonies of female criminals.”
When she was undertaking the research, Newby was struck by issues faced in the 19th and early 20th centuries that still affect the lives of women across the world today.
“Living 150 years ago, as a working class girl leaving school (if my parents could afford to pay for me to go) I would have the choice of domestic service or factory work; perhaps a job in a shop if I was lucky.
“Whilst things have moved on for us, millions of women all over the world still have these limited choices.
“So, researching female factory workers, who frequently worked for half a man’s wages in the same role, I was always strongly aware that this wasn’t simply ‘history’. There were women living this life all over the world in the 21st century.”
Many women in the period covered by the book were forced out of school at a young age due to family poverty. Whilst living in China Newby saw firsthand a similar division between rich and poor.
“The students I taught English to, whose parents paid for their education, contrasted with the teenagers working in shops or, worst, the young girls in the street corner brothels (thinly disguised as hair dressing parlours) all over the small town I lived in.”
I asked her why she believed it was important to understand the roles our recent ancestors played in fighting for the rights we take for granted today.
“I think women are still fighting – for equal wages, for a better balance between motherhood and work, for control of our body image – are we really any different, with the modern obsession with women’s weight, from corset-wearing Victorians?”
She feels that understanding how women lived in the past is essential to see how far we’ve come, but she also reminds us that in some ways, so little has changed.
“We might not have to give up work like our ancestors if we have a child, but it still affects our careers. We have better education but still relatively few women are in positions of power.”
Every day WVoN publishes stories suggesting that although great strides have been made towards equality in the UK, recent government decisions have once again had a greater impact on the lives of women than men, and around the world women and young girls still struggle to find a voice against cruelty, disenfranchisement and lack of power.
I can recommend Newby’s book to anyone interested in the role of women in history over the past 200 years –whether feminist, family historian or both. Full of wonderful illustrations it is a book to read cover to cover or dip into.
Women’s Lives is published by Pen and Sword and is available at £12.99 (ISBN 978 1848843684).