A mother’s gift
Mother’s day. It is bitter sweet. I love to hear how Annie (she of Annie Reviews who, if you read the last blog, you will know loves to feed ducks and give them weird names) is buoyed up by flowers and hugs from her daughter. Then I remember that my Mum has gone. There is no-one to hand a bunch of flowers and just say thank you.
But reflecting on my mother also makes me reflect on just how different our lives were and how much has changed in one generation.
My mother was of that generation of post-war women who grew up in austerity. Not the austerity against which some politicians and action groups rail against now – but the austerity of a country riven by war, where food was only accessible through coupons, where oranges were still a Christmas present in themselves and only the rich had a TV, a bathroom, hot running water and a car. Europe was deemed ‘foreign’ and the Far East an exotic wonderland. Relatives went to America to earn a crust and were never seen again. News was gained through the pulpit and the radio and a tea dance was the Tinder of its day.
When my mother was a young woman less than 2% of the British population went to higher education and very few of them were female. There was little welfare even with the massive shift created by Ni Bevan in 1945. The elite ‘jobs’ for women were nursing, teaching and secretarial – but only until they married and had children. The war had made female working more common and more accepted but not necessarily more aspirational. The norm for their twenties was staying at home to keep the home and feed the family while the breadwinner was male, dominant and in control.
This is not to say that there were no educated, successful, political and prominent women. But they would have looked in sheer surprise at our modern interventions such as the 30% club, the CEO initiative around diversity and Inclusion™. More than that, they would be bewildered by the Me Too generation as ‘things were more accepted back then’, as I am frequently reminded.
But my mother’s early years were not without stress. Your husband losing his job was a disaster, there was no social services to assist with social problems, divorce was difficult and the idea of being on a board, unless it was a family business, quite ridiculous. Women earned less and worked harder and there was no-one to shout out the injustice. Cleaning took elbow grease (no Dyson whirlwinds for a 1960’s carpet) and washing was, if you were very lucky, a three hour project with a double tub Hotpoint. No doubt, there was the stress and frustration of being bright and under-achieving by today’s standards and fury at men regarding women as there to do their bidding – all assisted by outrageous pamphlets telling women how to please their man. We laugh at them today. Then they were gospel.
Yet in just one generation it all changes. If you are over 50 then 10% went to higher education and for our children it is over 45%. We are the first generation who expected to have a career not just a job and a salary not just a wage for our husbands to manage. We are the first generation with significant disposable income. In our time the Far East became a holiday destination and New York somewhere for the weekend. We have a TV in every room and a mobile (no more public phones). We expect to have a car and lack of a TV counts as a criteria for poverty. We strive for equality and rail against the injustice of harassment.
There is no doubt we have a long way to go. Female careers are still stunted by having a family; men still earn more for the same work; women are still far more likely to be harassed, attacked or raped than men (though we should never say it is less distressing for men); Boards and Parliament are still testosterone dominated.
We must never stop fighting for equal rights and equal recognition. But we should, I believe, take a moment to recognise just how far women have pushed themselves up the ladder. I have had a fuller life than my mother - I am educated, I have a business, I have travelled, I have choice. And why?
Because a four foot ten woman from the Rhondda Valley who grew up with no bathroom and insufficient money to go to university, took her little girl by the hand and told her ‘You can do anything’. Her greatest gift to me was belief. I just hope they do Mother’s Day in Heaven.