Friday , April 19 2024
There's much to admire in the oral histories, captured at the last possible moment.

Book Review: Singled Out – How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War by Virginia Nicholson

I should have loved Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out. I love reading about, and then getting to write about in reviews like this one, women pioneers, women successes, women who beat all of the odds. And there are hundreds of stories like that here: Beatrice Gordon Holmes, suffragette, founder of the Association of Shorthand Writers and Typists, and tremendously successful city businesswoman; the middle-class young lady Victoria Alexandrina Drummond, who against fervent opposition became a marine engineer and in 1940 worked her ship to safety and won the Lloyd's war medal for bravery at sea; Mary Milne, who became matron of St Mary's Paddington, known, unusually for a woman in that role, for her sympathetic handling of trainees and junior staff.

But there are two reasons why, while glad to have read it, I thought that Singled Out was as a book something less as a whole than the sum of its parts. One isn't, perhaps, Nicholson's fault. She charts, fairly enough, the astonishing public hostility against these women – the Daily Mail figures prominently here; Lord Northcliffe, its owner, publicly referred to "Britain's problem with two million superfluous women". Plus ca change… Then there are authors such as Walter M Gallichan, who in The Great Unmarried (1916) wrote of the "modern woman":

Ideas are seething in her busy little brain. She is desperately intellectual. One day she tells you that she is prepared to die for the cause of Women's Suffrage. Next week she will be immersed in economics, or vegetarianism, or free love… 'I don't mean to marry,' she says, with a ring of disdain/ 'I want to live my own life…. She tried to disguise her sex attractions by dressing dowdily, neglecting her hair, wearing square-toed boots, and assuming inelegant poses.

It is souring to read such stuff; women being blamed for being in circumstances that were no choice of their own (they hadn't even had the choice of the politicians who took Britain into the war). You can't help getting angry (and reminded of all of the similar junk still thrown around today, often in the same places). Maybe there needed to be a taster here, but perhaps there's more than is needed.

The second problem is clearly Nicholson's – one of structure. There isn't a very clear one: we swing back and forth from the working classes to the privileged, revisit some women several times, such as the hugely impressive archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson and the writer Vera Brittain, but I never really had a sense of where we were going, or why. And I'm not quite sure why we have to visit the horror of the trenches in the first chapter. Certainly, this was reflected back to the women, but surely that could come through their stories, rather than the men's.

Nonetheless, there's a lot to admire here – and particularly the oral histories, which Nicholson has captured at the last possible moment (many of her interviewees being around the 100 mark). She's great at painting short pictures of ordinary, extraordinary lives, such as that of Olive Wakeham, born in 1907, who spent much of her career as a nursery nurse, since her family couldn't pay for teacher training, was the centre of the lives of many of her 28 first cousins, then ended up as president of the Devon County Association for the Blind, and an MBE.

Then there's Evelyn Symmonds, who got her first job in 1922 at the age of 14, in the Post Office making her a "Civil Servant", a source of pride, then she was gradually promoted, passing exams despite very basic education, and after 30 years was an executive officer in the Accountant General's Department, retiring at 60 after 45 years in the post office. She told Nicholson: "We used to on holidays and please ourselves. We had good money, and I loved my job. I've thoroughly enjoyed life, I must admit…"

And the stark facts of the story are powerful in themselves. In 1911 there were already 664,000 more women than men in Britain – because girl babies are tougher and men were more likely to emigrate to the colonies. And in 1917 you can only admire both the courage and the clearsightedness of the senior mistress of the Bournemouth High School for Girls who stood before the assembled sixth form and told them: "Only one out of ten of you girls can ever hope to marry. This is not a guess of mine. It is a statistical fact. Nearly all of the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can." By the 1921 census her words were born out – there were 19,803,022 women in England and Wales and only 18,082,220 males. And this in a world where at the turn of the century less than 30% of women had jobs – and virtually all of these in the traditional housework, childcare or factory roles.

Some of the stories about the difficulties of life "without a man" too are jaw-dropping – although given the social trends at least in America, worth repeating for a reminder of the horrors of moral policing. In the mid 1920s, aged about 27, Winifred Holtby took a middle-aged friend, matron of a celebrated public boys' school, to the theatre. At midnight, after a long play, they had an hour to wait on an unheated train platform, so they went to the Station Hotel. But the manager, summoned by the waiter, explained not only could they not have a drink, but they couldn't stay. There was an unequivocal rule: "Ladies not admitted unless accompanied by a Gentleman." Holtby later lamented that she hadn't thought to grab a friendly porter for the role, but instead: "We walked up and down the bleak, chill, draughty platform until our train arrived – twenty minutes late. Next day my companion was in bed with a bad cold and acute rheumatism."

Of course there was also the issue of sex, or the lack thereof. Almost nothing was mentioned in print at the time, but Nicholson has found a rich seam of material in the private letters sent to birth control pioneer Marie Stopes – whose books on sex were very firmly addressed to married women. You've got to cry for the agony of these women tormentedly asking "what do I do about sexual feelings?", "will masturbation damage me?"  Even Stopes – no doubt aware of the need to preserve her reputation – is chilling in her responses. Generally she advised finding something else to fill the time – word, knitting?!, and offered earnest hopes of finding a man to marry even when there was clearly little chance thereof.

But it is pleasing to find the women who swept through the single life with polished certainty. 'Rani' Cartwright, daughter of a Siamese mother and an English father, escaped a convent school to become a well-known model, resolutely declining throughout her life any thought of marriage. In her 90s in a retirement home in Sussex, she told Nicholson: "Until you live with a person you don't really know their habits, do you? … I didn't want to be tied down in anything." Una Dillon, whose sister Tess became head of physics at Queen Elizabeth College, founded Dillon's Bookshop which "cornered the market in teacher training manuals and educational texts."

Florence White, galvanised by the death in her community of three single sisters who'd spent their lives working in a mill, who all died before the pension age of 65, founded the National Spinsters Pensions Association, which in 1940 saw insured spinsters over 60 getting 10 shillings a week, after a long campaign – not as much as she'd hoped for, but a triumph nonetheless.

And Singled Out suggests lots of potential future reading, and reminded me of some books I read long ago that I must revisit. I've noted down:

* Water Under the Bridge by Amy Gomm, aged nearly 90: a memoir of a woman born in 1899 in a poor but religious family in which the girls were only allowed to work in the family laundry business at home. But three of them were left alone when their mother died in 1916, and she briefly got a job at the Coop, but was "let go" in 1920 so a man could have the job. But her sisters club together four years' savings and sent her for a term of office training, in which she crammed a year's worth of work. So in 1921 she set off for a secretarial career in London, book-keeping, tea-making and logging measurements for a chain of outfitters. "For a young single woman in 1921 this represented independence and victory."

* Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926), about an apparently conventional upper class woman of 28 who takes a remote cottage on her own in the Chilterns, joins a witches coven and has a jolly old time., explaining to the reader: "That's why we become witches, to show our scorn of pretending that life's a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure… to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others…"

* My Life in Service the autobiography of Rose Harrison, who became personal maid to the formidable Lady Astor for 35 years, travelling the world, meeting high society – quite an achievement for a "poor lass from Yorkshire"

* Life Errant 1935, the autobiography of Cicley Hamilton, " a writer, campaigner for women's rights, teacher and journalist".

* A Woman Alone, in Kenya, Uganda and the Belgian Congo by Etta Close, 1924 (which pretty well speaks for itself in the title).

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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