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A Generation Of Career Women
By Thomas B. Bamford
NORTHPORT March 30, 2008 – We hear much about the generations of young men who have rallied to the flag in time of war, some never to return to their families and loved ones. This month, Women’s History Month, is a good time to reflect on the impact of those sacrificed lives on the women left behind.
The most grievous losses were those suffered after The Great War, or World War I. Less than four years after the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, it was estimated that the number of spinsters in the population of Britain exceeded 2 million. During the war, there had been a steady increase in the number of women in the work force, but it was not until the casualties had been tallied that a major change in demographics was about to affect the lives of women for a whole generation.
[Editor's note: The population of Great Britain and Ireland was about 46 million at the start of the war in 1918. As many as 900,000 British soldiers lost their lives in the war.]
In a recent book, “Singled Out,” by Virginia Nicholson, the author cites the prophetic words of a girls high school teacher in the south of England, who told her 1918 graduates, “Only one in 10 of you will be able to find a husband.” They would become the first generation who put careers before family — they had no choice.
Nicholson was careful to research the experiences of women from the lowliest strata, with meager educational opportunities, to those from affluent families that could provide their daughters everything but a suitable husband. Success could not be measured by the size of the home, but by contentment and life fulfilled. The glass ceiling was there to be broken.
I am going to take the liberty to introduce one or two of the spinsters from “Singled Out” and close with an account of how some distant relatives of mine failed to find husbands.
Rosina (Rose) Harrison, a devoted daughter of a Yorkshire family, had found work in London as one of a staff of nine maids in a large home. She worked hard, learned quickly and, most important, knew what her employers wanted of her. When Lady Nancy Astor advertised for a personal maid, she applied and was successful. Rose Harrison traveled the world, had wonderful experiences and retired after 35 years, with a pension and the affectionate support of her employer’s family for the rest of her life.
Although Rose had broken off a nine-year engagement to take the job, leaving behind the prospects of a Yorkshire housewife, she did not forget her own family. She supported them generously. Rose Harrison’s lost love was not a result of a life taken at the Somme or Ypres, however; she shared the anguish of families she met along the way and compensated her own maternal instincts by those encounters.
Margery Perham knew she had to break free from the surge of “husband hunters” and the rather stifling life of teaching history at Sheffield University. She bore the grief of losing her brother at Deville Wood on the Somme in 1916. They were devoted, and she felt overwhelmed by the crush of male students after the war.
She joined her sister, Ethel, on a trip to British Somaliland. Ethel’s new husband was district commissioner at Hargeysa. It was a transformation from her meager life in lodgings, the soot-covered heather that she wrote about and the clanging street cars she rode to the university.
Life in Hargeysa was reasonably comfortable and full of surprises. There was the novelty of mounting camels in evening gowns to ride over to the officers' mess for cocktails and dinner. But it was her daytime garb that appealed most — high leather boots, khaki breeches and wide-brimmed terai hat. She had found her future — sleeping in the open, guarded by Somali police; exploring the Abyssinian border and coping with the Christian/Muslim strife.
When she returned to Sheffield, Margery Perham found the street cars just as noisy and the heather still sooty, but she now had different plans. She dedicated her life to world travel, research and writing and became an adviser on colonial affairs. In 1948, she was honored with a CBE — quite a life for one of the surplus women of the late 1920s.
The “Bachelor Girls,” those young women dependent on a weekly wage and with no resources, were not left out. There were many support groups and women such as Florence White, also from Yorkshire, who spent her life campaigning for pensions for spinsters. It took a long time, but in 1940, single women became entitled to a weekly pension of 10 shillings at the age of 60.
“A cohort of stay-at-home-wives and mothers could never have achieved for women what this generation of spinsters did … they steered women’s concerns to the top of the agenda and there they have remained,” wrote Nicholson.
Not long ago, I researched my father’s World War I Army service and remember noting how lucky we were that he had returned from Ypres safe and fairly sound, and also my mother had, maybe, avoided the life of a spinster.
My father’s Aunt Jess married Montgomery de Sausmarez, the brother of George de Sausmarez, rector of the town of Acton, west of London. George and his wife, Fanny, had nine daughters and one son they named Havilland, the eighth baby to arrive. All 10 arrived between 1885 and 1897; their names were Lily, Madeleine, Evelyn, Rosamund, Dorothy, Maud, Helen, Havilland, Agatha and Cecily. None of the daughters married.
Topaz Amorre, a descendant in that branch of the family and a great-niece of the nine spinster sisters, wrote an article for The Daily Express of London for Nov. 11, 1998, the 80th anniversary of the end of the war.
Madeleine stayed home and became her father’s curate, living 99 years. Evelyn became a hospital almoner and did social work. Five were teachers: Lily, who lived to 95, took an Oxford degree and taught in Kent; Rosamund spearheaded the work for and taught deaf and dumb children and Maude followed her; Helen was head of a large school in Liverpool; and Cecily taught in Birmingham before going to Manitoba as a missionary and founding a school for Indian children; Agatha wanted to also do missionary work in India, but returned due to her health and worked in recruitment. Dear Dorothy had meningitis.
They all lived to their 80s and 90s well aware of their unique family situation. Topaz Amorre concluded they were the first generation of career women.
Source: VillageSoup Belfast