Thinking Women

Jane Miller

I have been reading the Twentieth Century’s special number on women, which is pink with a palely gleaming Mona Lisa on its cover. It’s odd that I’ve not read it before, since it came out in August 1958 and contains what could be described as my first appearance in print. The actual copy I have belonged to Betty Miller, and it is in her article, which is called ‘Amazons and Afterwards’, that I appear, anonymously and representatively, as Afterwards. The journal’s editorial includes me too, as one of the pony-tailed generation of young women, clones of Francoise Sagan and Brigitte Bardot, who showed no interest in ‘women’s civic rights’.

When I first met Betty Miller in the early Fifties she was becoming quite famous as the author of a good biography of Robert Browning. I had read two of the seven novels she wrote during the Thirties and Forties. I did not know her well, but I liked her, and that was unusual for me. I was a late developer in this respect as in the matter of women’s civic rights, and I didn’t much like people who were older than me. I didn’t like their having done everything and known everything before me and I didn’t like their quite well thought-out plans for my future. Betty was different. She had no plans at all for my future, and when she talked to me it was about things like the sort of day she’d had, the absurd cavortings of a writer friend who lived down the road and a few of the irritating things her husband had said or done during the last week or so. She wrote her first novel when she was 21 and I was not quite one, so there is no doubt of her being of an older generation. Also, my younger sister was stepping out with her son, though they were still at school at that point. I remember her, though, as someone only a little older – and taller – than I was: similarly awkward, perverse, beady. She was also funny.

She rang me in January 1958. She’d been asked to write a piece about the younger generation of what the journal’s editor called ‘thinking women’, which meant women with degrees. We had a laugh at what we took to be the implications of ‘thinking women’ and at her plan to refer to ‘more than one young woman’ in offering me up as her data. I responded to her questions with all the pomposity and conviction of a very recent convert and told her exactly how I had found the secret of life. I had been married for nearly two years and had a six-month-old baby. Since his birth I had given up paid employment and was living off my husband, who had been temporarily out of work, but was now earning over £20 a week. In our tiny flat, with its views into the highest branches of huge plane trees on one side and over a row of white houses built for Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting on the other, I was suddenly happier than I had ever been. I played with my baby and read books while he slept. I learned to combine housework with his waking hours, so that he would kick and expostulate on one bit of the floor while I tackled the straw matting with a toothbrush and a safety pin on another. His sleeping time was too valuable to me to waste it on such tasks, so he experienced me chiefly, I suppose, as an interlocutor, a cleaner and a provider. I allowed myself £3 10s a week for food and cigarettes (Woodbines in those days), which was more than enough when mince was 2s 8d and small coxes apples 6d a pound. So there I was when Betty rang, jiggling my baby on a denimed knee and smug as hell.

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[1] edited by Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley. Blackwell, 252 pp., £25 and £6.95. 25 September, 0 631 14841 6.

[2] Blackwell, 327 pp., £25 and £7.95. 18 September, 0 631 14929 5.

[3] Virago, reissue, 238 pp., £3.50, 18 November, 1985, 0 86068 509 8.