Double Lives by Helen McCarthy – a history of working mothers | Books | The Guardian
Three generations of working mothers. My grandmother, at home with 10 children between the wars, took in sailors’ washing to make ends meet. She had no schooling after the age of 12 and remained a “housewife”, dependent on my grandfather. In the 1950s my mother, a school-leaver at 14, worked part-time while her three kids were small, then full-time in the accounts office of a big department store. In the 1970s my older sister left home, trained as a teacher, married and also had three children. She retired a headteacher on a professional pension; her life was poles apart from my grandmother’s.
Yet all three women led “double lives”, fitting their paid jobs around housework and childcare. Their labour was also typically female. Laundry work such as charing or cleaning has been a perennial standby for the poorest women in society. Girls like my mother, with some schooling, turned to the factory, shop or office work; those with more qualifications have been ushered into the “caring” professions such as nursing and, above all, teaching. “There are no typical lives,” Helen McCarthy writes in her impressive and nuanced study. Each is unique. But the best history writing, like hers, shows how representative the individual life is.
Double Lives begins in the mid-19th century, but its vantage point is very much that of the present. Three quarters of British mothers now work, an astonishing shift from the Victorian era. And a mother’s desire to earn independently is largely viewed as legitimate. Yet despite this cultural sea change, and despite inroads made into all the professions, the majority of working mothers are in low-paid, insecure jobs with rigid hours and no childcare. Just as their Victorian predecessors finished garments or glued matchboxes, today’s home-workers make baby slipper-socks or attach crystals to greetings cards.
Well into the 20th century the majority of British men and women, including most feminists and women’s organisations, argued that motherhood was a woman’s prime vocation. Women entering the professions felt they must choose between mothering or a career. The “good” mother only worked because she had to. A deserted wife, a widow or a lone parent was to be pitied. The “bad” mother worked because she wanted to. How much, McCarthy asks, has changed? The ideal of the male breadwinner, always able to earn enough to keep wife and children at home, no longer holds sway. But today’s employers and policymakers still mostly assume “the worker” to be male. Social welfare provision all too often merges the needs of the mother and child and sees the wife as dependent on her husband. The home is still imagined to be the mother’s – not the father’s – place.
McCarthy’s is an economic and social history, but she also wants to give “shade and texture” to what has been thought and said about working mothers. In this she succeeds magnificently. She is as much at home with popular novels and journalism as she is with cabinet memos, parliamentary commissions, employment law, or sociological reports. She never treats her sources as gospel, neatly characterising much early social investigation into the lives of the poor as “a genre-crossing blend of statistics and sentiment, empiricism and emotionalism”. And always the voices of working mothers are raised above the cacophony of official and unofficial commentary.
The worst-off women were never simply victims. While the majority certainly worked from economic necessity, they could also enjoy their jobs. Home-workers were often proud of their skills. Industrial employees relished the camaraderie and the taste of freedom. One young mother in a Midlands jam factory met with disapproval from a female inspector when she confessed she would hate to stay “at ’ome all dye to mind the blessed byby – it ’ud give me the bloomin’ ’ump!” She spoke for many in the decades to come.
Part-timers often found themselves without any chance of promotion, refused sick pay and holiday entitlement
Double Lives sometimes reads haltingly as it hedges its arguments. The early 20th century saw droves of women take up clerical work, but new marriage bars limited their prospects. Wartime administrations called up mothers for their reserve army of labour, focusing on their needs and even providing workplace nurseries, but only for the duration. Part-time work expanded enormously after the second world war, thanks to a consumer boom, but employers used its temporary nature to justify unequal pay. Treated as a stopgap between matrimony and childbearing, or as extra housekeeping for the older mother returning to work, part-timers often found themselves without any chance of promotion, refused sick pay and holiday entitlement. Two steps forward, one step back. In the long run, though, the figure of the working mother became more ordinary and acceptable.
McCarthy writes with calm authority. But she is not neutral. “The narrowly conformist” 50s come in for particular criticism. Yet in that decade far more mothers, like my own, found satisfaction in working outside the home. Double Lives is dubious about theories of “maternal deprivation”, such as John Bowlby’s or Donald Winnicott’s, which have so often been used as a stick to beat working mothers. A history of childhood experience would obviously be a different book; McCarthy’s few retrospective testimonies leave the issue wide open.
In the postwar decades a second income became a source of pride and prosperity. Higher aspirations were inextricably linked to consumerism, on spending for the home and on leisure. Today’s two income families have inherited the assumption that personal fulfilment is linked to buying and having more. Families have shrunk in size since reliable contraception and abortion have gradually become available – a seismic shift for many women, who are no longer subject to endless childbearing. Double Lives says little about new forms of peer pressure to have children, or the burgeoning commodification of motherhood (Mothercare, founded in 1972 and now defunct, would be a case in point).
McCarthy’s final chapters chronicle recent advances – in employment law, pay battles, and anti-discrimination policies. More working mothers than ever find self-esteem and economic independence in many more walks of life. They speak out more in public and they are listened to. But still they are guilt-ridden and often exhausted. While the media has amplified and distorted debates about “the selfish mother”, the women “who work too hard”, and those who want to “have it all”, the competitive individualism of many professional workplaces is hardly feminist, let alone enjoyable. The language of professionalisation gives women status but reproduces male corporate models of marketisation (McCarthy, a historian at Cambridge, briefly refers to her “line-manager”). So-called empowerment comes at the expense of an underclass of other women doing the housework, the majority of them black or from ethnic minorities. Men haven’t shifted that much into domesticity or childcare. And in some communities husbands still prefer their wives not to work.
At different times both Labour and Conservative administrations after 1945 invested in maternity services and nursery education. McCarthy argues that despite ideological differences, governments have gone on viewing the interests of women and families as one and the same thing. In the 70s feminists critiqued the family for shoring up the housewife’s role and for enshrining children as possessions. Fewer of us now live in conventional families, but the rhetoric of the family, preferably “hard-working”, is still constantly deployed. As the cornerstone of conservative visions of social life, the family remains idealised. During the current pandemic, as so often in past crises, women, and especially mothers, are being asked to shore up this fantasy while working twice as hard.
• Alison Light’s A Radical Romance is published by Fig Tree. Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood is published by Bloomsbury (RRP £30).
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