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.


Virtual vists case 3: Women’s Work – Working Lives

14 Dec

Time for another look at one of the cases in the All Work and Low Pay exhibition, I think! The Working Lives case explores issues women faced in the workplace, including the Marriage Bar and sexual harrassment.

The Women's Library, London Metropolitan University

*Spoiler alert* These documents show the text and all the objects featured in the Working Lives case of the exhibition. Don’t look yet if you’re intending to visit and want it to be a surprise. *Spoiler alert*

Download Women’s Work – Working Lives introduction

Download Women’s Work – Working Lives

Introducing the team: Sofia Linden

23 Nov

The centrepiece of the All Work and Low Pay exhibition is a lovely hand-crafted table. It houses three of the exhibition cases, and is made up of various ‘work surfaces’. It was built by furniture maker Sofia Linden. Here’s what she says about her work:

I left my native Sweden a couple of years ago to do a Fine Woodwork Diploma course at the Building Crafts College, a full time course running over two years. There I was trained as a furniture maker/ designer, using both traditional techniques and modern equipment. During the course we regularly had lectures by and did projects for some of the most prominent furniture makers in Britain, all teaching us their special methods in this non exact science called woodwork. Since graduating this summer I have worked as a freelance furniture maker.

My involvement in All Work and Low Pay consisted of the production of a table to display some of the content of the exhibition. The nine metre long table is formed from a number of work related pieces of furniture, incorporating domestic items such as ironing and washing boards, to office and industrial furniture including a drawing board and a workbench.

I was delighted to participate in the All Work and Low Pay exhibition, since I used to be involved in the Women’s Movement in Sweden, and because I work in a male dominated field. I can happily say that even though I am often the only woman on site, I have never experienced any prejudice or discrimination, and I see that the number of women working in my industry is increasing. I am very aware that were it not for the efforts of many before me I might not have the opportunities that are available to me today.


Virtual Visits case 2 – Women’s Work

22 Nov

For those who can’t make a visit to All Work and Low Pay, those who’ve visited and want to take another look, and those who just can’t wait to see it; I’ll be posting up the exhibition booklet for each case.

Today’s case, the second of 11, is the big one. It’s what we call our ‘banner case’:  a floor to ceiling glass case taking up a whole wall of the exhibition space. We’ve packed it full with items and photos showing the array of jobs undertaken by women, including chain-making, hop-gathering, catering and electrical engineering. We’ve borrowed some lovely items from the Museum of English Rural Life, the Black Country Living Museum, the People’s History Museum, Alexandra Workwear, and some very kind private collectors who’ve lent us artefacts they’ve used in their work.

*Spoiler alert* These documents show the text and all the objects featured in the Women’s Work case of the exhibition. Don’t look yet if you’re intending to visit and want it to be a surprise. *Spoiler alert*

Download Women’s Work introduction

Download Women’s Work objects

Visitor views: work and children

18 Nov

Many of the comments we’ve had on visitors’ own experience relate to the issue of work and children. This is a subject threaded throughout the All Work and Low Pay exhibition, with organisations such as Black Women For Wages For Housework campaigning for an alternative system, and books of advice for mothers returning to work after maternity leave.

The exhibition features a timeline with statistics on women and work. One of the most interesting I think is the one showing the disparity between the percentage of men and the percentage of women working part time: hardly any men do. Whether by choice or necessity, this suggests that it is still overwhelmingly women who adapt their working routines to fit around childcare.

Although great strides have been made in legislation to ensure that pregnant women and parents are treated fairly in the workplace, several comments tell of discrimination against women because they have – or simply potentially might have – children:

‘My boss frequently says to me “You are not going to go and have a baby are you?”‘

‘My first job on leaving school at 16 was a trainee dental nurse. At interview I was asked (by five men) what plans I had to get married/have children. This was only in 1985…’

‘I remember a client, when I was working as a graphic designer in Murcia, that told me he didn’t want talk to me. He preferred to speak with my mate because he didn’t like to have a conversation with me, “Women should be at home just taking care of their children…”‘

Emmeline Pankhurst with a baby, The Women's Library/Mary Evans Picture Library

When asked about their ideal working situation, many visitors responded with wishes for work that balanced or understood their family responsibilities:

‘I want to work and have a family preferably with reasonable hours. The recession is making this impossible.’

‘Is not looking after your own babies working? Should we not use the tax system to encourage mothers with small babies to be able to afford to look after their own babies?’

‘[My dream is] owning and operating a business run by women that also benefits women’.

Book review: Margaret Forster’s Diary of an Ordinary Woman

16 Nov

Book cover from Vintage edition

Recently I read a great book, Margaret Forster’s Diary of an Ordinary Woman 1914-1995 (2003). It fitted in so perfectly with the themes of All Work and Low Pay that I thought I’d recommend it to you.

It’s a novel but it took me a while to realise it, because it’s in the form of a very convincing edited diary. The story begins when the author is invited to meet an elderly lady, Millicent King, who has kept a journal recording her whole life since she was 13 years old. What follows is an ‘edited’ version of the fictional diaries, tracing historical events and social change from the First World War to Greenham Common.

The descriptions of Millicent’s experience of work are really interesting as she changes her mind about her career several times: she’s a teacher, a publishing assistant, and one of the earliest social workers, as well as taking on a role as an ambulance driver in the Second World War. There are detailed considerations of training and educational opportunities for women, choices which have to be made when balancing paid work and family responsibilities, the drudgery of unpleasant jobs and the joy of fulfilling work. As well as being a fantastically well researched piece of social history, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable novel, with all the romance and suspense and humour you could wish for. Highly recommended.

Margaret Forster is a very prolific writer, and we have many of her books in The Women’s Library, including Diary of an Ordinary Woman. We’re a reference library, so it may take you a few visits to our Reading Roomto get through the whole novel (you’re very welcome to curl up in a cosy corner and sp

including biographies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Daphne du Maurier. I was pleased to discover that in a 2002 article in Architect’s Journal, the author described the (then brand-new) Women’s Library as her second-favourite building.

Introducing the team: Cristina Monteiro

15 Nov

Cristina Monteiro, architect and exhibition designer

Cristina Monteiro, muf architecture/art, was the exhibition designer for the All Work and Low Pay exhibition. Cristina joined muf in 2008 and since then has worked on the design and delivery of a suite of play spaces and landscapes in the London Boroughs of Lambeth and Camden, and most recently the enhancement of Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel, part of High Street 2012.

Cristina was born in Portugal and has lived in East London since 2000. She trained as an architect at the University of East London and London Metropolitan University, where her postgraduate project won the School Prize for Social Entrepreneurship.

Prior to joining muf, Cristina worked on the design of several exhibitions including a landmark exhibition on the work of Sri-Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa at the DeutschesArchitekturmuseum in Frankfurt. She has been a studio tutor at Kingston University School of Architecture and Landscape, and a guest tutor at ÉcoleSpécialed’Architecture (Paris), London Metropolitan University and Syracuse University. Cristina sits on the London Borough of Tower Hamlets Conservation & Design Panel, and is the Treasurer of the Friends of Allen Gardens, a community group.