In the recession of the 1930s it was not easy for women to work and only about 30% managed it. Of those nearly a third were in domestic service.
The character in my latest novel, Molly Brooks, went into domestic service at the tender age of 15 out of necessity because her family fell on very difficult times. Her father fell ill and lost his shoe-making business which put him and Molly’s mother in the workhouse. Molly and her older brother, Joe, knew they had to get them out and so Molly took a huge risk and travelled from Truro in Cornwall up to London to take a position as a Lady’s maid.
At that time getting married meant giving up your job. It wasn’t actually illegal to work as a married woman but socially unacceptable. The civil service, the education sector and new professions including the BBC operated a “marriage bar”, which meant that women had to resign their posts as they took their vows. About 10% defied this convention but as soon as they got pregnant, it was made impossible for them to continue.
Women were confined to the lower paid unskilled jobs. This meant:
• assembly work in the engineering, electrical, food and drink industries;
• clerical work and typing in offices;
• counter-sales in shops.
They were usually excluded from supervisory roles or work that was considered to be “skilled”, despite the fact that they had managed theses roles successfully during WWI.
The domestic life of women wasn’t easy too. Without electrical appliances like washing machines, fridge freezers and dishwashers, not to mention cordless vacuums(!) that we take for granted today, housework was time-consuming and hard work. Add on top of that having babies and bringing up children, you can see why the wider family unit would stick together.
War breaks out and suddenly your country NEEDS you
With thousands of men away serving in the armed forces, British women were called upon to take on a variety of jobs during the Second World War. By mid-1943, almost 90% of single women and 80% of married women were working in factories, on the land or in the armed forces in roles such as mechanics, engineers, munitions workers, air raid wardens, bus and fire engine drivers.
Women also played a vital role on the home front, running households and fighting a daily battle of rationing, recycling, reusing, and cultivating food in allotments and gardens.
After the war
At first the view was very much that women should give up their jobs to allow men returning from the front to have ‘their’ jobs back. But then Britain entered a period of sustained economic growth and the welfare state was launched and suddenly a larger workforce was needed.
The newly created National Health Service created jobs in nursing, midwifery, cleaning and clerical work. Banking, textile and light industries such as electronics also expanded during this period and provided women with opportunities in clerical, secretarial and assembly work.
But women still only had the lower paid jobs. The ‘marriage bar’ continued in many areas of work and women were routinely sacked for being pregnant.
So you really did have to choose between work OR marriage and having a family.
Having it all
Now, in the 21st century they say women have it all and don’t need to choose between career and family.
We do have more equality in the workplace with more women taking top jobs but there are still more women in lower paid jobs. The gender pay gap was highlighted recently when the BBC’s gender inequality was exposed after the government forced them to publish the salaries of their top earners. Interestingly, this has lead to male presenters leaving the BBC and more women in the top roles.
Many women are still working long hours. In managerial posts it is the expected norm to work longer than 9 to 5. Women with unskilled jobs often have more than one job to make ends meet.
Many jobs are proving stressful which leads to stress-related illness.
Having children makes working harder due to childcare costs. Some mothers chose to job share halving their earnings. Others give up employment for self-employment so that they can work around their childcare needs.
It seems to me that our working lives are no less challenging – it’s just a different set of challenges.
Do we have it all? Or is it all too much?