I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandparents recently. Mainly because I’ve been researching and writing about the period in which they were young and possibly hopeful and when their lives and dreams were interrupted by The Great War. It’s made me realise the freedoms women have attained since then and what has facilitated those freedoms.
I suppose, in some way, the war itself played its part. With men away fighting, women took on a different role; ‘women’s work’ a term spoken in derision, work of little importance or value in the world of men, took on a new meaning. Women began to feel their power, and it’s no accident that the Representation of the People’s Act that gave the vote to women over 30 years old if they held certain property rights, was passed in 1918 – one hundred years ago. Women’s suffrage, so bitterly fought for, had taken its first tentative steps.
But there are other, smaller innovations that have changed a woman’s life beyond our grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s imaginations. I suppose the greatest freedom women have gained is the right to not have children. By this I mean the contraceptive pill, legal abortion, and the illegality of rape in marriage – indeed it wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that rape in marriage was seen as a crime against the person. Where my grandmother was one of a family of nine, her mother died young possibly as a result of too many pregnancies leaving her age seventeen to bring up her siblings, families now tend to be if not planned exactly, then smaller, healthier, better fed, and more affordable.
And then there’s the matter of time. Did my grandmother or her mother have time to write blogs or books, or paint, as I have time to do? They were never idle. From lighting the range at five o’ clock in the morning to falling into bed at night, they worked at cooking, baking, washing, mangling, ironing, starching, mending and making-do, sewing, darning, turning cuffs and collars, knitting, cleaning, polishing, sweeping, bottling, pickling, plucking fowl, teaching their children these skills, and any of a hundred other domestic chores with their little ones underfoot. Even Sundays, a day of rest, was taken up with church or chapel.
Which brings me to those smaller innovations. I can remember as a toddler standing on a stool with my mother’s copper stick in my hands and the steam rising from the boiling copper, ducking the washing under the soapy water and stirring it all around while my mother dragged out heavy clothes to put them through the mangle. Colours and whites done separately and all done on a Monday and pray it didn’t rain or there was wet washing hanging around for days. No health and safety in those days. I can remember when I was older, struggling to turn the mangle while she fed the sheets through the rollers and watching the water stream back into the bubbling copper.
Now, I throw a load of dirty linen into a drum, chuck in some soap and turn a knob. Two or three hours later, it’s spun dry ready for hanging out or if I had one, into the tumble dryer. That’s the best part of a day’s work done in two minutes of my time two or three times a week. Tuesday’s ironing has virtually disappeared with the introduction of easy-care fabrics. No heavy cotton sheets or shirts that took ages to dry and almost as long to iron or press using an iron hot from the fire and a wet tea-towel.
Cooking must have taken most of every afternoon to get a meal on the table for when the man of the house came home from work. In my early marriage days I would begin dinner at about 3.30pm for 6pm. One of the greatest boons to my grandmother must have been the coming of town gas and the installation of a gas cooker, so she didn’t have to fight the range in the living room. Add to that the advent of convenience food – when was the last time I made pastry, for example? I can’t remember. Nowadays, I look at the clock about 5.30pm and wonder what we’ll have for tea. If I’ve been engrossed in writing, some days, it can be freezer, microwave – done!
I didn’t have a fridge for the first four years of my marriage, in fact my first fridge was my grandmother’s in 1972, after she died. Before that, I shopped daily as women would have done before me. Grocer, greengrocer, butcher, hardware shop, chemist, draper, harberdasher… and few women had cars at their disposal, so it was carrying heavy shopping or hanging bulging bags over bicycle handlebars. No once a week to the supermarket and get everything in one go or on-line shopping from my armchair.
And take vacuum cleaners. Before the advent of such things, the recognised way of cleaning a carpet, if you were fortunate enough to have a carpet, was sprinkling them with used tealeaves and then brushing them with a stiff brush into a dustpan on your hands and knees – housemaid’s knee was a real and painful condition.
I count myself very lucky that these innovations have made my life so much easier and given me so much more leisure, and yet they’ve had their downsides. By releasing women from household slavery, they have made them available for work outside the home. While a good thing in many ways for personal development, this has presented new challenges. Juggling work and home and children can be daunting. Like most women today, I’ve done it – I was a single parent working full-time and it’s hard. Juggling elderly parents, children, and work with hands slippery with guilt at doing none of the jobs properly is no fun. Is life meant to be fun? Now there’s a question…
And I feel sure there has been an adverse effect on our children. It’s that word ‘time’ again. Modern life is no less busy than that of our forebears, and I can’t help feeling that some of our social problems are down to a second generation of having parents who now find both are obliged to work full time to pay the mortgage, rent, and bills. The time to play and tell stories, to teach, to listen, to talk while doing the household chores is a precious and often overlooked necessity. Whilst there is no doubt women have gained freedoms at which their grandparents would be astounded, they have perhaps exchanged one set of bonds for another.
‘It is a kindness that the mind is free to go where it pleases.’ Maybe, after all, freedom is a state of mind, not of body.
The Dandelion Clock, a World War One love story, inspired by my grandparents’ lives, should be available at the special pre-order price of 99p/99c by Saturday 28th. Royalties until November 11th, Remembrance Centenary Day will be donated to https://SoldiersCharity.org and www.thebrooke.org/get-involved/every-horse-remembered to honour the many millions of men, horses, mules, and donkeys who didn’t come home. #everyhorse