This post is phenomenal. There, I’ve said it. I’m so proud that we can post something like this on AOW.
It’s the story of Edith, and the story of feminism, and a story that will make you think, and be overwhelmed, and realise how far we’ve come. It’s a post that will make you realise how little of this story so many of us have seen, and yet that there are women who have seen it all, who were born without what we demand as our birthright.
Let’s all raise a glass to Edith next Tuesday, and to the hundreds of thousands of women who weren’t born with the equality that we have, who slowly gained it right by right, Act by Act, through hard-fought victories and through social change.
Thank you for this, Gwen. Over to you:
Edith was born on the 14th January 1914 in a hostel for fallen women. She shared her birthday with her mother. Edith was lucky to survive the birth – infant mortality was around 11%. She didn’t know her father. He may have died in the War as so many young men did. When her mother remarried, she was brought up by her grandmother, a Victorian who never got over the shame of her being born out of wedlock.
When Edith was four, women over the age of thirty won the right to vote. When she was five, the first female MP was elected (Constance Markiewicz). In 1928, women gained the franchise on an equal footing to men.
Edith left school and began working in the railway office. She was fifteen. She was very bright, but university wasn’t an option for a working-class girl. After all, Cambridge didn’t award women degrees until 1948.
In 1922, when Edith was eight, women were able to inherit property on the same grounds as their husbands. When she was nine, an alteration to the Matrimonal Causes Act meant that divorce equality was finally introduced.
When Edith was twenty five, the Second World War broke out. Her husband was exempt from military conscription due to illness, so they worked in the Rolls Royce factory. During an air raid, everyone ran out of the factory, only to see planes overhead. They dropped to the pavement. Edith’s friend’s coat flapped upwards in the wind. She had to patch the bullet holes in it – she didn’t have enough ration coupons to buy a new one.
Edith birthed her older children at home with a friend or neighbour to help her in delivery. Her husband was probably in the pub. She won’t have been able to afford prescriptions for pain relief. She was thirty four when the NHS was introduced, and a mother of two. When she had her youngest child, aged thirty seven, there was probably a midwife present. As an ‘older’ mother, there would have been increased risks to her pregnancy, but ultrasound wasn’t invented until 1956, so there wasn’t much opportunity for forward planning or preparations.
It wasn’t until after Edith had finished her family that the Pill became available, in 1967, when she was fifty three. It wasn’t available on the NHS until 1974. Her daughters were the first generation of young women to take it. They were also the first generation to be able to ask for contraceptive advice regardless of their marital status, as this was enshrined in the same law. Previously it wasn’t permitted to advise unmarried women on such matters.
Edith was fifty six and the landlady of a pub when the Equal Pay Act came into force in 1970. For the first time in her working life, she was entitled to the same pay as her husband. Even though her marriage wasn’t the happiest, if she had got divorced, she wouldn’t have been able to buy a house or take out a loan independently. She still would have needed a male guarantor.
Edith wasn’t protected against Sex or Race discrimination throughout her working life. She was sixty one and retired when these legislations came into place. She missed out on maternity provision and rights too – so did her daughters – as they didn’t arrive until 1965.
Edith was sixty five when Britain’s only female head of state was elected. She didn’t vote for her. She was sixty six when she was allowed to apply for a loan or credit as a sole female, by which point she was too old. She was sixty eight when the Court of Appeal decided that refusing a woman service in a pub was sex discrimination. Edith would have served anyone in her pub, as long as they said please.
It was in 1987, when Edith was seventy four, that Diane Abbott, the first black female MP was elected. It was also the year that her youngest grandchild was born. Her parents were unmarried too, but she was born with medical intervention in a specialist hospital.
When Edith’s granddaughter was three, in 1990, married women were taxed independently from their husbands for the first time. That was the year that Edith was widowed. When Edith’s granddaughter was seven, marital rape became a crime. She was eleven when the Human Rights Act was passed.
When Edith was in her late eighties, she suffered a series of strokes, which increased the onset of dementia. She became frail and elderly. Her bright and active brain degenerated quickly, and she began to be confused and upset when her granddaughter visited, as she didn’t remember who she was anymore.
Edith’s granddaughter became the first woman in the family to gain a degree. She was invited to speak in the Scottish Parliament, and was overwhelmed when she realised that her grandmother was born before women were able to vote. Edith’s son joked that his daughter is stubborn and vocal, just like Edith. She hopes that Edith would have been proud.
The 14th January 2014 will be Edith’s hundredth birthday. Her granddaughter will raise a glass of sherry to her, and reflect on how much has changed in just one lifetime.