I don’t consider myself to be a women’s libber, and had I lived in the early 1900s, I’m not sure I’d have had the courage of the likes of Mary Macarthur or Emily Pankhurst, but I have always been keenly aware of women being viewed as second-class citizens. I didn’t question it – it’s how things were. Men went to work and earnt the money to support the family, so it’s inevitable that their role in life, their work, was deemed most important.
Little worth was placed, and in my view is still placed on the work women do at home. There are other ways of contributing to a household than cash, and raising children to be decent, rounded individuals is probably the most important job anyone can do, be they male or female – our future depends on our children.
I’ve blogged about this before, so I won’t bore you with the ills in our society that come from ‘bad’ parenting – we are now two generations in and the problem won’t get better until young people about to embark on families are taught how to parent. I’m not judging here; I wasn’t a good parent, and being forced to bring up young children alone, I understand the challenges all too well. The support of a parenting group would have helped me greatly.
It was researching for my novels that opened my eyes to the history of inequality that women have suffered over the centuries, and indeed still do in some countries. You may be shocked to know that even in Britain, rape in marriage was not illegal until the 1970s. Well, I was shocked. Apparently, taking the marriage vows lost you your rights over your own body.
There are still men who are threatened by successful women. An article I read, sorry I can’t remember the details, was about a bishop who was telling women they shouldn’t go to university in case they became more intelligent than their husbands.
For one thing, you can’t teach intelligence, so the bishop clearly wasn’t. You teach knowledge, and it’s an inadequate man who’s afraid of knowledge.
Go back to the 1800s, and everything a woman took to a marriage became her husband’s possession. Before the Marriage Act, even her children belonged to him, and she had no rights over them. He could beat her, lock her up, rape her, have mistresses, and could throw her out without a penny, refusing her access to her children, for any reason he chose. There was no such thing as divorce, so she was unable to remarry – should she wish to repeat the experience…
In the 1900s, women were working in sweated trades and earning a pittance. It was actually illegal to pay a woman as much as a man for fear they’d take men’s jobs. In the chainmaking industry in the Black Country, the size of chain a woman was allowed to make was limited – the excuse was her body couldn’t take the weight of the heavier hammers. The truth was, they were paid by the weight of chain produced, and a man who made one large link that took twenty minutes could earn as much as a woman who worked a seventy hour week, making fiddly small chain as well as looking after her family. The price paid for a hundredweight of chain was the same.
This was the situation that Mary Macarthur sought to change, when in 1910, she persuaded the women of Cradley Heath to strike for two and a half pence an hour – double their current rate of pay when factory owners refused to implement Trade Board recommendations. That’s old pence, mind. And as many were homeworkers, they had to pay for their own fuel for their forges, and a middleman who outsourced work from the factories. If they earnt three shilling and sixpence a week, they were doing well. (That’s seventeen and a half new pence a week.)
The strike lasted ten weeks and donations to support the women poured in from all over the country. The union involved was able to pay each woman four shillings a week while they were on strike. Eventually, the factory owners caved in to the Trade Board demands and agreed to increase the wages.
It was this strike, this mobilisation of women, that began the movement for the vote, and equality of pay that we enjoy today – mostly. There are still those who seek to keep a women ‘in her place’. A woman’s place is wherever she wants to be, whoever she wants to be, and doing whatever she wants to do, and making her own choices. Give her that freedom, and she will be fulfilled. Give her that freedom, and she will love you for it.
My work in progress, The Chainmakers’ Daughter, was inspired by Mary Macarthur’s efforts on behalf of working women and chronicles the life of a young woman growing up in the Black Country in the 1900s and the choices she is forced to make.
Fortunately, attitudes have changed even during my lifetime, and I count myself fortunate to now be able to follow my twin passions of painting and writing. Today’s young women have even more choices. Don’t waste them, girls.
The first draft of the first couple of chapters of The Chainmakers’ Daughter can be read at http://www.facebook.com/TheChainmakersDaughter
Interested in reading my other novels? http://author.to/RebeccaBryn