A Woman’s Place 1910 – 1975 was part of my recent Persephone trawl. I found it one of the best general books on the subject that I’ve read. Ruth Adam charts the changing attitudes towards women’s work during the twentieth century. Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out covers some of the same ground; Adam points out that there was already a surplus of women *before* the First World War. Many women, of course, had always worked outside the home: mill girls, agricultural workers, domestic servants and shop assistants. The changes applied to middle and lower middle class women, especially those with professional qualifications which seemed to threaten male bastions. Many people, women as well as men, considered that housekeeping and bringing up children was woman’s highest calling, and the ideal. Two world wars changed that. The new assumption was that homemaking could easily be a part time job while women did war work. This led to further social changes as provision had to be made for looking after children while their mothers worked. For the first time the state became responsible for infant care.
After each world war, everything changed again and once more women were expected to stay at home. It’s depressing to read how (with a few noble exceptions) Labour Party and Trades Union members were a major obstacle to women’s equality at work. Now, we take equal pay for equal work for granted, but many bitter battles were fought over it. (The only job I would except from equal payment is that of women tennis professionals. With Wimbledon starting tomorrow, we shall see again that women players are far less entertaining than male ones.) I found the first part of the book livelier than the second. When writing about the early years, Ruth Adam quotes extensively from novels of the time; H G Wells, John Galsworthy and George Gissing are just some of the authors referred to. (I was immediately fired up to read Ann Veronica and thought I would be able to get it free for the Kindle. Unfortunately not! Yes, I know it’s on Project Gutenberg but I still haven’t found a simple way to transfer files from there to my Kindle.) I think Ruth Adam was perhaps less comfortable writing about the sixties and seventies (she was born in 1907). The quotations disappear and from being sure about what was right and necessary (votes, equal pay), she finds herself on less safe ground and questions whether the sexual revolution was altogether a good thing for women. The back dustwrapper flap of the Persephone edition tells us that Ruth Adam ‘wrote twelve novels … all of them concerned with social issues.’ No mention of her work for Girl comic.
I loved the Susan of St. Bride’s strip in Girl comic and have loved A Stepmother for Susan of St. Bride’s since I was given it one Christmas. I have checked national library catalogues and the Ruth Adam who wrote A Woman’s Place, I’m Not Complaining etc., *is* the same Ruth Adam who wrote the Susan novels. Hah! Novels plural. I recently discovered that there was a second book, Susan and the Wrong Baby and ordered a copy immediately. It’s quite different from Stepmother as it’s written in the first person and deals with more serious issues. There’s plenty of hospital routine, nice versus difficult Sisters, and the social problems of some of the patients. The main plot is about the accidental switching of babies, so that two mothers are each given the baby belonging to the other. Imagine the headlines now! It was pretty bad for Susan and the hospital then, but all ended well.
Reading this book immediately after A Woman’s Place, I perhaps noticed the social comments more than I would otherwise have done. For instance, at one point someone says tartly to Susan, ‘Many girls in your position would feel they ought to give up an outside job and come home to look after (her father, a busy, widower GP).’ Later, Susan reflects that, ‘It had simply never occurred to me that there was anything special about this. (working). At school, we all took it for granted that we should have careers and that what they did about the housekeeping at home was nothing to do with us.’ The book was published in 1961 and the exchanges show a generational gap. Other comments about St. Bride’s could make you weep, e.g. ‘Old people mostly love being in hospital because of having someone to look after them, tease them and remember that they like three lumps of sugar in their tea.’ IF ONLY.
Susan and the Wrong Baby is quite an advanced book for young girls, providing an interesting story and food for thought.