Double Lives by Helen McCarthy

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Reviewed by Harriet

In this impressively detailed book, shortlisted for this year’s Wolfson History Prize, Helen McCarthy surveys the lives of women who worked for pay, ‘what they have thought and felt and said about their lives, and what others have thought and felt and said about them’. Starting in Victorian Britain and ending in the present day, the book combines personal accounts, facts about labour pay and conditions, and a survey of social attitudes, to provide a fascinating picture of what has changed – and what has stayed the same. I heard a conversation recently about a young woman with a small child and a partner, who had just taken a part-time job. ‘Why does she want to work?’, someone said. It’s this question that McCarthy sets out to answer. Obviously in many cases in the book, especially in the early years, the answer is pressing financial need, though companionship and the support of friends also played a part, as did the avoidance of loneliness, as in the memorable reply from a young Birmingham mother employed in a  19th-century jam factory: ‘at ’ome all dye to mind the blessed byby – it ’ud give me the bloomin’ ’ump!’. Economic necessity will never go away, but, as the decades move on, there are increasing numbers of women whose husbands are the chief breadwinners but who choose to work so that the family can enjoy ‘extras’, whether these are labour-saving devices, treats,  cars, or foreign holidays. And then there are the skilled professional women, who wish to use their training to good purpose. Not a simple picture, then, and one further complicated by unequal pay, lack of respect for female workers, problems of childcare, and public disapproval of working mothers, all factors which, though thankfully much diminished, have not disappeared in the 21st century.

The question of childcare looms large from the beginning of this account. In the early years, women fortunate enough to have a female relative willing to take the children while the mother was at work were the lucky ones; others had to rely on the services of frequently untrustworthy childminders. Because of these difficulties, many women opted for home-working, an option that still continues today – as does the problem – especially in Black or Asian communities. In 1906, curious middle-class observers could visit the Sweated Industries exhibition, which set out to highlight the desperate conditions in which the approximately 450,000 homeworkers lived their daily lives. There were living exhibits, in which people sat all day – sometimes accompanied by small children – demonstrating their diverse daily occupations, which ranged from making boxes or creating artificial flowers to producing industrial tools. Photographs and written testimonies added to the grim picture of ‘tired faces and broken bodies’. Whether this exhibition brought about any change, however, is questionable.

From the early days, public opinion was divided over the desirability of a mother with young children engaging in paid work. The 19th-century feminist activist Clementina Black sought to convince the government of the value of homeworkers, many of whom employed immense skill, while her contemporary Beatrice Webb believed fervently in ‘the holiness of motherhood’ and considered a homeworker to be ‘an enemy to her sex’. Webb was by no means alone in believing that a woman’s place was in the home. This issue continued to divide opinion well into the 20th century, when some sociologists and psychiatrists argued forcibly that children would suffer irreparable harm if their mothers went out to work, confirming a view shared by much of the population. The fact that many companies operated a ‘marriage ban’ added yet another obstacle to a working mother obtaining a satisfying and well paid job.

In both the world wars, women suddenly became necessary to fill the places of the men who had gone to fight. For many women this provided a welcome change and the chance to demonstrate their ability to carry out skilled jobs. Many chose to work in munitions factories rather than take on domestic or outdoor work: not only was it more satisfying, but the pay was up to four times higher than most traditional domestic occupations. However, this new found freedom and self-respect was rapidly knocked on the head when the men returned, wanting their jobs back and preferring to see their wives in the kitchen. 

Much has thankfully changed today. Stay-at-home mothers are now in a minority, as it’s estimated that about two thirds of women with children are now in paid employment, and two-income families are now the accepted norm. There have been definite improvements in employment law, in anti-discrimination, and in equal pay, though the battles continue to be fought. However, this does not mean that all is plain sailing for the majority who go out to work. Many are exhausted by the demands of living the ‘double lives’ of the title,  juggling working hours with home life and childcare – many husbands certainly help in the house far more than they used to, but old beliefs still linger in too many households. Despite the great need for workplace nurseries, far too few businesses have adopted these, so hard-working women are frequently reliant on female domestic workers, often from ethnic minorities. Not for nothing is Part 4 of the book headed ‘Doing the Impossible’.

In her Conclusion, McCarthy writes that her purpose has been ‘to restore some shade and texture to the picture’ by setting working mothers’ lives in a historical perspective. This she has certainly succeeded in doing, and if the final picture is less encouraging than it might be, that’s no reflection on the quality of her work.This is an important book, impressively researched and cogently argued. 

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Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books. Her working mother relied on domestic help throughout her childhood and she doesn’t seem to have suffered irreparable harm from it.

Helen McCarthy, Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (Bloomsbury, 2021). 9781408870754, 560pp., paperback.

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  1. Fascinating review Harriet, and the book sounds so interesting. Despite many improvements, women are *still* expected to bear most of the burden of childcare, or indeed choose between work or family. We should have moved on past this – fathers, after all, *are* 50% responsible for the production of a child….

    1. This does look brilliant – I was tempted by it in the Wolfson Prize list but went for the one about libraries in the end. Sounds so well-researched and put together.

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