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Carolyn Steedman

Carolyn Steedman is the author of Landscape for a Good Woman and An Everyday Life of the English Working Class, among other books. She is an emeritus professor of history at Warwick. Poetry for Historians is due in the spring.

A New World for Women

Carolyn Steedman, 18 October 2017

In my summer birdcage of reading and rereading I only cried once. It wasn’t the novels that provoked tears, but a government report. I am used to crying over government reports. Various 19th-century commissions of inquiry into child labour in libraries around the country are stained with my tears. I cried over the Robbins Report because I found for the first time something I had always known: ‘The trials that their parents had to undergo are in themselves sufficient reason for the country to exert itself to meet the needs of their children.’ A government report compiled in the spirit of social justice! I love the state because it has loved me. My tears were tears of acknowledgment.

On Respectability

Carolyn Steedman, 27 July 2016

‘All I can offer​ is my years of lived experience,’ Lynsey Hanley wrote at the end of Estates: An Intimate History (2007). Her account of growing up on the vast Chelmsley Wood housing estate south-east of Birmingham in the 1980s (she was born in 1976) was an offering to policymakers, architects, planners and politicians: if they knew what it was like they might consider ways and...

Vomiting in the marital bed

Carolyn Steedman, 8 November 1990

During the protracted legal upheaval of the Reformation in England, the law of marriage remained as it was before. For Roman Catholic Europe, the Council of Trent in 1563 ushered in a new strictness, and control of wedlock by the Church, but on this side of the Channel pre-Tridentine canon law remained the law of the land until the Marriage Act of 1753. An extraordinarily contradictory mishmash of ecclesiastical and common law governed the making of marriage in Early Modern England. There was contract marriage, a form originating in the 13th century, when Innocent III decreed that the free consent of both parties was the sole essence of marriage, so that a valid and binding union could be made by an exchange of words between a man and a woman (over the ages of 16 and 14 respectively) before God, in front of two witnesses, and expressed in the present tense. The hinge of many an early 18th-century novel is here explained: it was hard lines for a young woman who had not grasped the tense system of her native grammar, and who did not know that intention – vows expressed in the future tense – constituted no contract at all. Such marriages – where the tense was the right one – were recognised by ecclesiastical law, but carried no property rights in common law.

Horsemen

Carolyn Steedman, 4 February 1988

There is the idea of the story-taker, the necessary collaborator in the act of telling, the one who listens, shapes the narrative by assuming that there is something there to be told, who takes the story, not as appropriation, but as part of a deal, so that the outcome – an entity, a story – might be placed there, in the space between the listener and the teller. The presence of the story-taker wards off the question ‘So what?’ According to William Labov, a story-taker from a tradition quite different from the one George Ewart Evans represents, a sociolinguist rather than a folklorist, that is the response that every good narrator is continually evading: ‘when the narrative is over, it should be unthinkable for a bystander to say “so what?” ’’

Diary: Tory Ladies

Carolyn Steedman, 4 June 1987

It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that my Conservative-voting mother ever caused me real embarrassment. She came from a line of Lancashire weavers, Liberal, then strong Labour voters. There are not many roles offered by the Labour movement to women, but the grittily romantic weaver-heroine is one of the few: dawn-rising, clogs on the cobbles, six looms managed, babies fed at the side door of the mill, money brought home, food to the table, doorsteps worn down by scrubbing: women worked to the bone. She arrived at adolescence and school-leaving age as the Lancashire cotton trade went into severe recession. She never went into the sheds, and worked at a series of unskilled jobs for the rest of her life. She always voted Tory.

Wonderwoman

Carolyn Steedman, 4 December 1986

This is the year of the collected essays of many women. Six years of Ann Oakley’s lectures and occasional writings on medical sociology have recently been published, together with some of her poems, in Telling the Truth about Jerusalem, Elizabeth Wilson has recently produced Hidden Agendas, and Cora Kaplan’s collection from a ten-year period has just appeared in Sea Changes. Germaine Greer’s Madwoman’s Underclothes, designed, according to the dust-jacket, to demonstrate ‘what a force in our cultural life she is’, covers a much longer stretch of past time, from 1968 to 1985, starting with a piece from Oz and ending with a report on food aid in Ethiopia from the Listener of two autumns ago. The Sunday Times, Esquire, Spare Rib and Playboy lie in between. We are meant indeed to understand that the road has been a long one, the times always obdurate and absurd in their different ways, but – the stated premise of this collection – that the seeing eye has always been informed by a central vision, and the story told essentially the same one.’

Oral History

Carolyn Steedman, 19 June 1986

Myths can be seen as particular kinds of symbolic story designed to explain all the other stories that people tell about themselves. In this case, then, we should expect their periodic recasting, as the day-to-day narratives shift and change. We are in the middle now of some quite explicit recasting, conscious attempts to reverse accounts, particularly psychoanalytic accounts, which place masculinity at the centre of the picture, and which have in the past defined femininity in relation to it. Mothers and mothering become the pivotal points of the daughter’s development, Freud’s hysterics become heroines, grimly and doggedly determined to tell a truth that the analyst will not hear, and Demeter now stalks the earth mourning all her raped and lost daughters, prisoners of phallocentrism or the underworld. The modern anorexic is seen as making a political protest through an act of courage, which in these three books is described as a bid for autonomy using the limited material that comes to hand – a woman’s body: but which can also seen as the ultimate denial of that body unto death. In Kim Chernin’s large claim in The Hungry Self, modern woman’s obsession with eating and not-eating might even provide the royal road to the unconscious that dreams provided for Freud.’

Domestic Servants

Joanna Innes, 14 April 2011

Carolyn Steedman’s is a distinctive, probing, inquiring voice. Personal, but not solipsistic. We never forget, reading her books, that there’s a mind in charge, but not one...

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Watercress

Patrick Parrinder, 20 August 1992

What do a story written by primary schoolchildren, a study of 19th-century policing, a biography of Margaret McMillan and an account of a working-class childhood in South London in the Fifties...

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Light and Air

Ken Jones, 5 April 1990

In these unfriendly times, Margaret McMillan, once the subject of such biographies as The Children’s Champion and Prophet and Pioneer, occupies some unvisited pantheon of educational...

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Desire

Raymond Williams, 17 April 1986

The simplest autobiographies are those which are ratified, given title, by an achieved faith or success. Among these, what passes for success has come to predominate. It is then not surprising...

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