“The movement represents a universal appeal to the world to recognise that women as well as men are people.”
Such a statement could stand for what is underway today: the lifting of one tiny corner of the vast carpet of masculine power and arrogance that has kept the daily experience of women victimised by men in a state of permanent social denial. The majority knows it is happening – after all they are the targets of it. But the social institutions supposedly charged with preventing such things have not just ignored it, they have not just denied its existence: they have actively hounded those who dared to speak out.
It’s not this that the author of the phrase was thinking of. The quote is from a book of 1909 that my mother kept carefully bound together with rubber bands as it fell apart over the ages of being read and reread, first by her grandmother, then her mother and then herself, fascinated by the length of time it took for those in control of British society to be pushed into accepting votes for women.
Women’s Suffrage in Many Lands by Alice Zimmern was published by the Woman Citizen Publishing Society. Of all the books I borrowed from her, it was the one she kept asking to have returned.
Zimmern, who was then at Girton College Cambridge, made the point that the reform laws of the 1830s that widened the suffrage also carefully restricted it to men only. Up to the Reform Act of 1832 the laws governing who could vote referred only to “persons”. The Commons inserted “male” in front of “persons” in the new Act. An accident of drafting? Not at all: the same word was popped into the Municipal Corporation Act three years later. And then the all-male Commons took away a widow’s right to one third of her husband’s estate. Subsequent electoral reform acts up to that of 1918 just used the word “men”.
That would have pleased the author of another book on my mother’s shelves, Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History, being six lectures he gave in May 1840. “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” he intones in the first one, then toward the end is sneering at “the wretchedest circulating-library novel which foolish girls thumb and con in remote villages”. It’s one of only a handful of mentions of women in over 200 pages.
This farrago of nonsense was considered a suitable offering as a “Sixth Form prize for Drawing” to my grandmother in 1903. Reading it makes one appreciate the meaning of some words of Jane Austen. A generation before Carlyle’s reactionary consolidation of the ideology that lay behind those Commons votes, she gave them to the principal character in Persuasion, Anne Elliot.
One of the men in the novel has just been saying to her: “All histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse … Songs and proverbs all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.” And Anne replies: “Perhaps I shall – Yes, yes, if you please no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”
Education is what this line of women did. My grandmother studied at the East London College (which became Queen Mary College in 1934) and was awarded a First Class degree in mathematics from London University in 1909. A handful of other women had had an equal success over the two decades before. One other at London also scored a First in Maths that same year.
What was in the minds of these young women who had trounced the establishment of men and their claim that women could never cope with the “hard” subjects like maths? A hope that they could use their skills and capacities to the full? I do not know for I only knew her as a grandmother with kind, soft hands who made sure I had washed mine before every meal, who got me to help her cook and who calmly welcomed me in as an errant teenager when she found me sleeping on her back door veranda.
She became, like virtually all those other capable young women, a schoolteacher – one who, in her case, had to leave the post immediately upon marrying her fiancé when he joined the British army and went off to fight in France. His “duty” had been to go to war, hers to marry him. And that “duty” as a woman had the consequent “duty” of the school to sack her the moment she married. At least that has changed.
I do know what her daughter had hoped to try to achieve, as she told me often. As a young doctor qualifying in the years of another, more murderous, war she wanted to explore the frontiers of bacteriology. No chance; an all-male panel turned her down. She would, they claimed, be following the career of her husband, not their requirements.
Worse my father later was offered – and took – a job under the key consultant concerned in that rejection. After years as a ward doctor and more in family planning clinics, she sought a post as a community medical officer. This time it was the presence of children that gave the men on the panel their excuse. It took another qualification and more applications to nail the job.
No wonder she sometimes wanted to rail against the world. But a coffin is the coldest coat we ever get to carry. A silent witness to a conversation about our lives, we can no longer reach out to those we cared for, nor denounce those who constrained our life into what we did not want it to be.
Theresa May’s vaunted race discrimination audit was published just after my mother died so we did not get a chance to discuss why it is that equality takes so long to come. Nor for me to fulminate over the way in which a prime minister who, contrary to her pretence at determined action, had been the Home Secretary presiding over the hamstringing of our equality legislation, the reduction of the Equality Commission to a shadow of its former self and the tolerance of inactivity on the equality front across the board by government, public bodies and those they fund.
It is not just race equality for which this is the case. Take the current topic of male terrorism, the violence against women in the home, the street, the workplace, anywhere the perpetrators think they can get away with it. Yes, there has been progress, but it persists, like race discrimination, because those in power in our society allow it to.
If she really wanted to see things happen, May could restore the equality laws to where they were when she came into government in 2010, when they contained potentially vigorous duties to act for all public bodies. And then she could do what Blair and Brown failed to: see that bodies like the Commission use those powers to the full both to chase down the individuals and institutions that refuse to change and to mobilise ordinary citizens to root out the prejudices, the harassments and the discriminations so prevalent in the existing order of things. Prime Ministers could do that, but then, if they did, they would face an electorate ready to go a step further.
Try as I might I could not find a recording technically suitable for the crematorium of that version of Ol’ Man River which Paul Robeson made into a song not of resignation but of resistance: “I keeps laffin’ instead of cryin’, I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’, And Ol’ Man River, He just keeps rolling along.”
It would have been a fitting epitaph for a life in which she carried her CND knapsack on countless country walks; looked after three children; coped with the death of one other baby; cared for a father in law until his lingering death; typed laboriously a husband’s last scientific research paper, he aged 92, she 88; not before – as recorded in the Sun for 18 November 1965 – she was dragged from her car during a violent wages heist at Slough town hall “and middle-aged Dr Myant, who had a bruised back and leg, borrowed another car and carried on with her work.”
One longs to be able to ask the men who sat on those two appointment panels whether they would – or could – have done the same.
The two pictures here are from the beginning and the end of her life. The one, a photograph buried in a family album shows her in 1922, aged 1, being encouraged by her mother to catch the scent of the flowers in their garden. The other, a painting she did this summer of the view from her sitting room window looking out to the broadcasting masts at Crystal Palace. They are part of that imaginative investigation of life, smelling new flowers just as she is learning to walk, understanding how to perfect watercolour washes as she looked back on her 96th birthday, that reinforced her capacity throughout her professional life to try to break the cycle of disadvantage that traps so many others.
A fortnight before she died, she made a batch of plum jam. We are eating it as slowly
as we can while I come to terms with the fact that she will never now be able to ask me to return Alice Zimmern’s book again nor wonder why this world still cannot accept that “women as well as men are people”.