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Unit 6 Women’s lives in Wales between the two world wars

Preface (Bill Jones)

Professor Deirdre Beddoe’s essay ‘Women between the wars’ was first published in Wales Between the Wars, one of the volumes of the ‘Welsh History and its Sources’ series. Not all the volumes in the series included a separate chapter on women, although some of the chapters on other themes included occasional references to women’s experiences in various periods of Welsh history. Beddoe’s essay directly challenges writers of history in Wales by pointing out how little attention had been paid to the lives and activities of women in the Welsh past. The fact that the Wales Between the Wars volume devoted a whole essay to the lives of women in Wales in those years shows that the subject of women’s history was regarded as being increasingly important in Welsh historical writing and the teaching of Welsh history.

Few historians have done more to champion the cause of women’s history in Wales by writing about it and promoting and popularising it through lectures and broadcasts than Deirdre Beddoe. She published a pioneering essay in the historical magazine Llafur: The Journal of Welsh People’s History in 1981 entitled ‘Towards a Welsh women’s history’ at a time when virtually no studies of the topic were being written. Deirdre Beddoe is Emeritus Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Glamorgan. She is one of the foremost authorities on the subject. Over the years she has published a number of books on Welsh women and the history of women in Britain generally. They include Welsh Convict Women (1979), Discovering Women’s History: A Practical Manual (1983), Back to Home and Duty: Women Between the Wars 1918–1939 (1989), Parachutes and Petticoats: Welsh Women Writing on the Second World War (1992), Out of the Shadows: A History of Women in Twentieth-Century Wales (2000) and Changing Times: Welsh Women Writing on the 1950s and 1960s (2003).

It is always useful when thinking about a piece of historical writing to know something about the historian who wrote it and the influences on her or him. Beddoe was born in Barry, south Wales, in 1942. In the Introduction to her book Out of the Shadows she describes how she was the first person in her family to go to university and how she was inspired by the histories of her mother and grandmother to write about the history of women in Wales. She was also greatly influenced by the rise of the feminist movement in the late 1960s, which fought for equal rights for women in all walks of life. The movement also inspired much more extensive study of women’s experiences in subjects such as literature, history and sociology and led to the emergence of women’s studies as an academic discipline. As she wrote in her Introduction to Out of the Shadows: ‘It would have been impossible to have written this book without the women’s movement: women’s history and women’s studies are a direct product of that movement’ (Beddoe, 2000, p. 4).

Some of the references in Beddoe’s essay may need further explaining in order to help readers understand the essay more fully. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 (paragraph 6.2) outlawed the exclusion of women on the grounds of their sex alone. But the Act was often ignored and in any case after marrying, women were excluded from certain professions – e.g. the marriage bar in teaching (mentioned in paragraph 6.7). Marie Stopes (paragraph 6.10) was the most famous promoter of birth control in the twentieth century. In 1921 she founded the first birth control clinic in the United Kingdom. Hunger marches (paragraph 6.12) from South Wales, usually to London, were one of the most popular forms of protest against the high rates of unemployment in most parts of Wales in the inter-war years and the deprivation and distress it caused. Campaigners in other industrial areas of Britain that were experiencing hard times also organised these marches, perhaps the most well known being the Jarrow Crusade from north-east England to London in 1936.

Although published in 1988, Beddoe’s essay remains a fresh and lively piece of historical writing. Its insistence that the history of Wales cannot be satisfactory if it excludes the lives of women in the past is as relevant today as it was then. Much more has been written on a wide variety of aspects of women’s lives in the inter-war period and other periods of Welsh history since this essay first appeared. The publication of Beddoe’s own Out of the Shadows is one important milestone in Welsh historiography. Another is the publication in 1991 of Our Mothers’ Land: Chapters in Welsh Women’s History, 1830–1939, edited by Professor Angela V. John, another pioneer of women’s history and gender history in Britain and one of the foremost authorities in this field of history. In that book you will find another version of Beddoe’s essay as well as one by Dot Jones entitled ‘Counting the cost of coal’ which gives more detail on women’s experiences in the home in the mining areas of South Wales in the 1920s and 1930s. I think we can safely conclude that the history of women in Wales has advanced significantly since the late 1980s. Whether the history of Welsh women has been fully integrated into mainstream interpretations of Welsh history, as opposed to being a supplementary perspective, is a much more debateable point.

Women between the wars (Deirdre Beddoe)

Para 6.1

The history of women in Wales remains to be written. Welsh historical studies have operated within a tradition of historical writing which simply omitted women – on the grounds that women’s actions and lives were of no consequence to the great unfolding chronicle of History and anyway, women’s lives were somehow always ‘the same’. But this state of affairs has been challenged and Welsh feminist historians, writers and film makers, are engaged in an urgent rescue operation to salvage Welsh women’s history. The main problem facing present day historians of Welsh women’s history is not one of resolving conflicting well-researched and well- argued points of view: the task is simply presenting a history of women in Wales based on wide-ranging and thorough research in order to challenge received myths and oft-repeated platitudes. The ‘mythological’ view of Welsh women’s history in the inter- war period – though so historically imprecise is it, that dates are of no particular consequence – would run along these lines: Welsh women were ‘Welsh Mams’ – the wives of miners and the mothers of miners; they had enormous power in what was predominantly a matriarchal society and, somewhat contradictorily, their horizons and interests did not expand beyond their own front door or, at most, the end of the street. The historical sources, oral, written, printed or visual, do not lend credence to this view. The sources of the history of women in Wales, though not as abundant or perhaps as obvious as those for the history of men, are nevertheless plentiful. There is much work yet to be done in collecting and analysing these, particularly with regard to the inter-war period. There are, however, two major weaknesses in the statistical evidence. First, most government collections of statistics lump Wales in with England and it is difficult to isolate information on Wales. Secondly, the census is a useful source for historians and although there are census reports for 1921 and 1931, no census was undertaken in 1941, because of the war, and consequently, we are deprived of information which would help us measure change in the 1930s.

Para 6.2

It is important to stress one further point before setting out a framework for a study of women in Wales between the wars and before embarking on that study. It is integrally bound up with the history of women in Britain in that period and it is important to be cognizant of the main developments of British women’s history in this era. The broad facts may be summarized as follows. The period before the First World War had been a tenacious and long drawn out struggle for the enfranchisement of women. It is important to note that the suffragette movement was not confined to London, or Manchester. There were active groups of the Women’s Social and Political Union in north Wales, notably Bangor, and in the south Wales valleys, particularly in the Pontypool area, and there were cells of the constitutional branches of fighters for ‘the Cause’ in many major Welsh towns. In 1918 women over the age of 30 were ‘given’ the vote. But the struggle for the enfranchisement of women on equal terms with men continued, until this was eventually granted in 1928. Welsh women continued to be involved in this fight. There had been a lull in this particular campaign whilst the whole British nation was engaged in the greater struggle against Germany and Austro-Hungary in the First World War. During the Great War, in Wales as in the rest of Britain, women were called upon to work in munitions and to take over men’s jobs in civilian walks of life: they drove trams, worked on the land and on the railways, cleaned chimneys or acted as clerks. When the war ended, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act, together with trade union pressure, ensured that men’s jobs would be returned to men. The year 1919 therefore heralded a period of massive female unemployment. The wholesale sacking of women from jobs taken up during the war was accompanied by a national and media exposition of a re-vamped version of the domestic ideology, i.e. women’s place is in the home. The media lighted upon the image of the housewife: it was to this role that women in Wales, as in the rest of Britain, were exhorted to conform. Meanwhile feminists, who had optimistically hoped to build on their war-time gains, were forced to rethink. British feminism in this period forked into two branches. ‘Old feminism’, as it was labelled, continued to fight for equal rights for women and ‘new feminism’ concentrated upon the rights of women in the home and particularly upon their rights as mothers. Lady Rhondda, who was without doubt the leading and most influential feminist of the inter-war period, represented ‘old feminism’ and concentrated on equal employment and education rights for girls and women. Eleanore Rathbone, who is identified as the prime advocate of child allowances, represented the ‘new feminism’ with its emphasis on improving the lot of mothers. Broadly speaking, this was a class division. Welsh women had gains to be made from the advocacy of both kinds of feminism, though the new mode of feminism had more to offer most Welsh women. In terms of women’s rights a variety of legislation had improved their lot. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 had in theory, but certainly not in practice, opened the doors to the professions. An equal divorce law of 1923, i.e. granting women divorce on the same terms as men, and an act giving equality between the sexes with regard to the guardianship of infants in 1925, improved the lot of married women. 1925 also saw the granting of widows’ pensions. But Eleanore Rathbone’s brainchild, child allowances, had to wait till the end of the Second World War. All in all the optimism of feminists in 1918, was to be proved to be grossly misfounded: they were thanked for their services to the nation (a term which seems to exclude women) and expected to disappear quietly back ‘into the home’.

Para 6.3

The history of women in Wales fits into this over-all British pattern. In this essay I should like to examine the history of Welsh women in the inter-war years. It is necessary to do so to make any valid comparison with the mythology of Welsh women in the same period. In order to do so I shall look at the waged work of women in Wales, women and the home and women’s campaigns.

Women’s waged work

Para 6.4

The waged employment of Welsh women demands attention. Several factors must be noted. Wales had a very low female economic activity rate. For women aged over 15 years the rates were 1911: 27.26 per cent, 1921: 23.0 per cent, 1931: 21.52 per cent, and 1951: 24.95 per cent. This was the result of limited job opportunities for women in Wales and the fact that traditionally women in many parts of Wales gave up paid employment on marriage. Nevertheless it is important to note that in the inter-war years some 17 per cent of women did not marry and therefore had to earn a living. The other vitally important point is that, given the lack of job opportunities in Wales, Welsh women migrated in large numbers to the more prosperous regions of England. They were an army of domestic servants and in 1931 there were at least 10,000 Welsh women domestic servants in London. Welsh women, like women throughout Britain, worked in a wide range of occupations during the First World War. They worked as clerks, postwomen, chimney sweeps, tram drivers and conductors; they worked in munitions factories (for example, Blaenavon and Caernarfon), on the land and in the docks (for example, Cardiff). At the end of the war they were dismissed: between November 1918 and October 1919 three-quarters of a million women in Britain were dismissed to make way for returning ex-servicemen. They were expected to disappear back into the home – their own or somebody else’s (as domestic servants). Women ex-war workers were entitled to unemployment pay of 25/- per week for 13 weeks: this caused a public outcry (6A). At this time there was a great shortage of servants (6B), this was the most unpopular type of women’s work and it was the only sector of the labour market to experience a shortage in the inter-war years.

Para 6.5

Women were coerced into service. If a woman refused a job as a domestic servant she lost her unemployment benefit; if she accepted it, at very low wages, she became an uninsured worker, who was entitled to no further benefits. During the inter-war years, a time of very high unemployment, the only training schemes open to women were in domestic service. These were organized by the Central Committee for Women’s Employment, under the auspices of the Ministry of Labour and the ‘home training centres’ were concentrated in the depressed areas. In Wales they operated in such places as Aberdare, Barry, Bridgend, Brynmawr, Caerphilly, Ebbw Vale, Maesteg, Merthyr Tydfil, Pontypool, Pontypridd, Wrexham and Ystrad Rhondda.

Para 6.6

These unemployed Welsh women, trained in domestic management for 12 weeks, were mainly placed outside Wales (6C). They went to work in private and, increasingly, in public institutions. This work was characterized by low pay, long hours, low status and no protective legislation. Conditions in,service varied but were frequently harsh (6D). There are tales of bed-bugs and starvation. Such stories are not uncommon as the work of rescue organizations, such as the National Vigilance Association and the London Welsh Girls Friendly Aid Society show (6E).

Para 6.7

Domestic service was the main source of employment of young Welsh girls in these years. Only in a few areas did women do industrial work. In the Llanelli area women did heavy, and often dangerous, work in the tin-plate industry (6F).

Light industrial factories did not come to Wales until the late 1930s. Treforest industrial estate was established in 1938 and Polykoff’s clothing factory was set up in the Rhondda in 1939. Professional women made some gains and suffered some losses in this period. Women entered teaching and the civil service in large numbers. The civil service, newly opened to women, operated a marriage bar. This marriage bar was also applied to teaching from the mid-1920s onwards.

Women in the home

Para 6.8

Seventeen per cent of Welsh women in the inter-war years came into the census category of ‘never married’: 83 per cent came into the category of ‘ever married’. The large majority of Welsh adult women were married women and were classified as housewives. Since the dominant ideology of the times dictated that the housewife’s place was in the home, housing was very important to her. Housing in Wales, as in the rest of Britain at this period, was characterized by shortages, appalling conditions and high rents; it was a bad situation, further exacerbated by the fact that no new houses were built during the war. Investigations highlighted the problems of housing. Evidence given to the Sankey Commission on coalmining by Mrs Elizabeth Andrews, Labour Party Women’s Organizer for Wales, stressed high rents and poor conditions (6G). The wartime government had recognized the important part played by housing in women’s lives and had set up a Women’s Committee on Housing in 1918. The centrality of housing to women’s lives and the need for improvements and new houses was clearly stated by the Women’s Co-op Guild at a conference in 1923 (6H). Mrs Alwyn Lloyd in an article in The Welsh Housing and Development Association Year Book, 1921, listed the features she would like to see in an ideal home: hot running water was the dream of the miner’s wife! (6I) This ideal can be compared with the worst reality – in the sort of home where tuberculosis (y dicai) was rampant (6J). Such housing as existed in Wales, whether in urban or rural areas, although often in a very poor condition, could be kept habitable by very hard work. Women worked very long and hard hours in this struggle against poverty and grime (6K). Many women fought constantly in the battle against poor housing and dirt. They took a pride in their task and ordered their work on strict weekly plans – for example, Monday – washing; Tuesday – ironing, bed-making; Wednesday – upstairs rooms; Thursday – mats beaten; Friday – parlour. It was a never-ending round. But times of great economic hardship in some cases eroded women’s pride not only in their homes but in their own appearances, as the Pilgrim Trust Investigators found (6L).

Para 6.9

The inter-war years saw some women in Wales breaking out from the limitations of the private sphere of the home into the public world of politics, commerce and the professions: nevertheless the home still remained the sole province of many Welsh housewives and the only place where they had any influence or authority. Some older-style historians have failed to recognize the limited sphere of the authority of the ‘Welsh Mam’ and consequently have written nonsensically about Wales being a matriarchal society. This myth is rooted in the practice of miners and dockers and other manual workers handing over their unopened wage packets to their wives. The practice was widespread but it is important to realize that the miner, etc., was handing over the responsibility of managing on what was often a very low wage. Industrialists did not hand over the annual profits to their wives and ask them to manage. But the picture of the ‘Mam’s’ power because of this practice is enshrined in literature and folk memory (6M). In reality she had to manage – to pay the rent, to buy food, fuel, light, insurances, household items and clothe husband, children and herself – from a fixed wage. When there was no wage, and in many parts of Wales this was frequently the case in the 1920s and 1930s, she still had to manage: weekly budgeting was an art.

The Caerphilly woman whose weekly budget, together with her own personal diet, is included in the sources collection, chose to illustrate her budget in a week when her husband’s wage was at its highest: even so, she was criticized by medical analysts at the time for not spending on fish and eggs (6N). In hard times, women frequently cut expenditure by cutting down on their own food. This had severe repercussions on their health: the Caerphilly woman suffered from giddiness and palpitations. Many researchers, Sir John Orr, Seebohm Rowntree and the British Medical Association team, demonstrated the inadequacy of the working-class diet. People filled up on bread, and did not drink enough fresh milk; even in the country they drank tinned milk. Poor housing, poor diet and overwork, combined with a medical service that had to be paid for (mining areas were exceptional in that they had medical insurance schemes), made for a low standard of women’s health. There was, among working-class women in Wales, almost an expectation that their health would be below par – and it often was. Apart from major diseases, there were simply the ailments they learned to live with (6O). Tuberculosis was one of the most serious diseases of the period. It is a disease linked with poverty and poor housing and it was contracted by far more people in Wales than in England. Megan Lloyd George, making her maiden speech in Parliament in 1930 in response to a government initiative on housing, concentrated on the danger of tuberculosis to women in rural Anglesey (6P). A major report of 1939 closely linked tuberculosis in Wales with housing.

Para 6.10

The problems of childbearing also increased the dangers to women’s health. The rate of maternal mortality in Britain was regarded as a scandal in the 1920s. In Wales the figures were consistently worse than those for England. Whereas the mortality rate of women in childbirth from all causes in England and Wales was 4.33 per 1000 in 1920, 3.91 in 1921 and 3.81 in 1922, in Wales alone the figures were 5.52 per 1000 in 1920, 5.35 in 1921 and 5.43 in 1922 (6Q). The child death rate (infant mortality rate) was also alarmingly high, though food parcels from outside actually brought that figure down in 1926. In Monmouthshire infant death rates per 1000 registered births fell from 83.8 in 1925 to 66.1 in 1926, only to rise again in 1927 to 87.3. In the 1930s, children in Pengam contracted rickets within their mother’s womb. Successive pregnancies were debilitating to women’s health, as the heart- rending collection of essays, Maternity, published in 1915 by the Women’s Co-operative Guild had shown. The birth rate had in fact fallen from an average of 5.5 to 6 live births per couple in the middle of the nineteenth century to 2.2 live births in the years 1925–9. But despite the efforts of campaigners, birth control provision was still abysmal. Welsh women wrote pathetically to Marie Stopes and other birth control campaigners (6R). The campaigner Stella Browne, on a tour in South Wales and Monmouthshire in the 1920s, was struck by the eagerness with which audiences listened to her (6S).

Para 6.11

But it was the exhausting effect of successive pregnancies which wore out many young women. In 1930 the government partially gave way to campaigners for birth control by conceding that existing Maternity and Child Welfare clinics (set up after the war to give advice on pregnancy and child care) could give birth control instruction to mothers whose health would be injured by further pregnancies. This government memorandum to local authorities merely allowed them to give birth control advice: there was no compunction to do so. Many Welsh counties were very slow: Monmouthshire was very bad. Cardiff saw many women die from illegal abortions before it acted (6T). Merthyr had an unusual, and quite different, problem (6U).

Women’s campaigns

Para 6.12

Women’s employment prospects were bleak and home life and health left much to be desired. But it is important not merely to see Welsh women as victims in this period. Some of them began to enter public life and many of them became involved in women’s or community campaigns. Welsh women continued to fight for equal suffrage until this was granted in 1928 (6V). They struggled for improved conditions in the community, too, by such campaigns as that for pit-head baths.

Welsh women participated in the 1934 Hunger March to London: they marched at the head of the contingent the whole way in an effort to prevent further cuts in unemployment benefit and to demand work (6W). In 1935 women from the South Wales valleys launched an attack on the Unemployment Assistance Board’s offices in Merthyr; the result was that the government backed down in its attempt to cut benefits. It was a triumph of popular protest.

Unit 7 Edward I and the conquest of medieval Wales