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The Women’s Library on Radio 4’s Today programme, Monday 2 January

3 Jan

Very excitingly, we were featured on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday! Clare Rose gave their business reporter, Simon Jack, a guided tour of the All Work and Low Pay exhibition. Now, as it was a Bank Holiday, I expect some people may have been in bed and missed it. You can listen on iPlayer for the next week (it’s at around 2 hours 43 minutes into the show) or you can read the transcript:

Sarah Montague (presenter): An exhibition at The Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University aims to put paid to the myth that the majority of British women didn’t go to work until the second half of the twentieth century. Simon Jack went to find out more. Simon?

Simon Jack: Yes, thank you. The exhibition is called All Work and Low Pay, and as you say focuses on just how many women were in the workforce at a time when the stereotype put most of them in the home, until very recently anyway. The curator is Dr Clare Rose, and we began by watching a film from the early 1950s.

Film voiceover, male: ‘Woman. Woman of 1950. Can she develop her individual talents? Or does she still look upon marriage as the sole purpose of her existence?’

Simon Jack:  So, I’m with Dr Clare Rose here. Tell us a little bit about the film we are watching.

Dr Clare Rose. Image: The Women's Library, London Metropolitan University

Clare Rose: It was made in 1951 by Jill Craigie, who was the wife of Michael Foot, the well-known Labour politician. And she made it because she didn’t like the attempts after World War Two to encourage, or in some cases force, women to leave the workplace and go back to the household. And she points out that in 1951 which we think of as a time when (quote unquote) women didn’t work, there were actually seven million working women in Britain.

Film voiceover, female: ‘ If anyone dares to resurrect that old cliche “women’s place is in the home”, let them contemplate the sight of millions of women out of the home, earning their own living.’

Clare Rose: I think it really sums up one of the main points of the exhibition, which is that there’s this kind of amnesia about women’s work. People keep denying that women have worked, that women do work, and because there’s this collective denial it means that a lot of problems are never resolved and we have to keep reinventing the wheel.

The work that women did was not just a little bit of light typing and filing. It was really heavy, gruelling, physical work.

Simon Jack: And we’ve got some of the artefacts here: there are sort of hammers and chains. What is that depicting?

Clare Rose: That is a really really important group of artefacts from the women who made chains in their back kitchens in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands. And it reminds us that there is no job, no matter how hard or how industrial, that has not had large numbers of women doing it.

In the post-war period, women did not all go back to the home and start raising 2.5 children. Or if they tried that for a few
years, they actually then went back to work in all sorts of jobs, including engineering. And here we have the first issue of
the women’s newsletter for the Allied Engineering Workers’ Union. And we have a leaflet here arguing for equal pay for equal work put out by the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, again from the early 1950s.

Simon Jack: These union leaflets, of course, recognising women’s role in sort of manufacturing and engineering. The trade unions weren’t all of one voice about what they thought about women working in situations like this.

Clare Rose: Very often women have pushed for things beyond what the male-led unions wanted.

Simon Jack: Why were some male members of trade unions against women in the workplace? It’s not something you would expect to hear these days.

Clare Rose: They felt that if women were in the workplace it would erode pay differentials, it would lead to de-skilling,
which would then hit their [men’s] wage packets.

Simon Jack: So essentially you’re saying that women would do it for less, and that would hurt them [men] ultimately.

Clare Rose: Yes

Film voiceover, female:  ‘Without them industry would be paralysed. So if any of those sentimental sort of fellows are around, shaking their heads at this state of affairs , we reply in this day and age “women work while men weep!”‘

Simon Jack: Dr Clare Rose, curator of the exhibition which as you say is at The Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University and it’s on until April the 4th.