Does history repeat itself? ‘Women’s Lives’ by Jen Newby hits the bookshops

November 2011 saw the publication of a great new addition to the bookshelves of those of us who long to know more about how our female ancestors lived their lives and experienced the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Women’s Lives Researching Women’s Social History 1800–1939 (Pen and Sword Books, £12.99), written by Jennifer Newby, Editor of Family History Monthly, offers fascinating insights into the world of our female ancestors , examining not just their apparently undocumented  lives but their active roles in history.  Focusing on the 19th and early 20th centuries, this book takes the fascinating research she does for her  blog  further, allowing  us to take advantage of the many hours she has spent at The National Archives painstakingly piecing together the lives of so-called ‘invisible’ women, millions of whom had to work in the most lowly occupations (many of the more fulfilling ones being closed off to them) to support large families.

There are individual chapters on domestic servants, aristocrats, criminals, factory workers, middle class women and agricultural labourers. Engaging case studies of celebrities, aristocrats and obscure but feisty women are presented alongside practical guidance and hints and tips for researching women in your family. Having had a chance to read it I can heartily recommend it as a present for anyone interested in the role of women in the history of the past 200 years –whether feminist, family historian or both – or simply for yourself. Full of wonderful illustrations it is a book to read cover to cover or dip into.

I have been lucky enough to interview Jen about her book for Women’s Views on News, where she reflected on the inspiring women she met in her research and the relevance of our female ancestor’s history to the world women inhabit today. She also kindly agreed to offer an extended version for my blog.

Hi Jen. Thank you so much for giving me an interview for my blog. First question –   in your research for your book were there stories of individuals that particularly resonated with you as a 21st century woman?

Jen Newby, author of Women's Lives

Definitely! And there were so many interesting stories and funny or touching quotations from these women’s memoirs that it was really difficult deciding which stories to include. 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 loved reading memoirs of domestic servants, who regularly took a sharp, perceptive view of their employers, like Edith Hall, who was determined to get beyond working as a skivvy in service and in factories during the 1920s. I admired the working class women I came across who seemed so eager to gain an education – women like Dolly Davy, a teenage Yorkshire woman who was incensed that she was allowed to dust her employer’s books, but never to read them. We often think of servants as cowed and slavish, but there were plenty of bright young women, who would have been doctors and teachers today, but had few options for education back then. I think I felt closer to these women, who sought to better themselves, than perhaps middle class female university students, who were largely there because their families could afford to pay the fees.

While some women, like suffragette Margaret Wynne were told by their family that “a bad husband was better than none”, others carved out their own lives. Rosina Harrison, a working class girl from Ripon, became lady’s maid to Nancy Astor and travelled the world. Eventually she chose her career over her fiancé of nine years. And there’s Elizabeth Ness Macbean Ross, the young Scottish doctor who headed off to become a doctor to Persian mountain tribes in the 1890s.

The woman I’m probably most inspired by is Lady Colin Campbell. Her husband infected her with syphilis and they divorced in 1885 (he, claiming that she had committed adultery with three other men), creating a huge scandal. Despite being called a ‘harlot’ in the press and having her life blown apart, she acted with great decorum and went on to become a journalist and art critic – even writing a book on etiquette. How many modern female ‘celebrities’ have equal dignity?

You stress how important it was to you to include women’s own ‘voice’ in your work. We know of the most famous campaigners for women’s rights, but how easy was it to find women who had worked for equality out of the limelight? Were women actively discouraged from telling their story?

I felt that women’s struggle for the vote has already been told by far more knowledgeable historians (like Jill Liddington in her excellent Rebel Girls) and writers than me, so I covered this only briefly. Rather than focus on the suffragettes, I wanted to show how ordinary women felt about the (to us) deeply unfair conditions they lived in and fought to gain independence. I wanted to reveal what life was like for the women who benefitted from gaining the vote – the scullery maids who spent their days in airless kitchens scraping potatoes, the agricultural labourers weeding fields and stone picking in all weather, the middle class women expected to stay and home and wait for a husband to arrive.

There’s a huge amount of original material, particularly memoirs of domestic servants. Some of the most fun were Dolly Davey’s A Sense of Adventure and Edith Hall’s Canary Girls and Stockpots. I also found Manchester Made Them, Katherine Chorley’s memoirs of her middle class upbringing in Manchester illuminating and it expressed well the frustrations of an intelligent young woman kept at home. There were original accounts from agricultural workers and factory women interviewed by government commissioners in parliamentary reports, and I enjoyed reading the testimonies of female criminals.

Women weren’t necessarily actively discouraged from telling their stories, but I think that most felt that they were ‘ordinary’ and no one would want to know about their lives. But there have always been women keen to tell their stories, like Mary Ashford, a servant in the late 18th century, who wrote her memoirs; or Hannah Cullwick, a maid of all work who created a fascinating diary and memoir, encouraged by her middle class lover.

When you were undertaking the research for the book were you struck by any issues faced by women in the 19th and early 20th C women that still affect the lives of women across the world today?

I found it incredibly scary to think that if I had lived 150 years ago, as a working class girl leaving school (if my parents could afford to pay for me to go) I would have had the choice of domestic service or factory work, perhaps a job in a shop if I was lucky. I think we forget that while things have moved on for us, millions of women all over the world still have these limited choices. So, when I was 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. While living in China I saw firsthand a similar division between rich and poor. The students I taught English, whose parents paid for their education contrasted with the teenagers working in shops, or, worst, the young girls who sat in the street corner brothels (thinly disguised as hair dressing parlours) all over the small town I lived in, who weren’t so lucky.

Closer to home, I felt that I was hyper-conscious of historic class distinctions while writing, and in some ways this hasn’t changed as much as we might think.  We can be as blinkered as Victorian ladies ‘visiting the poor’ to distribute patronising advice, which working class women put up with for a bit of charity money.

Why do you think it is important that we understand the roles our recent ancestors played in fighting for the rights we take for granted today?

I think that 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?).

Understanding how women lived in the past is essential to see how far we’ve come, but it 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 might have better education, but still relatively few women are in positions of power.

 Thanks Jen. The book really deserves to be a bestseller.

Women’s Lives is published by Pen and Sword and is available at £12.99 (ISBN 978 1848843684).


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2 Responses to Does history repeat itself? ‘Women’s Lives’ by Jen Newby hits the bookshops

  1. Enjoyed the review – looks like a fascinating read.

  2. Rivenrod says:

    What’s the hurry? It’s only 80 years since suffrage and everyone knows that women must wait patiently for men to screw things up right royally before they come along, grasp the nettle of responsibility, and sort everything out.

    Whilst there is some seriousness in my comment I must balance this view by saying that the world would indeed benefit from enabling anyone with ability. Putting aside any prurient desire that women should feature in positions of power more frequently, I’m afraid my negative experiences far outweigh the positive. It seems to me that often when a woman attains a certain power and authority, after a while something perverse takes over and she will scorn the natural ability that got her into that position in the first place. Whether its a personal flaw or pressure of society in general, some start to behave in a manner they think men behave and completely lose the plot. Some act out a peculiar pastiche of a power crazed, self exhalting, misandronist which only succeeds in getting everyone’s back up and dashing any corporate moral. When this particular perpetrator was dishonourably discharged she wailed to the rafters of the industrial tribunal that she was sexually discriminated against. Fortunately the Tribunal saw through her and passed in favour of the company on the basis that she was actually rubbish at managing people. That was in the early 90’s and things may well have changed now.

    Small examples to the negative I’m afraid. But, I’m adamant that with realism and an unequivocal belief that all genders are of equal status no matter what, both men and women might settle down to deal with things that are really important and bring their own distinct empathies to bear without fear of ridicule or condemnation.


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