Shattering the Crystal Ceiling

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So what happened next?

That’s the question I’m most often asked when I give talks on Bluestockings, my book about the first women to get to university. Once they completed their studies and were awarded their degrees, what did they do with themselves? The original hardback cover (left) pictures excited ingenues about to enter academe; how would they look a few years later, walking in the opposite direction towards a male-dominated world of work? Did their families claim them back, having had their fun, to resume domestic duties? Was the workplace ready for them? Did they marry, in defiance of the bluestocking stereotype? Perhaps they changed the world? Or was the whole experiment of educating young women merely an elaborate exercise in breeding white elephants?

51uODRCD-DL._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_Now that I have finished Hearts and Minds: Suffragists, Suffragettes and How Women Won the Vote (out next January,  https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1111210/hearts-and-minds/) I realise that similar questions arise in connection with enfranchising women. By the time the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed in December 1919, a minority of women were equipped with academic qualifications and with a vote – but what could they do with them?

My next book will attempt to find some answers. I’ll be celebrating the centenary of women’s lawful entry into the traditional professions in 2020, following the work and home lives of a handful of pioneers in each of the elite, crystal-ceilinged arenas of architecture, the church, engineering, law, and medicine – together with ground-breakers in academia and the media. I’ll explore what motivated them, what mattered to them, what their peers and the public thought of them, and what is their legacy for the working women of today.

It’s early days, but I’m already uncovering some wonderful characters. Maude Royden (1876-1956), for example, one of the founders of the campaign for women’s ordination. She was the youngest of 8 Liverpudlian children, a keen suffragist, inspirational public speaker and the first female Assistant Preacher at the City Temple in London. Starkie_Enid1Enid Starkie (1897-1970) was a fantastically eccentric academic (right, ex. http://www.ndbooks.com), a specialist in French Literature who bewildered her students at Oxford by dressing as a matelot for tutorials. Debutante Victoria Drummond (1894-1978, below, ex. wikipedia.org) was so determined to become a marine engineer that she took the necessary exam 37 times before passing, and then went on to serve at sea as a Chief Engineer during World War Two. Victoria_Drummond_1941Barrister Helena Normanton (1882-1957) was the first woman to prosecute in a murder case; Irish architect Eileen Gray (1878-1976) inspired Le Corbusier… and so on.

These might be comparatively well-known names; I am always eager to write about the unsung heroines of history, however, so am hoping to focus on women who have eluded the limelight in the past. With that in mind, could you contact me if you think I should know about any alumnae in your family, your archival collections or field of expertise? If you’re in one of these professions, I’d love to hear about your favourite female role models of that era. I’m looking for strong (but not necessarily high-profile) characters and surprising achievements; inspirational women who qualified in the 1920s and who through their own efforts and determination helped to shape the family and working lives of us all.tashalaw

You can contact me on jane@jane-robinson.com, or via my agent Veronique Baxter, David Higham Associates, 7th Floor, Waverley House, 7-12 Noel Street, London W1F 8GQ.

 

(right: no joke… ex. tashalaw.wordpress.com)

 

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Millicent Fawcett, Suffrage Heroine & Consummate Politician

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(Women’s Library)

It is wonderful news that there’s to be a statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett in London’s Parliament Square. Not only will it celebrate the life of a remarkable person, unjustly neglected in the past, but it’ll be a timely monument to the power of peaceful persuasion, solidarity across social, political and generational divides, and mutual support. Those are the things she and her colleagues – men and women together – stood for. Marched for. Died for, even. Maybe people will realise at last that there is a difference between militant suffragettes (the minority of activists) and non-militant suffragists like her, and appreciate that neither group could have won the vote without the other.  It’s particularly thrilling that she should be the first woman honoured in this way, given her lack of interest in personal celebrity. She played the long game with humility, good humour, acuity and – eventually – success.

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(Women’s Library)

Millicent Fawcett, nee Garrett (1847-1929), came from a fascinating and progressive family. She was brought up in Suffolk, the daughter of a pawnbroker turned maltster and ship-owner, and educated rather scantily at the ‘Academy for the Daughters of Gentlemen’ in Blackheath, London. She left at 15. Her sisters included Louisa, a member of the influential ‘Langham Place’ group of early feminists, and Elizabeth, who famously became the first woman Doctor to qualify in the UK.

At 18, Millicent married Henry Fawcett, an economist, academic and Liberal politician. He was blind and somewhat relied on his willing wife to act as an amanuensis. She continued to move in the radical circles inhabited by her family, and shared Henry’s interest in women’s rights. Her sister Elizabeth had presented the first massed petition for women’s suffrage to MP John Stuart Mill in 1866; their friend Emily Davies pioneered higher education for women and opened Girton College in 1869. Millicent herself supported the founders of Newnham College in Cambridge a few years later.

She became increasingly involved in the women’s suffrage campaign. Her talent for public speaking and administration shone through; she was a great tactician and diplomat, too, and in 1897 was appointed president of the newly-formed National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). People warmed to her. She was a terrific knitter and gleefully learned to ride a bicycle as soon as they came into fashion. She combined these unexpected enthusiasms with a clear-headed ability to prioritise issues, manage people and express herself engagingly and with authority. No less importantly, she had a healthy sense of fun and was an inveterate optimist. (Fun isn’t something traditionally associated with the suffrage campaign, more’s the pity; there’s plenty of it, however, if you know where to look.)

 FullSizeRender (1)        (Oldham Local Studies and Archives)

Millicent spent most of her career immersed in the practical and strategic complexities of winning the vote and changing the world. She realised the advantages of consolidation; of making progress by risking two steps forward then conceding a step back. Her most glorious achievement was her association with the Great Pilgrimage (see previous posts, and my book ‘Hearts and Minds’ when it comes out in January). After the six-week march was completed, she asked recalcitrant Prime Minister Asquith whether he would finally agree that women deserved to be called ‘people’, and so to be included in any future Representation of the People Act. Albeit reluctantly, he was forced to acquiesce. Women were people, too.

When I took part in the Women’s March last January, I thought of Millicent Fawcett as I walked through the streets of London with thousands of like-minded people. The atmosphere was so powerful, full of love, strength of spirit, shared intent. I can hardly wait to return next year to visit her statue and lay a posy of flowers in the suffragist colours – red, white and green – at her feet. I owe her that tribute, at least. We all do.

Marching through History

I’m sorry to have been away so long. I’ve been engrossed in writing and enslaved by a deadline I met just before Christmas. Just now I’ve been tackling the publicist’s author-information form for Hearts and Minds, my people’s history of the fight for the vote. At the heart of the book is the story of the Great Pilgrimage of 1913, when hundreds of women (and some men) took to the roads of Britain to march for six weeks in support of female emancipation. They were suffragists: the non-militant majority whose courage and adventurousness has been eclipsed by their more sensational sisters, the suffragettes.

 

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Caroline Watts’s ‘Bugler Girl’ design for the NUWSS (1908)

I’m getting this background publicity business done well in advance. An awkward job: it’s hard not to sound unbearably pompous when blaring your own trumpet and I’ll be glad when it’s done. Can anyone tell me how to be graceful while shamelessly bigging yourself up? Who does it well? I can do the reviews and the relevant experience bit, but ‘Tell us five interesting things about yourself’? I’ve left that one blank. I could mention being banned by the local library when I was seven for using a jam-tart as a bookmark – thus neatly combining my two favourite things in the world, food and words – and how that forced a love of book-collecting on me. Or that I’m heavily into Formula One, especially live races, despite being a middle-aged matron who’s a member of an Oxford SCR, sings in a very seemly chamber choir and drives a Volvo. Or that my cat Captain Oates types and sends emails. None of that’s going to cut it in the market-place, though. Best to let the book speak for itself. First-hand history is more fascinating than any glossy commentary.

 

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Oxford Journal Illustrated, July 1913

One of the questions on my publisher’s form intrigued me, however. ‘What do you feel most passionately about?’ it asked (or words to that effect). I immediately thought of what I’ll be doing this Saturday, 21 January. Along with millions of women and men around the world, I’ll be joining a march to mark the Presidential inauguration (https://www.womensmarchlondon.com). A similar event took place in Washington in 1913, organised by Alice Paul and campaigners for women’s suffrage in America to coincide with Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. The march on Saturday is in support of tolerance, compassion, diversity, freedom of expression and the power of love. As well as for us, I’ll be taking part in memory of my pilgrims, who came together from different backgrounds and generations to capture the hearts and minds of the country and its Parliament. In doing so they discovered the tradition of people-power and peaceful protest (think of the Jarrow marchers) that has been a hallmark of our society ever since – thank goodness.

There’s a direct link between the summer of 1913 and this wintry Saturday in January and it makes me prouder than I can say that I’ll be a part of it.

Happy Birthday, dear WI!

It’s been a busy week for everyone involved in the centenary of the Women’s Institute. I wasn’t fortunate enough to get through the ballot for the Garden Party on Tuesday 2nd June, and I couldn’t apply for the Albert Hall AGM as I was working with the U3A that day. But that doesn’t mean I’ve missed out on the excitement. My name must be lurking somewhere on a dusty list at the BBC and ITV: when there’s something going on with the WI, who’re you gonna call? I’m honoured that this week, at least, it’s been me.

Local BBC and independent radio stations have been eager to pick up the centenary story. It might have been nice had they covered it on their drive-time shows (with a nice cup of tea and a suitable cake) but hey, I don’t mind being bright and breezy on air at – what was it this morning, for BBC London? Six-thirty am, I seem to remember.

On Tuesday, the day of the Garden Party, I was summoned at two hours’ notice to Buckingham Palace to do a piece for the News at Ten. I’ve been peripherally involved with the media for ages now, but I still can’t quite get used to the last-minute, split-second nature of it all. I leapt on the train, my lunch half-munched, and found my way to ITV’s satellite-dish van in Green Park; meanwhile the newsroom had decided that it was too blustery to film outside (although right on cue, the sun came out as though someone had flicked a switch at 3 pm, when the Party was due to begin).

We eventually found an alternative venue for the interview – the gorgeous new library at LSE – and proceeded to film ten minutes or so of chat about the history of the WI, which was broadcast (cut, understandably, to a few seconds) that evening.

More radios the next day, and the next – I love it! Writing is such a solitary, physically passive sort of occupation. I grab any chance to get out and enthuse in public. And it feels such a privilege to be able to enthuse about the Women’s Institute, for which – as anyone who’s read A Force to be Reckoned With will know – I have unbounded admiration.

The television interview was different, but I have to say that most radio presenters tend to ask the same questions, and I thought it might be useful for those of you who are WI members involved with the local Press to know what those questions are. You’ve probably been asked them already, actually.

  1. Why Jam and Jerusalem?
  2. Still Jam and Jerusalem?
  3. Anything else apart from Jam and Jerusalem?
  4. Did the WI do anything before the Calendar Girls came along?
  5. Why are all WI members old?
  6. Why aren’t men allowed?

That just about sums it up, I think. I really hope this week will have finally changed the public’s mind about our radical, courageous, fun-loving and passionate organisation.

That would be the best 100th birthday-present of all.

An exercise in trumpet-blowing

My last post was about critics and reviews. Here’s a sequel: In the Family Way is not out until Thursday this week (5 Feb) but the coverage has been widespread already. Below is a sound-bite digest, compiled for my publishers, of all the reviews I’ve seen so far. I hope it’s of interest to those of you who helped me research the book; I can only thank you again for all your contributions. People kindly say I’ve given you a voice in the book, but really you’ve given me yours, and I’m grateful.

Here goes, then. As of today, 2 February:

In the Family Way is an important social history tracked through personal stories that need to be heard and will soon be beyond memory.  Elizabeth Grice, Daily Telegraph 24.01.15 (five-star review)

Robinson, who wrote the excellent Bluestockings, has a good eye for the human story and the affecting detail that brings alive the hypocritical moral landscape of the period. Daisy Goodwin, Sunday Times 25.01.15 (lead review)

[Robinson] has made contact with 100 unmarried mothers and their progeny and deftly interweaves their stories with the political and institutional history… The chapter on single fathers is especially interesting because it defies expectations.  Lara Feigel, Observer 25.01.15

Robinson has worked to give back a voice to those not traditionally allowed one… Taken together, the individual stories of secrecy and enforced separation form a powerful testament to the hypocrisy and cruelty of our culture.   Michele Roberts, Independent, 29.01.15

A fascinating journey into the history of illegitimacy… In this incredibly touching book, social historian Jane Robinson reveals family secrets kept for entire lifetimes, enabling us to hear long-silent voices… Elegant and compassionately written… Eloquent and highly readable. Family Tree Magazine, 30.01.15

 A four-page feature written by Jane appears in the February issue of Britain’s best-selling monthly magazine, Saga Magazine. 30.01.15

[In the Family Way’s] heart is firmly in the right place. It is a book that makes a woman want to reach for an AK47 to avenge the past; or at the very least to buy a copy to politicize their daughters.   Melanie Reid, Times, 31.01.15

The closer Robinson’s survey comes to our own day, the more shocking it grows… In the Family Way is not, incidentally, without its funny side. I particularly enjoyed this…   Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday. 01.02.15

Sunday Times ‘must read’ recommendation, 01.02.15

In the Family Way is both engaging and incredibly moving and will strike a profound chord with many readers.   Sarah Franklin, Sunday Express, 01.02.15

So there we are. All this makes it sound as though everyone has been raving in praise of the book; that’s not quite the case, as you’ll appreciate if you read Craig Brown’s review in the Mail on Sunday or Michele Roberts’ in the Independent. But I think – hope – all agree that it’s a book that needed to be written; a subject we need to address.

Fingers crossed for publication day. See you on the other side.

Judgement

I carry my hardback of ‘In the Family Way’ around with me like a premature baby, wrapped in a scarf when I go outside (really!) and placed out of harm’s way in a companionable corner of the kitchen when we’re at home. I suppose it’s because it’s a pre-term copy, not properly due for another three weeks. I already feel the pangs of an over-protective parent when I hear that reviews are being prepared for it and talks planned. There’s also something of the vulnerability of having a real baby: one identity is shared between the two of us. Judge one and you judge us both.

But that’s where it ends. It’s tempting to get precious about the publication of a book. It’s my work, not my child. True, I gestated it (for over two years) and now it’s about to go into its little world to grow and flourish with all my hopes behind it. Yet in no time at all those hopes will be transferred to the new project. No author fortunate enough to attract national reviews would last long if they couldn’t dispel that vulnerability I was talking about pretty quickly.

If I tell myself that often enough, I’ll believe it.

I hope the book does well; of course I do. The reviewers must judge me as a writer because that’s what they do. But if there’s one thing I wish for ‘In the Family Way’ above all else, it’s this. That readers do not judge those mothers, fathers and children whose story it tells, but try to understand what they went through, are often still going through, and give them credit for doing the best they could in the circumstances. I’ve tried to celebrate the everyday strength of the human spirit in this book. If readers recognise that, and are as moved by it as I was, I’ll have done my job.

That sounds a bit heavy. So here’s a joke I found in a letter (included in the book) written in 1921. A young Scottish lad was courting, and asked his father for permission to get wed. ‘Father, I want to marry Janet McTavish.’ ‘Dinna do that, laddie,’ answered his father. ‘Ye canna, she’s your sister.’ Undaunted, he waited a few months, and then returned to his father. ‘Father, I want to marry Mary Findlay.’ ‘Ye canna, laddie; she’s your sister.’ The process was repeated once or twice, the boy always receiving the same answer. At last, he went to his mother. ‘Mother,’ he said, ‘I canna get wed, for Father says that every lass in the village is my sister.’ ‘Nay, laddie, dinna fret. He’s not your father.’

The death of fiction (and the birth of history).

As I write this, I’m waiting for the courier to arrive from Penguin Books, armed with the typeset proofs of ‘In the Family Way’. I’m absolutely terrified. I haven’t read the script since submitting it just after Christmas. What did I say? What if I can’t bear it? What if…? On the other hand, this is one of the most exciting moments in a book’s life: seeing it for the first time in a different form, all ready to leave me and live an independent life. That well-worn analogy between books and children is apt in so many ways. I feel proud and fearful at the same time, and a mixture of careful detachment and complete, ineluctable involvement. I hope the courier comes soon. I’ve gone all squirmy.

Five months have passed since my last post. It’s the fiction wot did it: I tried my hand, and thoroughly enjoyed the sense of liberation it gave me, but the pull of reality was too strong to resist. I had work to do on the script of ‘In the Family Way’: going through the copy-edits, selecting and captioning the illustrations, checking and re-checking permissions, facts, infelicities and blunders; and as soon as all that was done I found myself not turning back to my novel, which managed strangely to be turgid and excitable all at the same time, but looking for a new history to write.

Actually, it’s not so much looking as listening. There is usually a small voice in the back of one’s mind, once a book is finished, calling the next one to attention. That sounds pseudy. What I mean is that something will lodge – often unnoticed at the time – in my brain during my research, a little nugget of tangential interest, and sit there quietly until the task in hand is finished and everything else is cleared away. Only then do I notice it: the insistent suggestion of a new book, a new enthusiasm to keep me engaged for the next two years and send me straight back to my research completely invigorated.

That’s what’s happening now. The cycle is turning again: idea, research, write, publish. Idea, research, write, publish. This will be the tenth revolution. I can’t say yet what the subject will be: superstitiously I need a dotted line to sign on first. But watch this space – although if you’ve been doing that for the past 5 months, I owe you a pint.