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Julie Waterson

Continuity and change

(July 1995)

From Socialist Review 188, July/August 1995.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working Class Women 1890–1940
Women and Families: An Oral History 1940–1970
Elizabeth Roberts
Blackwell £12.99 each

It is refreshing to read a book that cuts through the picture of the family as an unchanging entity encompassing patriarchal attitudes and a lifetime of servitude for women.

Elizabeth Roberts debunks these myths, often accepted in feminist writings, through her oral study of family life in the three Lancashire towns of Barrow, Lancaster and Preston from 1890–1970.

Although she describes herself as a feminist, her studies led her to draw far from feminist conclusions:

‘There was little feeling among the majority of the women interviewed that they or their mothers had been particularly exploited by men, at least not by working class men ... women who were conscious of their exploitation interpreted it in terms of class conflict.’

It is precisely through Roberts’ work on these families that we witness the ever changing nature of the family – its relationships and attitudes to sex, work, education and social life. The picture is one of continuity and change. The family survives with the help of the welfare state, with education and health reforms ensuring the well being of family members. The onus on the family for child rearing has remained the same from 1890 through 1970 and until today.

It is the taking care of children that dominates and shapes the practice and attitudes of family members. What affects that is the economic standing of the family, and which of its members work and for how long. In stark contrast to feminist theory, Roberts points out that the majority of women held ‘power’ inside the family and this was not related to her position in the workforce, but due mainly to personality.

Although work did affect how housework was done, Roberts notes that in Preston, where the women worked full time, men were central to helping in the home unlike the other areas where women worked part time or not at all.

Large families (one woman had 21 kids!) and dire poverty were the scene at the turn of the century. Even when women worked, from their homes or in the mills, housework was time consuming – with some practices, like donkey-stoning, surviving into the 1960s. The advent of household implements like vacuum cleaners and washing machines transformed women’s lives. Nationally 3.6 percent of families had washing machines in 1942, 29 percent in 1958 and 64 percent in 1969.

The building of council houses was revolutionary! One man remembers being rehoused onto a council estate in Lancaster in 1936 and the rota for relatives and friends to use the bath.

The advent of more readily available contraception meant that limiting the size of your family was uncomplicated and realisable. As Roberts points out, ‘A woman’s job was not so likely to affect her fertility rate as her fertility rate was likely to affect her employment.’

The overwhelming changes took place inside of the family because of outside factors – women entering the workforce en masse. It brought women financial independence and confidence. One woman remembers going to work in Vickers during the war and skipping all the way home with her £5 wage packet – she’d previously earned 15 shillings as a domestic worker. The postwar boom and the advent of the welfare state sucked more women than ever into the workforce.

Whilst escaping work was seen as emancipation for women in the 1890s working 60 hour shifts in the mills, getting a job was perceived as liberating for women in the 1950s and 1960s. Most women spoke fondly of the companionship that work brought and a couple of women worked just to get out of the house. Accompanying these massive changes in work and home patterns was an ideological sea-change regarding sex, children and divorce.

The more affluent position of working class people and the shorter working week meant there was more time to spend together and to afford consumer goods and have holidays. In 1951 only one house in 15 had a television, by 1975 this had shot up to nine in every ten. In 1945 there was one car to every 32 people, this has risen to one for every 4.7 people in 1970.

This changed relationships – particularly in respect to children. Roberts could say that at the turn of the century ‘there was no division between the world of childhood and the adult world of work’. This had radically changed by the 1940s onwards.

Although marriage, and increasingly weddings, were still a major feature in people’s lives the expectations of children by 1970 were much different from their parents. This was in all spheres of life, from jobs to sex and marriage.

Through Roberts’ books we witness working class family life not as the false myth peddled by the right wing defenders of the family of mum, dad and two kids living happily ever after. But neither is it the crude model of brutal patriarchal domination presented to us by feminists. It is, instead, a complex combination of changing relationships shaped by an ever changing capitalist system which the family is there to serve.

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Last updated: 20.11.2012