Skip to main content
Read page text

S O C I A L S T U D I E S

Out in the cold The wasteful exclusion of women from roles in the global economy

JANE ROBINSON

DOUBLE LIVES A history of working motherhood in modern

Britain HELEN MCCARTHY 560pp. Bloomsbury. £30. THE DOUBLE X ECONOMY The epic potential of empowering women

LINDA SCOTT 384pp. Faber. £18.99.

AT A RECENT EVENT celebrating the centenary of women working in law, I overheard someone at a neighbouring table ask a distinguished London solicitor how easy it had been for her to join the professional elite. Not easy at all. She had had to be persuaded to apply for a senior partnership, feeling an impostor despite decades of experience. “Women still have to be asked to dance”, she said, a little wistfully. Plenty of working mothers today will recognize that feeling of being a guest at their own party – or even at the wrong party altogether, at work when they should be with the family and vice versa.

This is a dislocation Helen McCarthy knows well. At the heart of her thoughtful and impeccably researched book is the dual conceit of women not only living double lives as working mothers, split between home and office, but also as opposing societal ciphers. From the Victorian period onwards they have been cast as heroes and villains at once; homemakers and home-breakers, sponging dependents and strident breadwinners, models and transgressors. McCarthy moves us through a century and a half of commentary on British working women to illustrate their quest to “become authors of their own lives” and so resolve the tensions between experience and expectation.

Double Lives: A history of working motherhood in modern Britain can get sluggish: there are 537 pages to get through, including more than a hundred pages of notes, and McCarthy sometimes loses sight of her subject in crowds of single women and childless wives. But persevering is well worthwhile. This is more than a history book; it’s a narrative of paradox

30

and compromise and of the struggle to reconcile independence with obedience. Shifting populations of sweated labourers, war workers, piece-workers, career women and part-timers come and go, some of them longing to spend time with their children, others desperate to be out and earning, others yearning for both. As the years go by, Commissions, Inquiries and legislation attempt to address the conditions of women working away from home, and stouthearted social reformers, most of them women, pop up briskly now and then (too briskly for me) to make studies and recommendations.

There are some striking set pieces, gathered from Mass Observation exercises, newspaper features and surveys. We meet the lonely Birmingham woman who, sometime in the 1930s, was forced to give up a job she loved because of marriage (to a policeman):

I missed the company, the girls, the laughter … I used to walk up to Sparkbrook and see my husband on point duty – give him a sweet … then come back … I would have loved to have gone to work but my husband said the day you go to work is the day I stop at home so that was that. Expediency changes expectations. McCarthy makes the point that the daily reality of female factory workers in the mid-nineteenth century ran parallel to the idealistic social norm of the “angel in the house”, who fulfilled her domestic duty by perching in a drawing room to wait for an eligible suitor to emerge from behind the chaise longue and lead her to her destiny (which was to reprise her duties in his home). This sort of doublethink was only possible if those who could afford to be angels kept within their own pretty bubbles, while those who needed a job to survive – and to keep the economy going – got on with things behind the scenes.

All those off-stage females toiling at their needles or hammering out chain-links presented a problem, however. Overworked mothers, so popular thinking went, produced suboptimal children, and suboptimal children would not grow up to build empires or win wars. State intervention was necessary after the First World War to ensure that mothers invested their energies in bringing up robust offspring, or that children were better cared for while their mothers were at work. Under the provisions of the Maternity and Child Welfare Act of 1918, for example, local authorities routinely offered clinics, day nurseries and health visitors to their local communities for the

TLS

Look and Learn illustration of women working as file cutters for Cammell Laird marine engineers, 1917

“Overworked mothers, so popular thinking went, produced suboptimal children, and suboptimal children would not grow up to build empires or win wars

Jane Robinson is the author of Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders: The pioneering adventures of the first professional women, published earlier this year. Her next book is a short biography of Josephine Butler, due to be published this autumn first time. While both world wars offered previously unimaginable opportunities for working women, however, socio-economic pressures afterwards – most obviously in the form of returning soldiers in need of jobs – meant that many doors were not only closed but slammed shut again.

In the 1970s, the cult of the Superwoman, laid at the kitten-heeled feet of Shirley Conran, led to yet more stress. Famously, she advised that “life is too short to stuff a mushroom”, and tried to show how balancing family duty and “me-time” was perfectly achievable with the right attitude. And so we found ourselves thinking: if I were better organized, or my children were more patient, or my husband were willing to wrestle with the Hoover occasionally, or I had an understanding boss, then I, too, could have it all. Why can’t I make it happen?

Linda Scott has the answer. You can’t make it happen because you are institutionally impotent. The Double X Economy: The epic potential of empowering women, combines a searing analysis of gender bias in the global economy with an agenda for reform. The book’s title is a term Scott coined some years ago to describe the systemic misogyny woven into the world’s financial fabric, and the latent force implicit in the productivity and spending power of more than half the human race. Her argument is that women are a squandered resource; investment in their individual and collective futures will lead to peace and prosperity for us all, but it needs to happen now.

Scott knows her stuff. She is a prominent thinker and doer in the field of international development for women; an academic, consultant, adviser and fieldworker, who founded the Power Shift Forum for Women in the World Economy in 2013 and is collaborating with various multinationals. She is not a historian. Where McCarthy gently sits her readers in front of a window and invites them to ponder the long view, Scott angrily holds up a mirror (no time to sit down) and challenges us to change what we see. According to Scott, the sort of slow progress towards choice outlined by McCarthy is an illusion. Behind the façade is a stinking, parasitical economy where men are still the hunter-gatherers, a fiscal band of brothers using sexist language and coercive control to exclude women. After learning that men currently hold 99 per cent of the procurement contracts in the world and consequently control 99 per cent of international trade, and that they own 80 per cent of food-producing land and, in many countries, own women as well, I was reminded of the economist Margaret Miller’s comment in 1927 that, “women [are] as effectively barred from earning a livelihood … as if femininity were an incurable disease with which they had been born”. Nearly a century on, economic disadvantage can still be a question of genetics.

Like all effective activists, Scott offers solutions as well as outrage. She and a team recently set up a project to supply sanitary pads to young women in Ghana. Why is this an economic issue? Because without proper protection, one’s menstrual status becomes a public matter. They are thus deprived of self-possession – which in turn deprives them of the self-direction and self-confidence necessary for prosperity. Not to mention that girls must miss several days of school each month, which severely limits their education, and risk their health by using hastily washed rags. In certain cultures, Scott reminds us, menarche signals young women’s “ripeness” to men who believe it their right (or duty) to rape them, or to contract a remunerative marriage. This erodes the girls’ dignity and opportunities until, economically and socially, they simply disappear.

The Double X Economy is vital in both senses of the word: lively and essential. I found myself identifying with Scott when she encountered the rank sexism of a group of male economists at a meeting in Singapore. “I now felt I had been living for years in a warm bath of mutual support and was suddenly left standing, cold and shaking, without a towel.” Good history – such as McCarthy’s Double Lives – can be like a warm bath: stimulating, even fortifying. Scott’s book is an altogether different proposition: it should leave one feeling shocked and shaking with rage. n

SEPTEMBER 4, 2020

I D A / R E U T E R S

F L O R

S O U T H

H E A L T H

I S T

B A P T

;

I M A G E S

I D G E M A N

/ B R

I O N

C O L L E C T

/ E L G A R

L E A R N

A N D

L O O K

©

My Bookmarks


    Skip to main content