My Website

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

International Women's Day 1923: will this centenary be celebrated?

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1923

I am not sure whether this is generally considered a major leap forward in the advancement of women in England, but the writer Clemence Dane certainly believed it was:

[T]his slip of paper is one of the most important scraps of paper in the history of women, in the history, at any rate, of English women.... [it] defined, so long as England and the English idea shall endure, the status of women: it concedes for the first time her absolute right as a human being to the same law and the same justice that man enjoys. (Clemence Dane, The Woman's Side 1926, pp. 106-7)

I.e. it legally recognised a Single Moral Standard between the sexes, rather than having a much higher bar of marital misconduct in the male for authorising the dissolution of marriage. While it did not go anything like as far in establishing the wider grounds for divorce as some bodies had advocated to the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce prior to the Great War, nonetheless it was a significant step in making divorce more available.

It is not entirely easy to ascertain how far women took advantage of this new measure. In spite of the difficulties under the previous law a significant number of divorces had been sought and achieved by women. Under the new law (and possibly even before), there was a social convention that, if a couple wished to divorce, and were not on completely hostile terms, they would come to an arrangment whereby, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, the husband would let the wife divorce him by providing evidence of adultery. This would obviously somewhat exaggerate the statistics.

Even if he was the guilty party, the man might spare the reputation of the woman he might, after all, intend to marry once his first union was dissolved, by employing the services of a hired co-respondent, who would provide 'evidence' by going with him to a hotel, where the bill would reveal that he had taken a double room. and the pair would be discovered by the maid who brought the morning tea. The actress and nightclub entrepreneur Elsa Lanchester described in her autobiography, Elsa Lanchester Herself how as a penurious young woman she would undertake this masquerade - no actual sex was involved, they would usually play cards to occupy the time. 

An instance of this 'judicial farce' was recently revealed when the papers of the solicitor who handled Wallis Simpson's 1936 divorce from her husband were opened in 2019. The hotel to which Ernest Simpson took his anonymous companion -  'the woman named' - was very proud of its reputation for discretion about its guests and therefore reluctant to disclose any information to the inquiry agent.

It was not until 1937 that AP Herbert's Matrimonial Causes Act finally extended the grounds beyond adultery, and even then the action remained adversarial and based in concepts of 'guilt' and 'innocence'.




Tuesday, 28 February 2023

The archivist regrets...

I was recently reminded by discussions elsewhere of a rather gloom-making instance of a very prolonged interaction, or rather, recurrent interactions, I was involved in during my years as an acquiring archivist. This was possibly the most frustrating case in my recollection - which professional omerta forbids me from actually naming, and indeed, such are the mysteries of what organisations do with their records and then forget they've done until they suddenly turn up where no-one expects them, I should like to think that not all hope is gone...

This was different from the annoyance that was created when we had, over a period of years (we thought) nurtured a relationship with the last surviving inheritors of a pretty much defunct organisation, and persuaded them that their archives were of permanent historical value, and ought to be somewhere other than somebody's cellar. And then they turned around and placed the records in Another Repository. With which, I suppose, there was some relevant connection, and at least the records survived and had been placed in safe custody.

There was the case where the person who had the papers of an organisation in which they had been a prime mover and was quite happy for them to come to us, died suddenly, and whoever cleared the house just chucked them into the skip. That was immensely infuriating.

But this one I first mentioned: the frustration came because I had actually seen the records, which had at one time been in the hands of a research centre within a university. As was the way of research centres, this was, I think, defunded, or at least ceased to engage in activities involving the holding of archives, and one collection they had been holding came into our care, but another, related, collection, went back to the creating organisation.

Attempts to gather in this collection, which was substantial and would have been of considerable importance, and related closely to other materials we already held, persisted over a period of decades. Unfortunately we would make an approach and things would seem to be moving along and then the person with whom we had been dealing left, or moved to a different post, or there was a general reshuffle, and re-ordering of priorities, and it was down the snake back to square one.

There were a few occasions when researchers were permitted to consult these archives on site.

At one point we heard the rather horrifying news that it had been decided to microfilm the records in the interests of saving space. The collection was significant enough that we were even prepared to take it in this form that would be a nightmare to process and catalogue. On the whole one is perhaps just slightly relieved that they did not go overboard in digitising in the really early days of that becoming a possibility, because while microfilm is not a preservation medium, it's a good deal more robust than most digital media.

But it was back to snakes-and-ladders and silences and this remains one of the regrets of my archival career. Still, maybe one day somebody will look a filing cabinet drawer and wonder what are all these boxes of microfilm - 

One may only hope they don't just throw them out.

Monday, 16 January 2023

Paradoxes and contradictions among early twentieth-century birth control activists

 I was extremely gratified last week to see the updated Edinburgh University Press webpage for the forthcoming volume of essays, Naomi Mitchison: A Writer in Time, edited by James Purdon, which has this absolutely gorgeous cover:

My essay is 'Send in the Clones?: Naomi Mitchison and the Politics of Reproduction and Motherhood'.

In this there was so much to address about Mitchison's own involvement with ideas on these subjects over her long life, in her activism, non-fiction writing, and in both realist and science fiction, that I did not have space to address her position as one of several leading figures in the interwar birth control movement who found themselves in a somewhat parodoxical and rather contradictory position.

When women in the 1920s began speaking out about the necessity for birth control and setting up clinics, this was taken in itself as a sign of immorality. The worthy founders of the Manchester, Salford and District Mothers' Clinic, were not only decried from the local Catholic pulpit as 'attempting to introduce unnatural vices' but 'the kind of idle women who visit matinees and sit with cigarettes between their painted lips'*: a very misleading characterisation of Mary Stocks and Charis Frankenberg (discussed in Mo Moulton's The Mutual Admiration Society (2019)), who probably saw themselves as rather dowdy social workers.

In order to avoid the associations with immorality and accusations of promoting vice and promiscuity, the birth control movement leaned, with reason, on the figure of the overburdened multiparous married women and the gains for maternal, and also infant, welfare, to be accrued through fewer, better-spaced, pregnancies. The Workers' Birth Control Group, set up by women in the Labour Party in 1924 to lobby for advice as part of publicly funded welfare services, presented itself as representing working mothers, and therefore, 'control of its policy was to be in the hands of men and women who had known the responsibility of parenthood' (apart from Dorothy Jewson, MP, as there were no married Labour women MPs at the time).** This occluded the contributions to their activities of the very unmarried and childless Stella Browne.

The public image of the birth control movement, therefore, was heavily invested in rhetorics of conventional marriage and parenthood, even if there was also a commitment to new egalitarian models of these relationships.

However, a significant number of the leading figures in the movement, including Mitchison, saw birth control and women's reproductive agency as part of a wider vision of transformed relationships, not merely on the theoretical level, but in practice. Mitchison, like Helena Wright, Margery Spring-Rice, Margaret Pyke, Dora Russell and Joan Malleson, herself lived a life of unconventional relationships and evolving new moralities (these did not always work out well, as the disastrous end of the marriage of Dora and Bertrand Russell demonstrated). Mitchison also revealed, in an oral history interview late in life, that although the birth control movement was careful to dissociate itself from abortion, nonetheless at the North Kensington Women's Welfare Centre, where she had been a volunteer, they all knew people who would perform abortions and helped out women in desperate trouble.***

So there was a careful negotiation going on over public-facing presentation and those more private beliefs and behaviour, which might possibly have been expressed in certain sympathetic niche venues.

There was also rather careful negotiation going on with the Eugenics Society. On the whole, the birth control movement was much more interested in improving the lot of actual women in the present and their immediate offspring, than improving the quality of generations yet to come. Some activists had more, and some a good deal less, sympathy with the concept of eugenics, and work on individual clinics has indicated that this varied a lot from clinic to clinic, but that eugenic considerations very seldom had any bearing on actual practice.

[Later thought added] Women birth control activists might also have felt somewhat leery of a body which saw them (and educated white middle-class women generally) as a eugenically desirable demographic whose primary duty ought to be breeding for The Nation. Marie Stopes herself had no truck with that line and voiced forceful objections in Radiant Motherhood. Mitchison, it must be said, was very unusual in this cohort with her seven children: but also (this is discussed in my essay forthcoming in the book!) expressed strong political cavils to C. P. Blacker of the Eugenics Society on the basis of her left-wing convictions.

However, the Eugenics Society had money, and the birth control movement, like most organisations primarily founded and run by women, did not. It lacked the resources of society charity available to the much more respectable National Birthday Trust Fund aimed at improving conditions of childbirth. Because birth control was still regarded rather dubiously even after 1930 when the Ministry of Health had conceded that advice might be given in local authority maternal welfare clinics, and the Lambeth Conference had conceded that it might have a licit place in Christian marriage, a lot of possibilities for fund-raising were not accessible. Mitchison, in her novel We Have Been Warned (1934), has the clinic in 'Sallington' scraping by on the proceeds of jumble sales and amateur dramatic performances. 

A wealthy organisation prepared to put up the money for among other things, research into improvements in contraception was a great temptation. Especially when another tempter was the commercial sector - Jess Borge in Protective Practices has shown how the London Rubber Company was extremely eager to make use of the National Birth Control Association/Family Planning Association for its own ends (the archives indicate that they were far from unique in this respect). Given the very longstanding stigmatisation of birth control propagandists as shills for the rubbergoods and abortifacient industry, the movement had to be extremely cautious about any commercial tie-in.

So, really, the birth control movement between the wars, and indeed, well into the 1960s, was engaged in a very delicate balancing act among paradoxical positions and living with contradictions.

*Mary Stocks, My Commonplace Book (1970), p 161, cited in Audrey Leathard, The Fight for Family Planning (1980), p. 32.

**Workers Birth Control Group files in the Dora Russell papers at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, nos 402 and 403.

***Transcript of interview with Naomi Mitchison by Barbara Evans, 1982, for biography of Dr Helena Wright: Papers of Philip Rainsford Evans and Barbara Evans in the Wellcome Library, PP/PRE/J.1/24


Saturday, 12 November 2022

White gloves are not a sign of good archival/library handling practice

Yesterday I engaged on a certain social media site which shall be nameless with somebody expressing horror at another person posting photos of an event he had been to involving manuscripts and, o horrors, they were handling them without white gloves. Which is absolutely right and proper, and considered the best practice across a broad swathe of libraries, archives, and manuscript collections.

Indeed, as this person went so far as to adduce the British Library as a place where one was obliged to glove up, I posted the BL's own guidelines on the subject:

Essentially, we recommend that it is preferable to handle manuscripts with clean dry hands. Wearing cotton gloves to hold or turn the pages of a book or manuscript actually reduces manual dexterity, and increases the likelihood of causing damage. Gloves also have a tendency to transfer dirt to the object being consulted, and to dislodge pigments or inks from the surface of pages.

During my own years working in research libraries as an archivist, and doing research in a range of institutions holding research materials in three continents, I can recall only one in which I was presented with a pair of - grubby, ill-fitting - white cotton gloves. While I was very grateful to have access to the correspondence between a significant cultural figure of the early twentieth century and their common-law spouse, held at a certain US educational establishment I shall not name, I had considerable qualms about the general conditions of its preservation.

I was handed a large flat box, which did not appear to be of acid-free material, containing shifting about it, loose, correspondence still in envelopes, unsorted, unfiled: rather than - as one might have hoped, removed from envelopes, flattened, attached to containing envelopes with non-corrosive clips, filed in chronological order in acid free files... It is also very difficult to extract letters in this condition while wearing manky cotton gloves. I am not saying that the situation was in the wider view fortunate, but the invigilation was sufficiently lax that I was able to take off the gloves without adverse notice, and thus removed the letters without damaging them.

The media, however, loves white gloves when showing people handling archives, manuscripts and rare volumes. I fear that this is a form of 'virtue-signalling', given some of my experiences involving media people and these precious materials (okay, the production company that wanted us to send some of a  archive over to their studio for them to film - without the kinds of pre-arrangement for insurance, supervision conditions, etc that might render such a request acceptable - was making a particularly unusual demand). White gloves demonstrate that they care: even if clean hands would be better.

There are some specific instances, as the BL guidelines indicate, when gloves are appropriate. The gloves, however, should be for preference nitrile, not cotton.

Thursday, 13 October 2022

Too short-sighted to breed from (not actually Julian Huxley)

I have been very struck, in reading the reviews of Alison Bashford's new and highly praised study of the Huxleys, that they all mention that Julian Huxley was solicited to become the father of another man's child by artificial insemination. At which I went, 'hang on, wasn't it Huxley who said he had reservations about that because of his degree of myopia?'

I've now managed to dig up the reference and it wasn't Huxley, and it wasn't in response to an actual solicitation to donate eugenically desirable sperm, it was a hypothetical response in the course of a discussion in the mid-1940s debates on the topic, by another distinguished member of the Eugenics Society:

I do not regard myself as a proper person to act as a donor because I have five degrees of myopia in both eyes as well as certain other minor disabilities. (SA/EUG/D/6 'Artificial Insemination')

(Although I think the individual in the question did have offspring of his marriage...)

People are regularly horrified by Marie Stopes dissing on her prospective daughter-in-law, a university graduate and the daughter of a distinguished scientist, on the grounds that she wore spectacles and would give Stopes grandchildren who also wore this disfiguring assistive technology. It is fairly obvious that Marie would have found some objection to whoever her son brought home with a view to marriage, given her particularly egregious manifestation of Mother-in-Law syndrome. But she was by no means unique in this stigmatisation of (by this time) fairly common visual defects requiring the habitual use of spectacles.

In a symposium on birth control held by the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, published in the Medical Critic and Guide in 1922, the Communist doctor Eden Paul expressed very adverse views on

the survival of persons with grave eye defects, short-sight, astigmatism, etc., who would, but for spectacles and the absence of a fierce struggle for existence on the biologic plane, be eliminated before they could perpetuate their defective type.

I am not sure this belief - as opposed to the general perception of spectacles as disfiguring (Dorothy Parker on 'Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses') and characters in movies removing them to be revealed as sexy stunners - has yet been thoroughly explored.

(This theme was brought to my mind by a query about familial myopia issues during an eye-test this morning.)


Tuesday, 20 September 2022

The Marie Lloyd mishmash of myths

I can't help it: I am massively irked when people go on reiterating some factoid that I have done the research on and know is misleading if not completely false. I am but one small pedantic voice, alas, and the false popular story is almost always a good deal simpler and more memorable than what happened, if anything actually happened at all.

There may well be even more myths about that famous music hall artiste Marie Lloyd that I haven't come across - I've encountered these in the context of censorship - or that have merely slipped my mind, but there are a couple that are extremely persistent and often circulated, that cannot be proved to have any solid basis. In at least one case the story is a dramatic exaggeration of the rather dull bureaucratic actuality, followed by the caution of music hall managements over what was permitted on stage.

Some responsibility undoubtedly lies with early biographers: Naomi Jacob, in Our Marie (Marie Lloyd): A Biography (1936) writes as one who did have a substantial personal knowledge of music-hall of the period, but was inclined to rely on anecdote without bothering to do any checking, while the narrative rambles chronologically in a somewhat frustrating fashion. This is, I suspect, where this particular tale originated:

Years ago, the Watch Committee, or the Morality Committee, or the Committee for Public Safety, or some such collection of prurient-minded old gentlemen, made a fuss about her songs.... She was ordered to appear... and allow this committee of old men to decide if those songs were fit for the ears of London and the provinces. (p.137.)

This begs a lot of questions. What authority would such a committee have to 'order' Our Marie to appear, and to, as Jacob proceeds to recount, perform several of her well-known songs for over an hour very pointedly in the blandest and most innocuous style, following up with a salacious rendition of popular Victorian parlour ballads? (The potential for invoking a lewd subtext in such works as 'Come into the garden, Maud', had been commented on at least as early as 1890 by a Mr GS Elliott in a speech condemning censorious attitudes to music-hall songs: 'Music Hall Gossip', The Era, 15 Feb 1890.)

The real-life event in question was the objection by the Social Purity Branch of the British Women's Temperance Association, represented by Mrs Carina Reed (not a prurient-minded old gentleman but a social purity activist), to the renewal of the license of the Oxford Music Hall, in the autumn of 1896. This was amply documented in the contemporary press, and surely if Miss Lloyd had been personally summoned before the London County Council licensing committee it would have been all over the papers. Lloyd's saucy song 'What's That For, Eh?' aka 'I've Asked Johnny Jones' was only one of the grounds upon which objections were being raised, which included alleged prostitution on the promenades and drinking in the auditorium. Lloyd was not present, but, and this is possibly sufficiently amusingly incongruous that one wishes history had been more attentive to the actual facts, the entire song, verses and chorus,  was read out by one Mr Baillache, on behalf of the Social Purity Branch of the Women's Temperance Association. He quoted these 'at length, so that the committee might better appreciate their purport', i.e. detached from any innuendo or 'business' that Lloyd might have brought in performance: indeed it is hard to envisage an innocuous reading of the song.* (Illustrated Police News, 24 Oct 1896, p. 6.)

The committee granted the licence, but conceded that 'greater care ought to be exercised in the selection of songs'. Music halls complied. As a result Marie Lloyd asked her songwriters for a new number: 'You Can't Stop A Girl From Thinking' (R. A. Baker, Marie Lloyd, Queen of the Music Halls, 1990, p. 69):

It is sometimes claimed that the song under contention in this case - or a song of Lloyd's that was objected to on some other occasion - had a line 'She sits among the cabbages [in some versions, lettuces] and peas' - or, as Jacob puts it, 'a song concerning the young lady who spent her quiet hours contemplating the vegetables in her garden'. On objection being raised - one version has Sir Henry Tozer (chairman of several music hall companies) storming into her dressing-room to complain - she inserted 'the name of another vegetable' (allegedly 'leeks') which 'didn't make the song any better from Sir Henry's point of view!' This seems particularly improbable when on the very same page Jacob mentions Lloyd's protesting another artiste's song as 'rude... It's a --lavatory song, that's what it is'. (p. 196)

Endeavouring to trace any song with these actual words, whether or not being performed by Marie Lloyd has proved somewhat difficult. It is widely quoted, yet Daniel Farson in Marie Lloyd and Music Hall (1972) reports Lloyd's sister Annie denying that she ever sang such a song and that Macqueen Pope (the theatre historian) agreed that although she was reputed to have sung a song about a market garden 'nobody has yet been found who heard her do so'. Farson says that on his advertising for reminiscences and memories of Lloyd in 1964 an elderly lady claimed that she had gone with her then fiance, before the First World War, to the Oxford Music Hall, and had seen Lloyd who sang this shortly after she had been 'taken to task by the censor... for a song in which she had gone into the garden and "pea'd".' (p. 68-9.) Farson saw 'no reason for disbelieving her' but it does not seem conclusive.

There was a song of this or similar title but it seems associated with US vaudeville: 'Sits Among the Cabbages and Peas' appears under 'Parodies on Popular Songs' in an advertisement, ? early 1900s, for The Vaudeville Prompter #4 in Plays of the 19th and 20th Centuries Vol 27: this is unfortunately a very obscure publication of which copies have not yet been traced. Further mentions of the song have been found in reports such as 'Charley Stephens sang his favourite solo entitled "She sits among the cabbages and peas"', at a party held by the Onion Club, reported by The Silver Standard, Silver Plume, Colorado, 21 May 1904. Naomi Jacob referred (in scathing terms) to the 'American invasion, when every second-rate artiste in the United States was dumping inferior rubbish in the music-halls of England' (p.138), so it is possible that if it was featuring on the British music-hall stage it was from that direction. Possibly there were objections made as in the story, and these got attached to the much better-known Marie Lloyd (a syndrome one sees with 'inspirational' quotations attributed to noted wordmongers who would die of embarrassment if they knew).

But what these stories do, even though inaccurate in their details, is celebrate Lloyd's defiant spirit - although she complies with the censors, it's very much a malicious compliance obeying the strict ruling while undermining it. It is the spirit that, when she was humiliatingly not included in the Royal Command Performance in 1912** (to general shock and scandal), had special strips pasted across the posters where she was performing declaring 'Every performance by Marie Lloyd is a Command Performance. By Order of the British Public' (Farson, p. 96).

* Derek B Scott refers to 'the gestures, winks, and knowing smiles that she employed to lend suggestiveness to apparently innocent music hall songs, like “What’s That For, Eh?”' but the suggestiveness seems transparent in the words ('Music Hall: Regulations and Behaviour in a British Cultural Institution', Muzikologija 2019(26)).

** Baker suggests that her omission - at a time when she was one of the most popular artistes of the day - was at least partly to do with her vigorous support for the 1907 Music Hall Strike (p.120).