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Underpaid, undervalued and overburdened: a history of working motherhood

Over the past 120 years, working mothers have gone from being considered a social problem to a social norm. 

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In what seems a somewhat bizarre endeavour to modern eyes, visitors to the popular Sweated Industries Exhibition in London’s West End in 1906 were encouraged to gawp at a collection of “pale and bent women” (and a few men), real-life figures playing themselves for the benefit of the public: sewing sacks, glueing matchboxes or making fancy chocolate boxes.

Passing through the impressive Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, up to 30,000 visitors lingered over details of the long hours, paltry wages and tragic circumstances of real-life figures such as, “No 40 who plied her trade of book folding in order to support an unemployed husband and six children.”

Nearly a century later, the public was invited to feast on the tribulations of a very different kind of mother of six: city investment manager Nicola Horlick, who was attacked by the tabloids not only for being a “hard-headed career woman” but for supposedly trying to soften her image after appearing at a press conference held in January 1997, to protest at her sacking by investment bank Morgan Grenfell, with her youngest child parked next to her in a pram. By the late 20th century, society may have come grudgingly to accept the “ordinary” working mother but it still could not stomach the exceptionally successful or indeed, fecund kind. (Consider the far more respectful treatment accorded these days to financier, campaigner and mother of nine Helena Morrissey.)

Neither the anonymous overburdened “No 40” nor a high-profile figure such as Horlick were exactly typical, but they prove useful bookends for this bumper 500-plus page account of working motherhood over the past 120 years. As Helen McCarthy makes clear, one of her prime aims is to show that “what was understood to be a social problem arising from economic pressure on families has become a social norm rooted in a more expansive set of needs, rights and preferences felt and asserted by mothers”.

While Bloomsbury has packaged this volume as popular history, complete with a glamorous cover image (and equally glamorous author), Double Lives is fundamentally a scholarly study, ten years in the making, drawing on a vast range of primary and secondary sources. This may present a problem to the general reader used to the many zippy, faux provocative or autobiographical works about women’s lives that currently saturate the publishing market. As a serious historian McCarthy offers no overarching argument, picks no particular ideological quarrel, relates no anecdotes of her own trials as a working mother but instead unrolls a richly intricate narrative about how social change inches forward (and then back, and then forward again).

From the start, she insists that we should beware of drawing a false divide between the miserably exploited (of whom she provides plenty of examples) and those others of all social backgrounds who possessed “aspiration, pride-in-skill and pleasure in earning”. Or as one working-class mother more pithily puts it: “A shilling of your own is worth two that he gives you.”

Well into the early 20th century, working motherhood was considered a kind of pathology, even among progressive figures. During the 1870s and 1880s, the pioneer doctor and social reformer Elizabeth Garrett Anderson lived a recognisably modern existence as a working mother yet, as McCarthy writes, she “did not publicly advocate employment beyond maternity, nor speak or write about her own life as a working mother… such were the strictures against wives and mothers doing work for pay”. The leading Fabian and socialist Beatrice Webb believed passionately, as perhaps only the child-free adult ever can, in the “holiness of motherhood – its innate superiority over any other occupation that a woman may take to”. Her husband Sidney (with whom she founded the New Statesman) was asked in 1892 whether it was better that a mother work in a factory or in the home: he loftily suggested that he would rather that she did no paid work at all. Family allowance, the forerunner of child benefit, was designed to give mothers at home an independent income so they need not seek paid work, although the actual sums involved have never been sufficiently generous to come anywhere near to providing that.

McCarthy reminds us (as if we need it, in the time of Covid-19) of the ways that the state can step up to the mark when required, and can just as easily step back again. During both world wars, there was abundant nursery provision, and the pay and conditions of many working mothers were radically improved. But panic about the sanctity of the family, and jobs for returning combatants in 1918, helped usher in the mean-spirited marriage bar, forbidding a range of female professionals from continuing in their jobs after they were wed. Nursery provision again dramatically contracted after the Second World War when the official position, according to a 1947 Treasury circular, was “positively to discourage mothers of children under two from going on to work”. Working mothers (never working fathers, McCarthy observes darkly) were “expected to meet the cost of childcare themselves and not assume state subsidy”.

The true watershed moment for working mothers came not in the Seventies but in the postwar era, a period of welfare state expansion and consumerism when the once tightly drawn moral distinction between mothers who “needed” to work and mothers who “wanted to” work finally dissolved. Even so, as McCarthy shows in a vivid chapter on postwar migration, many women, particularly those from the Caribbean, faced appalling prejudice and multiple barriers to accessing both jobs and childcare. As for the few working mothers who made it into relatively senior roles in corporate workplaces, here “heavily pregnant women were viewed as strange, slightly terrifying phenomena”.

McCarthy has a sharp eye for the contrasting, often conflicting, ideological elements of any given era. The UK’s first female prime minister did little for most working mothers, but her own example as a high-flying politician and mother of twins plus Thatcherism’s brittle “can do” philosophy spurred on a cohort of ambitious female graduates to at least attempt to “have it all”. In contrast, early second-wave feminism was chiefly preoccupied with investigating the psychological burdens of motherhood and creating collective forms of social provision.

As for today, there is no neat, satisfying ending. Yes, working mothers are now an accepted phenomenon but the unglamorous truth is that the economy remains highly segregated by gender, most women are channelled into lower-paid, lower-skilled sectors and very few reach the top of their chosen profession. The marriage bar may now be a historic relic but there remain subtler ways, such as maternity discrimination or prohibitively costly childcare, for employers or governments to shut out mothers from enjoying genuine equality.

Not surprisingly then, the modern working mother can appear a rather weary figure, juggling complex timetables, lacking sufficient domestic support and continuously subject to maternal guilt.

That a profound, if often obscured, gender divide still exists around parenting has been confirmed by the coronavirus lockdown, with figures showing that mothers in the UK are typically providing at least 50 per cent more childcare, as well as spending around 10 to 30 per cent more time than fathers home schooling their children. It is no surprise that one mother told researchers, “I feel like a 1950s housewife.” And in one depressing, if telling, example of how this crisis is taking its toll on mothers’ working chances, there has been a marked recent drop in the number of academic papers submitted by women, while submissions by male academics have increased.

Only right at the book’s close does McCarthy directly enter the political fray, when she chides those contemporary commentators who suggest that most women are happy to putter along the “mommy track”. Wrong, she says. History shows us that women have never chosen to be underpaid or undervalued, to lack adequate childcare or to take the major burden of domestic labour.

Let’s hope this impressive study provides useful ammunition for those who continue to campaign for greater public support for working mothers, and helps turn down the volume on a lot of dreary old moralising served up as apparently fresh and original fare. 

Melissa Benn’s books include “What Should We Tell Our Daughters? The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female” (Hodder)

Double Lives: a History of Working Motherhood
Helen McCarthy
Bloomsbury, 560pp, £30

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 05 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe