"You may say that I am a dreamer/But I am not the only one" John Lennon: "Imagine"

"So come brothers and sisters/For the struggle carries on" Billy Bragg: "The Internationale"

Elizannie has a reading room at 'Clarice's Book Page' http://www.villiersroad.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

To all my wonderful Female Ancestors on International Women's Day 2011

Today [8th March] is International Women's Day. So Peace, Love, Greetings and Solidarity to all Women everywhere.

As it is the Global 100th anniversary of International Women's Day it is a good day to reflect on the achievement of Women worldwide - yet how far do many Women in under developed countries [and some so called developed countries] still have to 'travel' to achieve equality with men?

Because I am writing in the UK I wanted to reflect on the changes in Women's conditions and rights since the times of my mother, grandmothers and great grandmothers and think about how the changes in society and economic affairs, medical advances and education have changed from their generations to mine, my daughters' and my granddaughter's'. All of us have been around during the 100 years of the 'International Women's Day' celebrations. Obviously - being me - I will have to add a few political comments on how proposed present Government cuts could affect women in future...

Each of my great-grandmothers have been described at various times by various descendants as 'a strong woman' [sometimes the adjective has not been so kind as 'strong'!] But to survive in those times [last forty years of the 19th century onwards] working class women as my great grandmothers were, had to be 'strong'.

One great grandmother was widowed aged just over thirty with three children aged under five. If one could not support oneself the only 'state help' was the workhouse - so it seems as if she married a widower in an 'arrangement' in that she could look after his children and and he could support her and her children. They had one child between them who died at an early age and then the second husband died too. His children were now old enough to work to support themselves and my great grandmother married again. She outlived this husband too but at least her children were now old enough to support her. A not untypical story for the time.

My grandmothers had young children during the First World War. My English grandmother also worked in a munitions factory during the War, led a strike for better pay as the women workers [who got paid less than men, who also went on strike for more pay] could not manage on their pay even when, as in her case, she had a soldier's pay too [see http://rephidimstreet.blogspot.com/2010/08/is-political-activism-hereditary.html ] My Welsh grandmother had struggled feeding four small children when my grandfather was missing in action for many months after he was fighting in the Balkans. [He was eventually found, severely injured, in a French hospital and invalided out of the army. Happily he made a full recovery] Both grandmothers were nearly forty before they could vote despite having 'run' their families in these war years. Mind you, my grandfathers had fought for their country but couldn't vote for it until 1918 either!] My grandmothers finally got full equality with men to vote in 1928, when the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was passed.

My mother fought against male discrimination all her life, but still made the tea at political meetings! [Not something that anyone has ever dared ask me to do!] I am just old enough to remember when one never saw a woman clerk on bank counters etc and most doctors were men. I remember the strike of the women sewing machinists at Ford Dagenham in 1968 for equal pay [see http://rephidimstreet.blogspot.com/2010/09/real-story-of-made-in-dagenham.html ] and the Equal Pay Act 1970.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s in several big banks and insurance offices women still had to ask 'permission' of thier bosses to get married! Also in the 1970s only half of a wife's salary was taken into account when a mortgage offer was calculated. In the 1970s I was actually sacked because I was pregnant and too ill to work!

Both of my daughters are in careers with the same salary scales whether a man or woman is in the job. Both are entitled to maternity leave. [As are men of course]

However although many would celebrate the fact that the 'glass ceiling' has now been raised for women in employment there are still plenty that would claim that it is only some that have managed to get through a few 'sky lights' in that ceiling. Many women are still exploited in employment - especially in the lower paid and part time areas. But then so are many men. This is still a part of our society that needs help, regulation and support and includes men and women, young and old, fit and sick. This is an area that I fear this present government is not so keen to help or address.

According to evidence from marriage licences and census returns three of my four g.great grandmothers could all read and write. The fourth could speak English and Welsh and also ran a little business from her home so I assume all were as educated as could be for their times. They all worked so hard and although the census returns showed that they were 'at home' and not working [even the fourth one!] they all had 'little jobs' to help out with the family economy.

My grandmothers were the first generation to benefit from the Elementary Education Act of 1870 [also known as 'Forster's Education Act'] which provided a basic schooling for all children between the ages of five and twelve. They were both extremely clever women - and one cannot help but wonder if they had had more opportunities what they could have achieved education wise. Both were voracious readers - my Welsh grandmother had a memory that could trip anyone up! My English grandmother was very active politically and argued down many a male!

My mother passed 'the scholarship' but her parents could not afford the uniform or 'extras' if she went to grammar school. She had to leave school at fifteen to help with the family economic situation and always regretted the education she had 'lost'. However again she was a great reader and self educator, very active politically, holding office and eventually became a Justice of the Peace.

I went to university, first of the women in my family. Both my daughters went to university, as an expectation of this modern society. But this now seems to be slipping away and I only hope that the policies of the current government regarding tuition fees which will be unaffordable by poorer families will have been reversed by the time my granddaughters reach university entrance age and they will not face the same educational disappointment as their great grandmother.

I have inherited a neurological condition from one of my greatgrandmothers - she had to spend [too often] three days at a time in bed to cope with it. No NHS in those days - and too expensive for the wife of an 'ordinary' working man to keep paying to see a doctor. So self-prescribed medicines and quite a miserable and painful life as she got older. I am treated by a top neurologist - who cannot cure but treats and alleviates the condition. I have also inherited [from whom is a mystery!] a rare blood condition which only became apparent mid-operation! A big thank you again to the NHS who saved my life on that occasion and made it possible for me to have any subsequent operations in safety - and more importantly so too my children who have unfortunately inherited not just my beauty [!] but my blood!

It has been shown in many reports that when the NHS was introduced in 1948 the number of working class women who would seek medical treatment had been previously underestimated. Many women had previously endured debilitating illnesses and symptoms because any spare cash for medical treatments or insurances had to be saved for the 'breadwinner' - if the man was too ill to work the whole family starved. Not only did women's health improve, but that too of their children as both pre-natal care improved and welfare clinics became more widespread.

Of course if this government manages to undermine the NHS and privatise many areas we may see a corresponding fall in the nation's health - especially amongst poorer women.

So a little personal reflection of my family women over the last 100 years. What is my conclusion? We all should celebrate International Women's Day and how far some women have travelled - but we must not sit back and congratulate ourselves. There are a lot of struggles still to undertake on behalf of the exploited everywhere in the world: women and men.

And for all those men sulking at being left out - it is Pancake Day too....


  1. I am just old enough to remember when one never saw a woman clerk on bank counters

    you obviously never went to the Distric Bank in Darwin Lancs then. My mum worked as a bank clerk on the counter there for fifteen years in the 1940's and 1950's. There were other women bank clerks there too. She left when she got married and worked with her husband as an equal partner in the business they started together.

  2. Thank you for this comment, it is lovely to hear this. I was a child in the 1950s in a small town in the Southern part of England so was speaking from experiences there -obviously the Northern part was more enlightened. Even our post office counter staff were mostly men. It would be interesting to hear if these experiences were replicated and if there were North/South differences and/or villages vs town differences. I know that in my father's small Welsh home village there was a female postmistress for example.
    However I notice that you say your mother left when she married. Did she have to leave or was this her choice to go into business with her husband? My mother-in-law had to leave nursing when she married in the late 1940s and I know that was the position in teaching pre WW2, although I believe by the 1950s at least this 'ban' had been raised in teaching at least.
    From my researches women even in the late Victorian era and early part of the 20th century were often equal business partners with their husbands but often did not 'offically' declare themselves so for various reasons. Sometimes husbands did not want 'outsiders' to know in case they thought that the man could not support his wife. Sometimes women felt it made them seem unfeminine or unmaternal to be working outside the home. And as I initmated above for centuries women have worked in or outside the home to ensure economic survival and too often have been underpaid.

  3. Hi Elizannie, glad you find it interesting. My mum left the bank when she got married because she moved to Manchester where her husband lived. I dont know if there was a ban on married women. Its something I'll have to ask her about. Really need to get a family history done soon as she is in her mid eighties now!

    My mums grandmother was one of 13 kids who were brought up by the two eldests sisters. Their parents died within a few years of each other when they were in their thirties. The two eldest girls were in their teens ( one was 13 and a "pupil teacher" who had hoped to go on to be a teacher but had to leave school to look after the family) and managed to keep the house on (a two up two down stone terraced cottage)and bring up the younger children. The two eldest girls both worked in the local cotton mill and the rest of the kids all started work when they were 10 or 11. This would have been in the 1870's/80's. My mum still talks about her great aunts (they were alve when she was a child) and how they brought up their siblings. It was all ways spoken of with pride in their achievment by all the family. And it was a very big extended family in the village added to by marriage with other large families. It could be that the experience of being brought up in a big poor family influenced my mums gradmother to only have two children herself.

    My mum and dad ran their business based on my dads trade. My mum ran all the paper work side of things partly because she had passed school certificate at 16 and then worked in the bank, whilst my dad had left school at 14 with no qualifications. He worked as a milkman before starting his apprenticeship at 15 and then worked around the country as a journeyman. He hated working for bosses and being told what to do by people who didnt know what they were talking about. My mum encouraged him to set up on his own and whilst he was an excellent tradesman with a very quick mind he couldnt have done it without her and the business was a straight 50/50 prtnership. As well as running the business togther they split the house work between them too. My mum did the cooking and washing and dad did the cleaning, ironing and sewing ( he could shorten a pair of trousers and hand stitch the bottom in about 15 minutes to a tailoring standard)

    As to a North/South divide, well that could be a possibility. My mum was brought up in a Lancashire village where the majority of people worked in the cotton or paper making industries. The women worked in the cotton mills alongside the men on the shopfloor and in the offices. The paper mills were all male on the shopfloor. The women spinners and weavers traditionally carried on working after they got married.

    As to the North being more enlightened....well of course it was better all round! But seriously, I think it was more a case of economic neccesity and the fact that the cotton industry traditionaly employed lot of women workers, as well as children in the earlier days. So there were opportunities for employment after marriage.

    I wouldnt describe my family background as particularly "progressive" (whatever that means)but they were all grafters and the majority non conformists either Quakers on my dads mothers side (although he didnt take it up) or Unitarians on my mums. So maybe that had some influence.

  4. Thank you so much for this really interesting look at your family history. Lots more strong women - and this is not a denigration of the men of the time btw but women often had to 'fill in the gaps' out of sheer necessity with men working such long hours in the late 19thC.

    Reading about the paper mills, spinners and weavers gender balances workforce has made me realise too that there is not so much a North/South divide as a regional divide. Most of the research I have done has been around the London/Essex areas; Bristol/Somerset/Wiltshire and South Wales.

    Again the demands of the male jobs determined what women could do. By my great grandmothers' time in S.Wales women did not work in the colleries or ironworks who were the main male employers - not even in the offices - but would work in shops and domestic jobs. But many like one of my great grandmothers ran little 'businesses' from their houses: dressmaking, cooking, laundry for others, small shops even!

    In London the position was slightly different because there were many factories South of the Thames and women living there could get 'outwork' - making brushes for example whilst their menfolk were either working in other factories, doctors or in other occupations. North of the river women working outside the home seemed to find different areas of work - mostly domestic jobs ranging from maids to governesses or companions. And again both sides of the river women did the 'at home' jobs as in Wales. But here home circumstances sometimes dictated what 'home work' could be done - laundry for others was difficult if the woman lived at the top of block of 'dwellings' with no running water or an area for drying clothes..

    In the 'countryside' areas such as Essex and and the part of the West country I describe of course the women took part in the seasonal working in the fields and were 'ag labs' - agricultural labourers alongside the men. And also filled in with all the other 'home' jobs described in all the other areas - and all looked after their and others' children too!

    I could go on more but I don't want to bore, thank you again for your lovely comment.