Posts Tagged ‘women’s history’

In 2008, during BBC4’s ‘Medieval Mind’ series, TV historian Michael Wood presented what I consider the best single historical TV programme, ever. It shows us in words and pictures the ordinary lives of ordinary people in a period we usually only know from stories of kings, queens and warring nobles. Michael explains and demonstrates how people lived on a daily basis – their homes, food, animals, faith – and the disasters that beset them, killing vast numbers, in the 14th century. He shows how these details of ordinary lives can be found in documents normally used only by academics – manorial and tax records. In some cases, these ancient documents, six or seven hundred years old, look as fresh as the day they were written – the ink still dark, handwriting neat and legible on clean parchment. Nowadays we have trouble with the Latin but help’s available for that, should we venture to look. Seeing Michael unroll and read those records was like watching Tut’s tomb being opened!

Most importantly though, the programme focuses fully on the life of one medieval woman – Christina Cok. She stands for the millions of women whose lives have been lost to our history, even when records about them exist. A female voice-over, speaking in the words and accents of Middle English, movingly talks to us from Wills and letters written by women at the time. And at the end, we’re taken through a montage of pictures of women over the centuries, while Michael tells us: this is the forgotten half of our ancestry – the women.

The programme has been re-broadcast numerous times and I’ve watched it every time. I never fail to shed tears at the end – in my aching regret for the forgotten half of my ancestry. In my experience, no other TV historian has highlighted the lost history of ordinary women in this way – something that was very long overdue in 2008 and much more is still needed.

“Christina – a Medieval Life” may be available to buy on DVD from Maya Vision International, as listed here: http://bufvc.ac.uk/dvdfind/index.php/title/av74666. And you may also be able to view it on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/102878103.


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I dislike the word ‘illegitimate’ with all its negative connotations. What did it mean? A child whose parents weren’t married, or whose father was unknown or too irresponsible to claim his child. But why would that make the child unlawful? These days we accept that children born to unwed mothers are as legitimate as those born to married couples, so I’d like to confer the same respect on our ancestors. Unless we are quoting documents written in the past, we can use a simple alternative expression: ‘out of wedlock’. Once I asked another web-writer to use this instead of ‘illegitimate’ and he responded that it was too long and awkward. But ‘out of wedlock’ has only 4 syllables and ‘illegitimate’ has 5 – which is the longest and most awkward?

This came to my mind today after an American colleague, researching her 19th century relatives in the industrialised parts of Lancashire, commented on the number of children born to unwed mothers, the high rate of mortality for those children and the numbers of early births to newly-married couples. She could see a lot of pre-marital sex so she asked if I knew what attitudes were like at that time to ‘illegitimacy’ and unwed mums.

My answer has grown out of research done previously into conditions in 19th century Gateshead and my recent visit to the Mitchell Library which houses the City of Glasgow Archives, including a huge collection of Poor Relief Applications. Among them, in their fat, closely-written tomes, I found a dozen made by my relatives, from the 1850s through to the early 20th century. Distressing is too mild a word for their contents.

There was a TV programme in the UK recently looking at the history of cities. The presenter emphasised repeatedly that from the Victorian period, through to the slum clearances of the 1920s-30s and after WW2 (I can remember the clearances happening in the 1960s in the industrial town near where I lived), one third of the British population lived in abject poverty. One third!

What I saw in the Glasgow Poor Relief Applications was the evidence of that dire poverty, but it existed in all the industrial cities of the UK, in Lancashire, Yorkshire, county Durham/Northumberland, in London of course and in places not often thought of as industrial, eg. Bristol and in Wales.

Imagining the unimaginable

I think if we try to imagine ourselves into the severest levels of poverty, the worst housing conditions, the unemployment, dangerous, underpaid and insecure jobs, the lack of education, inadequate levels of charitable and religious support, the total absence of sanitation… it’s not hard to believe that what we regard as ‘normal’ things, such as registering births, marriages and deaths, baptising children, waiting until after marriage to have them, getting married at all – norms of behaviour that go with a settled, basically OK way of life – simply break down. We can also understand that people in these circumstances, if they had some money, were likely to spend it on drink, as an escape. Alcoholism and violence were common among the poorest classes, petty crime too, as people did what it took to survive. Another activity that people with no prospects in life did to find some happiness and pleasure was, of course, sex. For women, add in to this picture, their lack of civil rights and education or employment opportunities. It was normal for poor women to be treated without respect and for them to turn to the oldest game in the world when they needed money to survive, or simply looked for fun, warmth or love. Without contraception, children inevitably resulted. It’s not surprising many babies died young, considering the environments they were born into but I think we can also accept that early deaths might have been hastened on through neglect or worse by young women who had no way of supporting a child, and no access to abortion.

Doing family research, we rely on written records and we tend to think that birth, marriage and death certificates, and family events like baptisms and marriages were the norm for everyone but in fact they only consistently exist for those who lived beyond the worst poverty levels, ie. those who had at least a little in life, a little hope, some stability, just about enough to live on.

My Scottish great-great-grandmother, Cecilia Beaton was “born in fornication” in an industrial village called Campsie outside Glasgow where conditions were like the ‘wild west’ in the USA. She had four known ‘husbands’ without a single recorded marriage, and nine children, none baptised. Two of her daughters also had children out-of-wedlock, as I discovered for the first time this year in the Glasgow Poor Relief records. Two of those three children died as infants and there’s a note that one of them was “passed up by the police having been found exposed on a stair”. I confess I cried at that. I would not have been able to trace this family at all if it wasn’t for the poor relief records, because of the lack of other recorded events.

What I find amazing is how much, in those appalling conditions, people did manage to uphold some levels of dignity and pride, and in some cases to find their way out of the pit.

Necessity not immorality

For poor women, just about the only way of surviving, other than prostitution, was marriage, so of course they held hard to that once achieved. We know from court records and stories of the time, as in Dickens, how frequently women were abused by husbands – or deserted. But most found ways to endure marriage, even when treated terribly, because all other ‘choices’ were worse. If they were ‘lucky’ and husband stayed around until his death, at that point we often see the woman applying for poor relief or entering the workhouse (unless a child could manage to take her in) – the poorest of the poor were widows.

There is another question from my US colleague I haven’t answered. “Were women ostracised for having an out-of-wedlock child?” The evidence I’ve seen points to hypocrisy and contradiction. On the one hand, everyone knew pre-marital sex happened and that children resulted. But it was still usually seen as a disgrace and the fault of the woman not the man. She wasn’t virtuous enough, she didn’t resist enough etc. Many women were ostracised, thrown out by their families. But there is also evidence that many were supported, as best their families could manage, though the fact of the birth would often be hidden away in shame. ‘Adoption’ by grandparents as though the child was a late one of their own was a frequent method of hiding the truth. An older married sister or a childless aunt might take on such a child too. Most common of all, family support took the form of ‘shotgun weddings’ either with the child’s real father or someone else (who perhaps never knew an early-born child wasn’t his own).

Even up to the present day this ‘shame’ still exists of having had pre-marital sex and a child born ‘before it was due’. I know a couple who celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on the wrong day, three months early, so that their eldest child would not know he was conceived before the marriage. Perhaps sadly, the truth came out when one of the family got the couple’s marriage certificate as a gift. I discovered (with a little pleasure I must admit) that a relative known for her fierce morals and disapprovals, had had a Register Office wedding herself because she was already pregnant, a fact the family had never known.

It’s surely time to remove from our ancestors – especially the women – the last traces of this damaging and unnecessary shame for ‘illegitimacy’ and ‘immorality’ and to give them the respect they always deserved.

A day late for Women’s History Month (March 2014) but better late than never I hope.

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Today the British media is full of commentary on the disciplining of two veteran Sky News sports reporters for sexist comments they made about Sian Massey, one of our few female football referees.  The BBC’s online article tells us that, out of a total of 853 women football referees in England, just three officiate at the professional level, though the overall percentage of women’s involvement in the sport and its management is improving.

Normally football news would not interest me much but this story caught my eye.  It cast my memory back to when I played football myself, in the mid-60s, as part of a mixed team. 

The team, about 1967
Me the footballer, front row, first on left.

Recently, I rediscovered my teenage diaries and was fascinated to read how much I enjoyed playing, how satisfying and exhilarating it was to acquire the skills our country was celebrating so heartily in 1966 when England, in its finest hour, won the World Cup.

What I also remember is: not even for a single moment did I imagine that I, a mere female, could have any kind of future in football.  Judging by the BBC’s article, in forty years since then, things still haven’t changed significantly despite the heroic entry of pioneer women to club management and football journalism.  Now you may wonder what any of this has to do with family history and, in particular, to our ‘lost’ female ancestors.

So let’s look at some historical facts.  On 9 May 1881, the Glasgow Herald published what is probably the earliest record of women playing association football on an organised basis in the UK, reporting on a Ladies’ International Match between Scotland and England (Scotland won 3-0).  In other words, women were playing football in the UK almost from the start of the game.  The British Ladies’ Football Club was founded in 1894 and the English Ladies’ Football Association in 1921.  During the first World War, women’s teams, especially those drawn from munitions factories in the north-east of England, became highly skilled and immensely popular, their matches often drawing huge crowds.  Often they practised and played at men’s clubs and, in some cases, the male and female teams were equally popular.  These facts are taken from an excellent, detailed account of women’s football history by Patrick Brennan: http://www.donmouth.co.uk/womens_football/womens_football.html

In December 1921 came the backlash, when the (male) Football Association declared: “Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged…  the council request clubs belonging to the association to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.”  Thereafter, despite women’s continuing interest in all aspects of football, progress towards professionalism and national recognition in the women’s game has always been in the teeth of the bitter winds of patronising disrespect and opposition.  Not surprising perhaps that today, in January 2011, two male sports reporters still talk about a female football referee with the same disrespect.  There is still a long way to go.

On his website, Patrick Brennan names many of the women players and entrepreneurs of football in the first quarter of the 20th century, so any of us might find a grandmother or great-grandmother there.  This slice of women’s history tells us several things.  It tells us that women can be just as good and popular as men in arenas where they are not regarded as such and illustrates a recurring theme: that women’s past achievements become ‘lost to history’ so even a generation or two later we know little or nothing about them.  We can also see that, unless we are ready to dig about for more facts about our female ancestors, it is extraordinarily easy to misunderstand the reality of their lives.  I plan to do some of that extra digging and in future posts to tell some more of our foremothers’ lost stories.

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