A Sociological Autobiography: 10 – The Invisible Woman

This fragment makes good an omission. I have been only too aware that so far my father Ron has outshone my mother Margaret. Margaret’s presence has been a shadowy one. This is no way reflects any differential of love, parenting, significance or causal input into who I was or have become. I have been following, without in any way signing up to, psychosocial scripts even more heavily and unremittingly gendered then than now. Ron worked (that is, held down a paid job outside the home), while Margaret cemented our home life (that is, did low-status, unpaid household tasks unrecognized as work). These were matters elucidated during my postgraduate years by feminist sociologists like Ann Oakley (with whom I was to share a supervisor). I recall too John Goldthorpe’s animated debate with the second-wave feminists of the day about the relative salience for mobility, lifestyle and much else of the social positioning of husband versus wife. Anyway, these few paragraphs redress an imbalance, I trust not too belatedly.

Margaret’s parents, Arthur and Caroline, were married in St Dunstan’s Church in East Acton in 1909. Their wedding certificate shows that Arthur was 28 and Caroline 30. But it is the ‘social positioning’ of their parents that is relevant here. Caroline’s dad is recorded as a ‘licensed victualler’, Arthur’s as a builder. But Joshua William Nichols was in fact a wealthy man. I alluded earlier to his multi-bedroom property in North London, the family photographed, seated and posing in an impressive Victorian cluster outside its front porch. I am unsure what happened either to this mansion or the family assets. But I am aware that Arthur had, I think, 16 siblings (Caroline had 14); so, even allowing for stillbirths and perinatal mortality, which carried off a third of these, the assets would have become considerable diluted. If they were modest by Margaret’s day, however, there was a residue of cultural and social capital, assets of a different kind. Margaret’s family was a cut above Ron’s. I suspect Arthur and Caroline were slightly disappointed when their older daughter met Ron at the local tennis club and a long courtship began; although I have no evidence for this suspicion and they clearly came over time to appreciate and value him.

Well schooled but with limited academic credentials, Margaret yearned to be a haidresser. It was a calling she was denied by her parents, who saw it as demeaning. Instead she was financed through a Pitman’s course in short-hand and typing, the lot of many a girl before and since. This clerical turn took her through the pre-war years and into the 1939-45 conflict. During this sharp-edged, unpredictable and troubled period Margaret’s routines were as mundane and ‘invisible’ and Ron’s were exciting. And when Ron returned to civilian life, forced to trade in a career in the shipbuilding business for teaching, Margaret’s adjustment was radical as his. She did not work after my birth in 1948 and was not to do so again until I was well into my teens, when she took a part-time job in Bentalls. This shop job gave her money of her own, a resource qualitatively different from ‘the housekeeping’.

She buckled down uncomplainingly to motherhood as she had to being a wife. Neither of these statuses, nor the roles associated with them – that is, the expectations and requirements of someone occupying those statuses – were in the 1950s and 1960s as they are now. Nor were they practiced the same ways. The unpaid domestic work Margaret undertook was circumscribed and heavily manual. Monday, for example, was washing day. Clothes were dunked and scrubbed in the kitchen sink, wrung, put through the mangle (my job as soon as I was able to turn the handle), then, weather permitting, hung on a line in the garden; if it was raining they were draped over the clothes horse for a while. Neighbours were denied bonfires on Mondays for obvious reasons. As Oakley found, shopping afforded relief from such duties. But the hidden stress for Margaret, as for many women, was less the carrying out of duties than the planning they involved: buying food, at least after the rationing years, was okay, but devising an ‘acceptable’ weekly menu more challenging. Ron, a slightly disgruntled Margaret was to tell me many years later, would arrive home from work, sit in an armchair and await the serving of dinner. For all that he was otherwise generous and easy-going, it was simply not in his script to do otherwise.

Margaret’s life was not all housewifery. Having joined the local Women’s Institute she signed up for the dramatic society. Concealed within this meek and shy wife and mother was a talented character actress. Her voice was light, her timing excellent. I helped her learn her lines, apparently swatting her with a newspaper when she went wrong, and sat eagerly in the audience with Ron when she performed. Thursdays were her evening out. For me this meant ‘sugar on bread’ for dinner through my early years, which I was informed was good for me; and banishing my (‘it’s tuneless’) father from the room while I watched Top of the Pops once puberty was reached. Flower arranging was to be Margaret’s only other source of personal space.

I doubt this good and kind woman was ever extrovert. I knew and see her as a mild and private person. It is easier for me to attribute whatever capabilities I might have inherited to Ron’s than to Margaret’s genes, but that would be crass. If the diligent curiosity so characteristic of old-style academics originated with him, I like to think I have some of Margaret’s ironic humour, and even her timing. More negatively I can see in myself too a synthesis of … well, never mind. As she grew older, and after the family move from working-class East to middle-class West Worthing in the early 1960s, Margaret became more defensive, oriented to family rather than friends. They had tried for more children but to no avail. I remained their only offspring, if a loving one. Margaret would have loved a daughter, an ally to talk and shop with, someone altogether more reflexive about womanhood in postwar Britain.

 

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