A Girl’s Right to Have Fun

Susan Pedersen

  • Young Women, Work and Family in England 1918-50 by Selina Todd
    Oxford, 272 pp, £50.00, September 2005, ISBN 0 19 928275 7

When I was an undergraduate in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, social history was a much admired discipline. We trudged across campus lawns with sacred texts in our rucksacks (The Making of the English Working Class, Work and Revolution in France), convinced that we were acquiring the tools to explain – and, we naturally assumed, alter – relations of power and domination.

I’m not sure when we noticed that if social history was a glamorous discipline, it was also a rather masculine one: the study, it sometimes seemed, of fustian-clad men, by denim and leather-clad men with longish hair. Women weren’t absent from this history, either as subjects or as practitioners, but they weren’t central either. Small wonder that we spent so much time ‘finding the women’ left out of the master narrative, and then – as in Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall’s Family Fortunes or Anna Clark’s The Struggle for the Breeches – attempting to rewrite it with gender at its heart.

That project succeeded. But by the time ‘gendered’ social history had arrived, social history as a discipline was in full retreat. By the 1990s the worldwide shock to social democracy that Britain experienced as Thatcherism, and a new scepticism in the academy about structuralist approaches, had swept a considerable number of social historians and a rising generation of graduate students into the new field of cultural history. Master narratives of all sorts – ‘secularisation’, ‘the rise of the middle class’ – came under attack: indeed, no sooner had gender history’s notion of ‘the rise of separate spheres’ emerged than Amanda Vickery, in a landmark article in Historical Journal, saw it off. Doorstop social histories vanished from students’ bags, and were replaced by the more depressing works of Michel Foucault.

But social history never went away, and the destruction of its master narratives has probably done the field nothing but good. The framework of class or gender formation was too constraining: freed from it, social historians looked at their world with a more curious and less instrumental eye. The study of labour history faltered, but religious belief, leisure pursuits, sexual practices and a host of other topics came under intense scrutiny: a new, less deterministic, history came into view.

Indeterminacy brought troubles of its own, however. The proper subject of social history is social change, and the field possesses some well-tried methods – quantitative analysis, oral history – for capturing change at the aggregate and the individual level. The real trick of social history is to grasp the link between the whole and the part, the public and the private: to understand the connection between statistics on the decline in fertility and Mrs W’s puzzling ability to limit her children to three when her mother, too, had wanted three children but in the end had six. Social history’s master narratives grew from the attempt to understand just such connections, to show how seismic social change and millions of tiny individual tremors linked up. Without such frameworks, history can become purely descriptive. Can social historians offer meaningful explanations in their absence?

Selina Todd’s book heartens me: seemingly a narrow study of young women’s working lives between the Great War and the early 1950s, the book is much more than that, and has important things to say about interwar economic change and the role such hard-to-measure factors as love and duty may have played in driving it. Young women emerge in this history as a critically important force for economic transformation, and Todd comes up with an unexpected explanation for their canny and self-interested behaviour.

When we imagine a typical interwar worker, it isn’t as a bob-haired 14-year-old shop assistant wearing her first pair of heels. Contemporary commentators and officials didn’t notice such workers either: Orwell thought them irrelevant to his quest for a manly English socialism, and if J.B. Priestley was struck by the number of factory girls dressed like duchesses when he toured the Midlands in 1933, he didn’t feel the need to talk to them. Girls weren’t as disorderly or troublesome as boys, so officials didn’t much bother with them; and since they were expected to marry anyway, their confinement to low-grade or poorly paid jobs aroused little concern. The percentage – slightly over ten – of married women in the formal labour market in Britain was among the lowest in the world, which government ministers, trade unionists and social workers all agreed was a good thing. If girls spent the years between school and marriage earning some money and helping their families, that was fine – but it wasn’t a matter of much interest.

But consider this. The school-leaving age was 12 until 1921, when it rose to 14, and the average marrying age across the 1918-51 period never fell below 24. Girls who went straight from school to work – and a majority of girls did – had an average working life of at least ten years, hardly what we might think of as a casual spot of work. Intensive use of youth labour was the means by which the manufacturing sector, and a great many families, were kept afloat. Sixty-three per cent of women aged 15 to 24 were part of the workforce in 1921, and by 1951 the figure had risen to 72 per cent (at the wartime high-point in 1943, 90 per cent of single women under 30 were in paid work); of adult women over 24, by contrast, only 23 per cent in 1921 and 28 per cent in 1951 were listed as employed. Not only were most young women workers, but a very substantial slice of all women workers – almost 50 per cent – were young. Age structured the labour force as profoundly as gender. Employment shaped the transition from girlhood to adulthood for the majority of women.

Todd works hard to figure out what that intense involvement of young women meant – for the economy, their families, and for the young women themselves. Some interesting findings emerge. Even though most young women worked for a number of years, they were still characterised as ‘meantime’ workers, and were still confined to particular classes of work. They did ‘young women’s’ jobs, and remained largely excluded – except during wartime – from jobs, apprenticeship schemes and promotion ladders that remained the preserve of men. For all that, their earnings could be substantial. Since young workers were usually graded according to age, teenage boys’ and girls’ pay was roughly the same and rose year on year relatively rapidly. In their late teens and early twenties, girls’ pay began levelling out while boys’ pay kept rising; by that point, however, girls were earning enough to make this stage in their lives a time ‘characterised by a temporarily large degree of financial and social independence’.

Todd finds little evidence that young women resented job segregation or their identification as a particular ‘class’ of workers. But they did exploit a labour market that treated them as interchangeable ‘hands’ by making smart and highly instrumental decisions. Like 18th-century servant girls, they were more geographically mobile than boys (so much so that while there were 105 women aged 15 to 20 for every hundred men in England and Wales in 1951, in rural areas with few employment prospects for girls the number was 71), and more occupationally mobile as well. Employers and social workers deplored girls’ propensity to ‘flit from job to job’, but since they had few prospects of promotion and few reasons to stay loyal to a firm, such behaviour made a great deal of sense. Great numbers of unionised male workers spent the 1930s wrapped up in a heroic and misconceived struggle to protect obsolete job categories and industries in terminal decline. Young women, by contrast, cheerfully assumed one supposedly immutable work identity after another (factory worker, shop assistant, domestic servant, hairdresser), trying them on for size and taking them off again as soon as they became boring, constraining or unattractive. They switched jobs to stay with friends, switched jobs if they found a better-paid one, switched jobs if the supervisors or conditions were too rough. They were unfazed by the supposed barrier between factory and ‘white-collar’ work, moving out of domestic service into factory work, or out of factory work into clerking, whenever such jobs opened up. They sought in particular to get one of the new, non-manual white-collar women’s jobs: by 1951, 30 per cent of employed young women were clerks (a flexible category including anything from secretarial work to wrapping up products for shipment) and 12 per cent were shop assistants.

This behaviour had significant effects. Miriam Glucksmann’s Women Assemble (1990) noticed the way young women’s labour assisted the interwar transition from heavy industry to light manufacturing, but Todd brings out the extent to which their mobility and the buoyant market transformed other sectors as well. Conditions of domestic service began improving as mistresses, fearful of losing maids, raised wages and increased free time; factories got cleaner in response to young women’s dislike of ‘dirty’ work. Young women made and sold the radios that their earnings enabled their families to buy. In a process not unlike the one driving China’s pell-mell industrialisation today, the flexible deployment of young women’s work, sectoral and regional shifts in the economy and the spread of mass culture were mutually reinforcing.

Todd insists that these young women felt themselves to be ‘working class’: their cultural background was more important than job classification in determining that affiliation. At the same time their geographical and occupational mobility, and the fact that over this period, as Todd puts it, ‘non-manual employment became a realistic aspiration for young working-class women,’ all contributed to giving them a different relationship to class. Women working in offices or shops had more cross-class contacts than young men had, and they were more likely to marry into a different class. The central institutions and icons of working-class life – the trade union, the pub – had always offered less to women than to men, and women showed them less loyalty. Orwell might speak eloquently about the communal solidarity and ‘sane and comely’ family life of miners, but young women – and, for that matter, their mothers – do not appear to have shared his admiration. They wanted more from life, and avoided being courted by men so stubbornly attached to an occupation that was dirty, dangerous and going nowhere. It would be too much to say that interwar young women unmade the working class, but their values and behaviour encouraged the economic flexibility, mass consumption and cross-class cultural aspiration that marked the 20th century.

Young women had economic goals, but they were hardly autonomous ‘rational actors’. They lived within families, and their actions were shaped by familial – usually their mothers’ – expectations. A mother controlled the family purse, and younger earning children of both sexes routinely turned their wage packets over to her, getting some spending money in return. But for girls, maternal authority went deeper and lasted longer; childhoods spent ‘helping mother’ left them with a sharp understanding of the domestic budget; and many felt enormous satisfaction when they were old enough to ease their family’s financial problems. Mothers often found daughters their first jobs and kept a close eye on conditions and pay. Daughters, for their part, often continued to turn over their wages past an age when sons were allowed to keep them and pay board.

Todd is hardly alone in stressing the centrality of the mother-daughter tie, which Ross McKibbin has called ‘the axis of working-class family life throughout much of England’ in this period. What is striking is the degree of reciprocity she sees in that relationship, and the way, and with what consequences, it changed over time. In the 1920s, mothers in rural areas approved of domestic service because it curbed their daughters’ liberty; by the 1940s, those views had changed. The later generation of mothers sympathised strongly with their daughters’ desire for greater freedom and enjoyment: most tried hard to ‘tip back’ generous amounts of spending money (especially as girls grew older) and excused earning daughters from household chores. Girls accepted their families’ claims but felt they had a right to some pleasures if they were earning. All the evidence is that their mothers agreed with them.

If doors to better employment and more education opened to girls in these years, mothers responded by pushing their daughters through them. By 1951, girls stayed in school in greater numbers than boys, which Todd attributes to mothers’ canny understanding of the importance of education for white-collar work. This made economic sense given how dependent families were on their daughters’ earnings, but material calculation wasn’t the only factor. A strong sense of their daughters’ right to enjoy a few more of life’s good things in a world stacked against them played just as important a role in their mothers’ thinking.

Maternal love emerges in Todd’s study as driving social change, and playing a mediating role between individual behaviour and social process that we are more accustomed to see taken by ‘class consciousness’ or ‘feminism’. So often treated as a changeless, elemental force, maternal love, as Ellen Ross’s luminous work on poor London mothers has shown, has its own history, and Todd makes a clever and to my mind entirely persuasive argument for its heightened importance in the economic transformations of these years. Mothers of the 1940s and 1950s had themselves been young working women twenty years earlier; many would have experienced the dramatic improvement in pay and prospects that the First World War brought, only to see those prospects disappear as the postwar slump began. Yet the experience of having money in their pockets and more interesting jobs to do stayed with them, fuelling a determination ‘that their daughters would realise the aspirations that they themselves had formed but had to give up’.