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Скачать книгу Bloody Brilliant Women: The Pioneers, Revolutionaries and Geniuses Your History Teacher Forgot to Mention

Bloody Brilliant Women: The Pioneers, Revolutionaries and Geniuses Your History Teacher Forgot to Mention

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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On 5 November 1887, Emily Hall, a respectable solicitor’s daughter, married Edmund Jackson, the feckless son of an army officer. The couple never lived together and on their wedding night, before they had the chance to consummate their marriage, Edmund left for New Zealand, telling Emily he would send for her once he and his friend Dixon had established themselves there as farmers.

But Emily decided she didn’t want to go to New Zealand after all, feeling that ‘it would be impossible for me to hope to endure the rough life of a colonial settler’.16 (#litres_trial_promo) So she wrote to Edmund telling him this, adding that she no longer wanted any contact with him. The begging tone of his letters to her from New Zealand worried her and she suspected he had married her for her money rather than out of love. Edmund’s angry reply asserted his husbandly rights in no uncertain terms:

Do not make any mistake. There shall be a perfect understanding between us, but I will make it, not you. It is most ridiculous for you to say you will have this or that; it depends on whether I approve or no.17 (#litres_trial_promo)

Four years passed. Then, without telling Emily, Edmund returned to Britain. Having obtained a decree for restitution of conjugal rights, he tracked Emily down to the Lancashire village of Clitheroe, where she had been brought up and her family still lived, and he kidnapped her as she was leaving church one Sunday. He bundled her into a waiting carriage with such haste that he knocked the bonnet off her head, drove her to a house he had rented in Blackburn and locked her in. Outside the house, to stop her trying to escape, he planted a team of hired heavies. Emily’s friends tracked her down and demanded entry. When this was refused they called the police, but to no avail.

A crowd gathered outside the house and watched as supplies were delivered. On the morning after the abduction, reported The Times, ‘milk and the papers were taken in by means of a string let down from one of the bedroom windows, and, later on, all kinds of provisions were obtained in the same way. At noon a box of cigars was hoisted up to the garrison.’ On 11 March 1891, Edmund was forced to leave the house after Emily’s sister filed a charge of assault against him for injuries she’d sustained trying to defend Emily during the abduction. Even as he left, though, his heavies swarmed around the house waving sticks.

Emily was fortunate to come from a legally literate family. They filed a writ of habeas corpus, which, if granted, meant Emily could be brought before a court which ought to declare her detention unlawful. But on 16 March, the High Court rejected the application on the basis that, while generally the forcible detention of a subject by another was ‘prima facie illegal’, where the relation was that of husband and wife, different rules applied.

Infuriated, Emily’s family took the case to the Court of Appeal – and, amazingly, got a sympathetic hearing. The Court agreed that Edmund had no right to force his wife to live with him: the very idea was uncivilised and derived from what Lord Halsbury, delivering the first judgement, called ‘quaint and absurd dicta’. The judges suspected that Edmund had married Emily for her money, displaying the sort of predatory behaviour to which men were prone and from which women needed protecting.

Lord Halsbury’s judgement was a landmark because, notwithstanding its reflexive sexism, it rejects the idea of the ‘absolute dominion of the husband over the wife’, calling Edmund’s counsel’s defence of wife-beating ‘outrageous to common feelings of humanity’ and ‘inconsistent with the rights of free human creatures’. This echoed the language of contemporary women’s-rights campaigners, though Lord Halsbury went on to specify instances in which husbands might be entitled to use limited, temporary powers of restraint, if, for example, a woman ‘were on the staircase about to join some person with whom she intended to elope’.18 (#litres_trial_promo)

But while the educated middle classes had the freedom and resources to use the courts in this way, for working-class women in 1880 it was a different story. Their lives, based around laundry and childcare – six or more children was the norm – were exhausting and terrifyingly unpredictable. Money trickled in uncertainly and there was no safety net if it ran out. Everything (clothes, furniture, cooking and cleaning utensils) was in short supply. Any meat was fed to the man of the house as the breadwinner. As a result, girls growing up in working-class households were undernourished, prone to tuberculosis and other diseases, and less able to withstand the ravages of pregnancy and childbirth.

Many working-class women went into service. By 1901, 91.5 per cent of all English servants were women.19 (#litres_trial_promo) Some started young: as late as 1911, more than 39,000 13- and 14-year-olds were working as servants. The 1870 Education Act had theoretically opened up avenues for women by making education a matter of state provision rather than the whimsical, unregulated gift of charities, churches and other voluntary associations. But many girls were unable to take advantage of school places because their families were poor. A child in service, rather than in school, meant financial security, a situation that is portrayed in Flora Thompson’s semi-autobiographical Lark Rise to Candleford sequence of novels:

As soon as a mother had even one daughter in service, the strain upon herself slacked a little. Not only was there one mouth less to feed, one less pair of feet to be shod, and a tiny space left free in the cramped sleeping quarters; but every month, when the girl received her wages, a shilling or more would be sent to ‘our Mum’.20 (#litres_trial_promo)

Most middle-class families had at least one servant. As the feminist historians Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser pithily observe: ‘For men, the dividing line between middle and working class was usually measured in income; for women, it lay in the difference between being a servant and being able to afford one.’21 (#litres_trial_promo)

Charles Booth estimated that 30 per cent of London families could not live on a man’s wages alone. In order to supplement their husbands’ earnings, working-class wives took on piecework – usually sewing or knitting – either at home or in attics or cellars supervised by a ‘sweater’. Abuse and malpractice in the ‘sweated work’ industry was rife, both at home and in factories. The extent of it was exposed by one of the late-Victorian period’s great whistleblowers and one of the most impressive activists of the era: Ada Nield Chew.

The second child in a family of thirteen, Chew was born on 28 January 1870 to William Nield, a brickmaker, and his wife Jane, in Audley, Staffordshire. At the age of eleven she left school to help look after her family, which included an epileptic younger sister; she fitted in paid work where she could.

After the family moved to Crewe in 1887, Chew found work in the Compton Brothers clothing factory. But it was miserable and exploitative, so in 1894 she sent the Crewe Chronicle a series of anonymous letters savagely criticising the pay and conditions of the women who worked at the factory, especially as compared to those of their male colleagues doing the same work.

This was a risky undertaking, but for Chew the alternative was unthinkable: ‘As long as we are silent ourselves and apparently content with our lot, so long shall we be left in enjoyment of that lot.’22 (#litres_trial_promo) Bear in mind, when reading this extract from her second letter to the Chronicle, published on 19 May 1894, that Chew had no formal secondary education and taught herself to write by reading novels and magazines:

And now to take an average of a year’s wage of the ‘average ordinary hand’, which was the class I mentioned in my first letter, and being that which is in a majority may be taken as fairly representative. The wages of such a ‘hand’, sir, will barely average – but by exercise of the imagination – 8 shillings [approximately £42 in today’s money] a week. I ought to say, too, that there is a minority, which is also considerable, whose wages will not average above 5 shillings [approximately £26] a week. I would impress upon you that this is making the very best of the case, and is over rather than understating. What do you think of it, Mr Editor, for a ‘living’ wage?

I wish some of those, whoever they may be who mete it out to us, would try to ‘live’ on it for a few weeks, as the factory girl has to do 52 weeks in a year. To pay board and lodging, to provide herself decent boots and clothes to stand all weathers, to pay an occasional doctor’s bill, literature, and a holiday away from the scope of her daily drudging, for which even the factory girl has the audacity to long sometimes – but has quite as often to do without. Not to speak of provision for old age, when eyes have grown too dim to thread the everlasting needle, and to guide the worn fingers over the accustomed task.23 (#litres_trial_promo)

As well as paying for their own materials, women workers had to shell out for hot water to make the tea they drank. Their managers were so inefficient at apportioning labour that the only way the women could earn a living wage was by taking work home with them, which added another four or five hours to the working day – and this had to be fitted in, remember, around household chores like cooking, cleaning and looking after small children.

Once her identity as the author of the letters was exposed, Chew lost her job. But she had been talent-spotted by the Independent Labour Party – a precursor of today’s Labour party – and the burgeoning suffragist movement.

Plenty of other women shared Chew’s passion and panache. By the time Annie Besant helped to organise a strike of the female workers at Bryant & May’s match factory in east London in 1888, Besant was already well known for her part in a notorious obscenity trial. Besant and Charles Bradlaugh, head of the Secular Society she had joined in 1875, used the National Reformer magazine to promote a progressive agenda that included education, suffrage and, especially, birth control. The pair were arrested after they published a cheap book intended to educate poor women about contraception.

Although Besant and Bradlaugh were found guilty of obscenity, the verdict was overturned on a technicality. Bradlaugh went on to become an MP. Besant was, predictably, hit harder: the scandal of the trial cost her custody of her daughter. But the trauma of this loss seems only to have catalysed her activism.

She was moved to righteous fury when she learned at a Fabian Society meeting of the conditions endured by Bryant & May’s mostly female workers. As if the litany of industrial injustices (fourteen-hour working days, poor pay made poorer still by an unfair system of fines) wasn’t long enough, the ‘matchgirls’ had to endure a uniquely horrible side-effect of handling the white phosphorous used in match-making: ‘phossy jaw’.

Vapour from the phosphorous caused the lower jaws of workers to become distended and deformed – and even glow in the dark. Abscesses would form and over time the jaw bone would simply rot away. On 23 June 1888, Besant published an article in The Link, the newspaper she co-edited with the campaigning journalist W. T. Stead, exposing practices at the factory. A follow-up piece took the form of a letter to Bryant & May’s middle- and upper-class shareholders. It’s a masterpiece of campaigning rhetoric:

Do you know that girls are used to carry boxes on their heads till the hair is rubbed off, and the young heads are bald at fifteen years of age? Country clergymen with shares in Bryant & May’s, draw down on your knee your fifteen-year-old daughter; pass your hand tenderly over the silky, clustering curls, rejoicing in the dainty beauty of the thick shining tresses …24 (#litres_trial_promo)

Bryant & May’s response was swift and brutal: they tried to force their workers to sign a statement saying they were content with their lot. When one group refused and were sacked, 1,400 other workers went on strike in solidarity. With the help of trade-union pioneer Clementina Black, and Catherine Booth, who with her husband William co-founded the Salvation Army, Besant helped the women to organise and fight back. She became head of the Matchgirls’ Union and secured a significant climbdown. On 21 July 1888, stung by the bad publicity, Bryant & May agreed to end the fines system and re-hire the women it had sacked.

It was the first time a union of unskilled workers had got what they wanted from a strike. But it was in some ways a Pyrrhic victory as Bryant & May continued to use white phosphorous until 1901, despite knowing full well it was toxic. After Catherine Booth died in 1890, William honoured her memory by opening the Salvation Army’s own match factory where only the harmless but more expensive red phosphorous was used. ‘Remember the poor matchgirls!’ cried their adverts.

Not until the new century were other trades regulated in the same way. Part of the problem was that, while unions existed for men, they were reluctant to allow women to join them. Women were regarded as cheap rival labour, threatening men’s livelihoods. Frustrated by this, bookbinder Emma Paterson founded the Women’s Protective and Provident League (WPPL) in 1874. It soon represented women in a mass of industries, including making jam, tights and cigars.

The nail- and chain-making industry, based in the Black Country, was one of the most dangerous. In 1910 it became one of the first trades to be regulated when the Scottish trade unionist Mary MacArthur, who had become secretary of the WPPL after it turned into the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1891, organised a strike of female chain workers at Cradley Heath. In a landmark ruling she secured for them a minimum wage, famously observing that ‘women are unorganised because they are badly paid, and poorly paid because they are unorganised.’25 (#litres_trial_promo)

In 1893 the WTUL’s treasurer May Abraham became one of the first two female factory inspectors. The other was Mary Paterson, who was based in Glasgow. Abraham’s Royal Commission on the Employment of Labour, focusing on the weaving industry, stresses the massive regional variation in women’s pay – 24 shillings a week in Lancashire compared with 18 in Yorkshire – and describes in horrifying detail the damp but boiling-hot conditions where the weavers worked. Adelaide Anderson’s 1922 study Women in the Factory is even worse. She describes how the dust inhaled by women spinning silk caused them to cough up silkworms.

Abraham and Paterson were paid salaries of £200 a year, much less than their male counterparts, but they achieved impressive results, including the early identification of asbestos as a health risk. Inspector Lucy Deane warned in a 1898 report of the ‘sharp glass-like jagged nature of the particles’, and pointed out that ‘where [the particles] are allowed to rise and to remain suspended in the air of the room in any quantity, the effects have been found to be injurious as might have been expected.’26 (#litres_trial_promo) Her report was ignored until 1911 when clinical evidence linking asbestos to lung disease was finally gathered.

Thanks to these women’s efforts the Factory Act of 1895, which extended and amended previous Factory Acts, would place a much greater emphasis on workers’ ‘health and safety’ – a phrase coined, by the way, by a woman: Audrey Pittom, Deputy Chief Inspector of Factories in the mid 1970s.

The WTUL also claimed credit for later legislation such as the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1897, which established the principle that those injured in the workplace should be compensated, and was ultimately responsible for the Shops Act 1911. One of the great welfare reforms of Lloyd George’s Liberal government, this set a maximum working week of sixty hours and gave shop assistants a weekly half-day holiday. Happy days!

Being a shop assistant in one of the newfangled department stores springing up in towns and cities across the country or waitressing was now an option for working- and lower-middle-class women, who had previously had something of a Hobson’s choice of factory work or service.

At first, shop owners exploited the abundance of cheap, deferential labour with predictable cynicism. When assistants ‘lived in’ a store – a common practice at the time – their lodgings were often squalid. What’s more Thomas Sutherst, president of the Shop Hours Labour League in the 1880s, wrote: ‘the shop assistant in these days is obliged to submit to the intolerable fatigue of standing for periods, varying according to the locality, from thirteen to seventeen hours a day.’ We might bemoan twenty-first-century interning, but it was nothing to what women then experienced. They were often ‘apprenticed’ for several years during which they were paid pocket-money wages.

A young woman called Margaret Bondfield took a leaf out of Ada Nield Chew’s book when she wrote a series of pseudonymous articles for The Shop Assistant exposing shoddy, exploitative practices in department stores in Brighton and London. Living in, she experienced overcrowded, insanitary conditions and awful food as well as what she called ‘an undertone of danger’. Bondfield was expected to work between 80 and 100 hours a week for 51 weeks per year. Little wonder she had already become an active trade unionist by 1896, when the Women’s Industrial Council suggested she work as an undercover agent, reporting back to them – and the wider world, through a column in the Daily Chronicle – on the abuses she found.

Despite her limited education, Bondfield went on to enjoy a long, illustrious political career, founding the Women’s Labour League (WLL) in 1906 and becoming both the first woman to chair the general council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the first female cabinet minister, as Minister of Labour in Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government of 1929–31.

Decades before Bondfield made history in this role, the choice of work available to women was expanding. As early as the 1860s, Jessie Boucherett and Maria Rye had managed, through their Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, to secure jobs for women in banks and insurance companies. The booming communications sector offered other opportunities. In 1869, the year the Telegraph Act of 1869 handed the Post Office a monopoly on telegraph services, most of the 6.8 million telegrams sent in Britain would have been dictated to women. By 1914, 7,000 women were employed by the Post Office and 3,000 in other government services. But there were massive barriers remaining, not least that women had to give up their jobs once they married. And, of course, they were paid significantly less than men.

Actually, the gender pay gap was an issue in all white-collar clerical jobs. At the Prudential insurance company, male clerks earned up to £350 a year while few women made more than £60. Women had to shoulder the burden of dressing smartly on low wages or risk losing their jobs for being scruffy.

While equal opportunity at work was still a distant dream for late-Victorian feminists, there were plenty of battles to be fought at home. The nature of the middle class was changing. The difference between lower-middle and upper-middle was becoming more defined in terms of manners and outlook, and the number of servants a family could afford to hire: just a cook and a maid-of-all-work? Or an array of different kinds of help? At the top of the scale, what mattered was that the house was beautiful – and by extension the woman beautiful, for she occupied the centre of this world, holding its elements in genteel suspension.

Rooms in late-Victorian upper-middle-class homes grew cluttered as hoarding fine things became a moral prerogative – conveniently for those who wanted to be both genteel and righteous; to reconcile, as George Eliot put it in Middlemarch, ‘piety and worldliness, the nothingness of this life and the desirability of cut glass’.27 (#litres_trial_promo) As the design historian Deborah Cohen notes: ‘Women’s sense of themselves seems from the 1890s onward to have been tied up increasingly in their décor.’28 (#litres_trial_promo)

The continuing popularity of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is revealing. It’s fair to assume most families read it aspirationally. Mrs Beeton, who died in 1865, four years after it came out, directs her advice to the manager of a large household whom she compares to the commander of an army, the assumption being that this woman has a team of servants at her beck and call to engineer show-offy dinner-party coups de théâtre, such as Service à la Russe, in which as many as fourteen courses are presented one after the other.

While husbands went off to work, middle-class ‘womenfolk’ remained at home as pampered dependents. Katharine Chorley grew up in the well-to-do Manchester suburb of Alderley Edge where ‘pheasants whirred out of copses, the crack of guns sounded through the winter, [and] cattle churned to a muddy porridge the good Cheshire soil at the entrance gates of fields.’29 (#litres_trial_promo) Happily, this bucolic idyll existed a mere fifteen minutes’ train journey from the centre of Manchester. Chorley recalled in her memoir Manchester Made Them that once the 8.25, 8.50 and 9.18 trains had left in the morning the Edge became ‘exclusively female’:

You never saw a man on the hill roads unless it were the doctor or the plumber, and you never saw a man in anyone’s home except the gardener or the coachman. And yet it was a man-made and a man-lorded society.30 (#litres_trial_promo)

Businessmen using the trains travelled First Class. But if a wife or daughter needed to go into Manchester she would always travel Third Class because ‘to share a compartment with the gentlemen (we were taught never to call them just plainly “men”) would have been unthinkable’. In this situation ‘business trains’ were avoided if possible: ‘It was highly embarrassing, a sort of indelicacy, to stand on the platform surrounded by a crowd of males who had to be polite but were obviously not in the mood for feminine society.’31 (#litres_trial_promo) Chorley’s less-deceived gaze is unsparing: women in such a society, she recognises, ‘existed for their husbands’ and fathers’ sakes and their lives were shaped to please masculine vanity.’32 (#litres_trial_promo)

Life for upper-middle-class women was, if anything, even stranger and more isolated. Privilege infantilised them: Gwen Raverat, granddaughter of Charles Darwin, wrote in Period Piece, her very funny memoir of her 1890s childhood, that at the end of the century there were thousands of British women like her Aunt Etty who had ‘never made a pot of tea … been out in the dark alone … travelled by train without a maid … or sewn on a button.’33 (#litres_trial_promo)

‘There were always people to do these things for her. In fact, in some ways, she was very like a royal person. Once she wrote when her maid, the patient and faithful Janet, was away for a day or two: “I am very busy answering my own bell.”’34 (#litres_trial_promo)

How had this situation arisen? Because the behaviour of ‘respectable’ women was governed by strict social rules. By the 1880s public transport was making it easier for women to get around, but there were still places where they needed to be accompanied. Women who walked the streets themselves were seen as ‘either endangered or dangerous’, as one historian puts it,35 (#litres_trial_promo) and as a rule ‘a lady was simply not supposed to be seen aimlessly wandering the streets or eating alone.’36 (#litres_trial_promo)

Virginia Woolf’s The Pargiters, an early version of the ‘essay-novel’ that would become The Years, her last work to be published in her lifetime, is partly set in the 1880s, at which point the middle-class Pargiter sisters ‘could not possibly go for a walk alone’:

For any of them to walk in the West End by day was out of the question. Bond Street was as impassable, save with their mother, as any swamp alive with crocodiles … To be seen alone in Piccadilly was equivalent to walking up Abercorn Terrace in a dressing gown carrying a bath sponge.37 (#litres_trial_promo)

One middle-class woman who made it her moral business to walk the streets – admittedly with a companion for safety – was the social reformer Mary Higgs. The difference was that Higgs disguised herself as a homeless woman. In 1906, twenty-seven years before George Orwell went ‘on the tramp’ to write Down and Out in Paris and London, Higgs published Glimpses Into the Abyss, an extraordinary account of life on the streets, in lodging houses and the wards of workhouses.

Born in Wiltshire in 1854, Higgs (née Kingsland) was the daughter of a Congregational minister and in 1873 became the first woman to study for the Natural Science Tripos at Cambridge. She drifted into teaching, but after marrying Thomas Kilpin Higgs, a minister like her father, devoted much of her time to philanthropic works: helping to manage a home for destitute women in Oldham; and engaging in utopian brainstorming with Ebenezer Howard, founder of the ‘garden city’ movement.

Higgs considered poverty to be a sort of disease, more or less infectious – she talks about the ‘microbes of social disorder’ – which the right sort of ‘remedial treatment’ could eradicate. In her introduction to Glimpses into the Abyss, Higgs describes the Oldham cottage she converted into a lodging house as a ‘social microscope, every case being personally investigated as to past life, history and present need’.38 (#litres_trial_promo) What had been done to these women? What had they done to themselves? Higgs admitted ignorance. But she was determined to learn. The only way to do this, she decided, was to explore ‘Darkest England’ herself in a spirit of rational, scientific enquiry.

And so Higgs wandered through West Yorkshire, Lancashire and, briefly, London. She studied the Poor Law in Britain and its equivalent in Denmark. She also undertook a ‘literary investigation into deterioration of human personality’ – a ‘necessary corollary to the acquisition of a wide collection of facts’. Her inquiries took on a eugenicist gloss, shocking to us now, though it would have shocked few people at the time:

In any given individual the whole path climbed by the foremost classes or races may not be retraced. Therefore numbers of individuals are permanently stranded on lower levels of evolution. Society can quicken evolution by right social arrangements, scientific in principle.39 (#litres_trial_promo)

Higgs’ sense that improving social conditions for the poor could transform them and set them back on the road to prosperity (or at least ‘evolution’ rather than ‘devolution’) sounds progressive. But for her, people could only retrace the path appropriate to their class or race; could only hope to reach a certain, pre-ordained level of attainment. Even with all the wind in the world behind her, a working-class woman could never hope to be as clever and accomplished as an upper-class woman.

Higgs brought along her own secret supply of provisions – sugar, tea, plasmon (a form of dried milk) – and tolerated the filthy bedding, fleas and lack of washing facilities. But the behaviour of the people she encountered baffled her:

A conversation sprang up about the treatment of wives, and it was stated that a woman loved a man best if he ill-treated her … All the conversation was unspeakably foul, and was delivered with a kind of cross-shouting, each struggling to make his or her observations heard.40 (#litres_trial_promo)

In a workhouse tramp ward, naivety blinded Higgs to the ever-present sexual threat. A male ‘pauper’, charged with the responsibility for admitting women, ‘talked to me in what I suppose he thought a very agreeable manner, telling me he wished I had come alone earlier, and he would have given me a cup of tea. I thanked him, wondering if this was usual, and then he took my age, and finding I was a married woman (I must use his exact words), he said, “Just the right age for a bit of funning; come down to me later in the evening.” I was too horror-struck to reply.’41 (#litres_trial_promo)

Learning that ‘single women frequently get shaken out of a home by bereavements or other causes, and drift, unable to recover a stable position once their clothing becomes dirty or shabby’,42 (#litres_trial_promo) Higgs comes to understand the catch-22 of poverty. This led her, once she had returned to her own world of middle-class comfort, to campaign for such things as pensions for widowed mothers and family allowances – some sort of safety net that might break the cycle of destitution.
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