It’s been quite some time since I wrote anything here, but the article I wrote about my mothers inadvertent feminism, which was inspired by the skewed and inaccurate reporting of feminism over the ages, compounded by a comment an editor from the Guardian made has forced my hand into putting it here, so that anyone who watches the video I intend on making about this whole issue can read it if they so wish.
I knew the chances of my article being published were minimal, so I’m not upset it wasn’t. Though the editor who wrote to me did seem to completely misunderstand what I was trying to achieve. That he was male may or may not have had something to do with it. But it was this comment:
“the centenary of women getting the vote has been covered quite heavily this week so I don’t think we’d be looking to do too much more for a while”
that did annoy me. So, see below the article. I could have written something similar about my own life, because the assumptions about women of my generation are as inaccurate and assumptive, but it’s easier to write about someone who isn’t you with a greater level of objectivity. Anyway, this is it:
My mother – the inadvertent feminist
My mother. Mary, was born in 1923 in a small town in Yorkshire. The only child of a post office worker and her stay at home mother. Her father had yearnings towards literary greatness, and was eternally resentful that his family had not allowed him to go to university. He knew numerous artists and writers of the time, many of them household names (Walter De La Mere and H G Wells for example), and ran literary and artistic groups in Bradford. My mother never liked him. She was resentful for some reason, but she was far more like him than her mother, and his experience drove her towards fulfilling her ambitions.
She was an intelligent, if plodding child (by her own admission), who wanted to go to Oxford. As you might imagine, getting into Oxford from such a background, and as a woman, was not easy to achieve. But achieve it she did. She read English Literature at St Anne’s college, Oxford in the war years, studying under Tolkein, amongst others.
She met and married my father in the late 40s. He had a troubled past, not relevant here, but it did mean it was hard for him to earn enough for the family to survive in the early years. So my mother got a job in the House of Commons working as a secretary and PA for various Labour MPs and cabinet ministers. This in itself was an achievement, but a greater one was that when I was born she took me with her, in a carrycot and later with colouring books to keep me amused. I have many fond (and some rather less fond) memories of my numerous hours spent there.
When we read of women of that time, it would appear barely any of them worked, and those who did were largely in menial jobs which paid peanuts. Admittedly, working in Parliament did not pay especially well, but we would do well to remember that not all women followed the supposed path of the day. That she was able to take a small child with her is remarkable. No one commented on it or saw it in negative terms. It was simply embraced and accepted.
When I was 7 she moved to Camden Social Services, where she remained for the rest of her working life, rising quickly to a management position, and being valued and appreciated, as well as being quietly powerful. Alongside this she worked with the terminally ill, was professionally involved in supporting those who suffered the fallout of both the Marchioness and King’s Cross disaster, and got a Masters in statistics.
As a result my experience of being a woman was (and I suspect remains) different from most. An only child, like my mother, and also shy, yet experiencing what a woman could achieve. Like me she was never much motivated by money, but never cowed or repressed by anyone. It has, in part at least, made me who I am, and my mother’s inadvertent but impressive feminism has, from the start, caused me to believe what is actually true: that I am equal to any man, and should be judged on my behaviour as a human rather than because of my sex. I have rarely been subject to misogyny, though when I have I’ve had no qualms about questioning it and demanding it should cease. I’m aware of the glass ceiling when it comes to employment, which is one of the reasons I chose to work for myself from my thirties onwards. It’s important to remember we are not only the product of our society, but what we’ve been immersed in as we grow.
I want to mark the life of this extraordinary woman in this important year for women. She sadly died in 2009, but was born only 5 years after women got the vote. Her life has much to teach. When I read the numerous articles about women over the years, and what they did and didn’t do, my mother always comes to mind, along with my own experiences which often contradict historical and current beliefs regarding women.