Thursday, 8 March 2012

International Women's Day: Close to Home

This is my great-grandmother, Emily Marsland (with my mother). Born in 1848 in Sale, Cheshire, she married a local joiner, and moved south with their eight children to follow the work. She always said that he could drink away his wages, but if he ever laid a finger on her or the children, she would throw him out. He did. She did.

This is my grandmother, Frances Howitt (born 1888; shown here in fancy dress). After a broken engagement to a young man who came back from the Great War destroyed by what we'd now call PTSD, she married my grandfather in her 30s. She had always wanted a large family, but after her first child (my mother) was born, she was told that it would be dangerous for her to have any more. She brought my mother up single-handedly while my grandfather was in the far east with the Royal Navy, and was actively involved with the local Spastics Society (now Scope). She continued to help with Darby and Joan  and other clubs well into her 80s, referring to "my old ladies" (many of whom were younger than her!). Once, in her 70s, my mother mentioned that she had managed to ladder her tights. "Damn!" she said, "Must have done it while I was running for my bus." She lost her sight to cataracts in her 80s, but undeterred, she taught herself Moonwriting (a type of Braille designed for those who lose their sight in old age), and wielded her white stick like a scimitar! 

This is my mother. Denied a grammar school education by a teacher who did not enter her for the 11+ because she did not think my grandparents could afford the uniform, she attended a Commercial school and gained sufficient secretarial skills to gain employment with Royal Insurance. Since this was wartime, she soon found herself in a responsible role (she also had to do Fire Watch in the office at night to guard against incendiary attacks, although, to be fair, the nation was probably more at risk from her forgotten cigarette ends than from the Luftwaffe!). At the end of the war, the men returned and she was faced with effective demotion, so she decided to resign and start her own dancing school (what she had wanted to do all along). People were incredulous - giving up a good job with a respectable firm in order to run her own business? And a married woman, too!

She stuck to her guns though, and the business survived longer than the marriage. She met and married my father in the late 50s, although both have said that a few years later they would probably not have bothered with the wedding, but cohabitation was still not 'the done thing' in 50s Kent. They celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary last summer. She ran not only the school but, with the help of my dad, a local theatre group; she, though, was the name people knew - dad was very much the 'consort'!

And me? I defied my teachers at 18 and refused to apply for university, choosing to attend in my mid-20s and doing a subject of my choosing rather than an extension of my A level subjects; I de-camped to the US for a year leaving my then-boyfriend/now-partner at home. I am still defiantly holding out against marriage after 24 years of happy cohabitation, and have two clever and talented daughters who I hope will appreciate that they come from a long line of feisty women, who weren't afraid to be a bit different.

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