Women's work

Have you heard of the mass observation project? At the end of the Second World War and for some years after thousands of ordinary people throughout Britain kept diaries about their daily lives. While we were in Newfoundland I read a book called Our Hidden Lives in which five of the diary keepers' stories were told. It sounds as though it might be dull but it was oddly compelling and you became fond of them all as you followed them through rationing and failing to win prizes in the allotment competition and buying new hats and riding London buses.

The most vivid and most shocking thing in reading the book was the sense of how little they had and how careful and constrained their lives were: an amount of butter to last a week no more than I put on two slices of toast in the morning; recipes without eggs, without butter, without sugar; terrible food of the sort which sent Elizabeth David stomping off fuming to France and the Mediterranean; no waste, no packaging, no consumerism. And yet they are so close to us still, their vanished world still clearly England.

Reading it reminded me of my grandmother who died a few years ago at ninety. She had been a young mother and wife in the war years and the even more austere years straight after, married to a hardworking man who earned very little, working as a cleaner at her local chapel and taking in mending and sewing at which she was astonishing good. She saved and reused everything (even the apocryphal "Pieces of string too short to be of use") and nothing ever went to waste. She made peg bags and aprons as presents out of dresses which were outgrown and had been passed down so many times they were thin and soft with washing: pretty prints which would have inspired Cath Kidston. She turned collars on shirts and turned sheets, moving the sides to the middle so that they wouldn't wear out where you slept. She made stews which cooked for hours and transformed meat with names like scrag end and neck of lamb into the kind of meal where you need a piece of bread to wipe every last trace from the plate.

For the last ten years of her life she lived with my parents and, my father's mother, drove my own mother near to tears of frustration by her refusal to spend any money at all on herself. Her winter coat had been lined and relined four or five times back in the days when she could see well enough to do it and now it was tatty and no one in the family had the skill or the interest to replace the lining for her, which would have been her ideal solution.

"She can afford a new coat. Far better for her to be warm and smart than to have money sitting in her National Savings account for nothing," my mother would say.

Sometimes Grandma would be dragged into town to look at coats but she couldn't bring herself to part with her money. "This will see me out" became a family joke and yet now I see it with more sympathy and understanding than I ever did when she was alive. She had been poor, the hardworking respectable poor with the shining front step cleaned with a donkey stone, but she had counted pennies into jars and clothed her family immaculately with clothes from the minister's wife, cut down and resewn into children's clothes on her treadle sewing machine. She never lost the sense that waste and spending were sinful and dangerous.

It got me to thinking about how different our lives are now: women out to work and two incomes and the fierce pressure to spend and spend on consumer goods. I shop therefore I am. Is it good that women have colonised the workplace and are no longer dependent on their husbands for money, making their mark, making sense of their lives by other means than motherhood and being a wife? I was a seventies' feminist and I fought for that and have lived my life to that creed, aspiring to freedom and equality, frantically balancing children and career, knowing that much of what I am really good at needs a wider stage than home. I would have been an impossible 50s housewife and mother. I love my freedom and my heart lifts when I get in a car and drive away by myself, when I made a decision that is mine to make because I have the financial freedom which drives so many other freedoms.

And yet what has happened to the skills of my grandmother's generation? Oddly, perhaps, in view of all the career stuff, I have them although I am not the Olympic champion my grandmother was. But I love to cook and sew and garden. When I talk to my daughters, though, I find that many of their friends can't cook, don't care, don't sew or knit or homemake in any way. Their mothers were too busy working to teach them and they live happily on takeaways and readymeals. They think my girls with their competence not simply at cooking but at baking and pastry and biscuits are quite extraordinary (in a good way) but (in their hearts) a little odd.

They were the fabric of life, those womanly skills, driven perhaps by necessity but producing homes which ran smoothly and smelt of baking and held darned socks, homemade curtains, soup bubbling when you came in from school. I don't want to live in a world of fast food and ready meals where housework is something to fall out about or to subcontract to a cleaner you work to pay for and are uncomfortable talking to, yet I also don't want to live in a world where my intelligent and talented daughters can't have the satisfaction that comes from a working life that suits them and uses all they have to offer.

It is all too difficult and I am too confused to make sense but tonight, sitting here at a computer she would hate, most of all I don't want my grandmother's skills to die.


  1. This was such a good blog Elizabeth. As ever you have articulated so much of what I feel myself. I was raised to be fiercely independent & academic & to value my own mind and decisions. I'm so glad I was raised that way, yet there is so much that never got passed down to me; my grandmothers amazing skills as a seamstress just seemed quaint to me, growing up. I also lived my life in my twenties relying on ready meals and eating out - yet now in my forties I'e discovered cooking and gardening and homemaking, and I no longer find it quaint! Just wish I could sew though.

  2. you've hit it, haven't you--right on the head. we want both. i know i do. i value the frugality of my mother and my grandmother, and i value the practical self-sustaining skills they had: cooking, sewing, cleaning, making do. there was a real ingenuity, and creativity there.

    and yet....this is not how i want to spend my time, either. this is now where my creativity lies.

    i do not like to think all these skills will just go away. but who will take them on?

  3. Agree with SM, very good blog. For some reasons reminded me of the book Wifework:what marriage means for women by Susan Maushart - not that the blog is like the book. Your grandmother, Elizabeth, was the same generation as my mother, who is still alive. She was married in '38 and had my eldest sister in '39, struggling with make do and mend through the war years. When she was a young girl at school, the school had a cottage in the grounds and the girls had 'housewifery' lessons there - cooking, making beds, cleaning, etc. She was a very efficient housewife and its only now. looking back, and remembering when we were a household of 8 (my parents, my big sister back home with 2 kids, me and another sister, and grandma)that I marvel how she managed - all those meals, all that laundry. We don't know we're born now.

  4. Really enjoyed that blog. Fascinating. It raises so many questions.

    What a contrast there is between the generations. Maybe it is the short space of time that makes the contrast just a little uncomfortable. In many ways I think we - and our children and their children - are so lucky to live now. So many of the 'freedoms' we, and earlier generations of women fought for are there for the asking. And this is really an exciting age to be alive - I would rather be here now than say, 60 years ago.

    But I am sorry that a lot of skills have disappeared - or are deemed redundant. Is there a reason that 'home-making skills' can't sit comfortably alongside a 21st century lifestyle - for boys as well as girls? (Though God forbid our nanny state doesn't add it too the curriculum.... )

  5. I think it is a case of retaining the old values and skills in a rapidly changing and technological world . . . yes we want both. I wanted to stay at home and bring up my children the way my grandmother and mother had but felt compelled by society to go out to work - in the end I ran my own business - but struggled with my loss of independence from a vastly reduced wage and loss of family values as I wasn't there all the time for the kids . . .trying to have both I almost had neither . . . but our kids have grown up capable, independent - they can cook and manage a budget and 'make do' - they have technology too and seem to have combined the two and are happy . .

  6. I think I may have been in a time warp somewhere because it was not my grandmother that did all as you describe but actually my mother...I was however achieved very late on in their marriage! I was taught to darn socks before I went to school and had to complete at least one on a Sunday evening before bedtime! I was taught to cook, sew and wash before I ever hit secondary school home economics classes. I was considered odd to some of my friends..probably still am..but I can cook a meal from virtually nothing...i could if pressed turn a collar but do not need to anymore...I even know how to 'sides to middle' sheets. Not having any daughters has not deterred me in passing this on..my three sons can garden, can accomplish basic cookery,wash clothes and definitely use the iron! yet a friend simply cant cook wont cook...why? having spent some time as a single parent as well I had to work to maintain a mortgage....my mother helped me with child care and I was so grateful i knew how to do the things I had been taught...it saved me a fortune that basically I had not got! My mum also shunned new clothes...I would buy her a new jumper for Christmas....about 18 months later it would arrive back..'I think it would suit you now!' I think I was lucky to have learned the old fashioned way..but have every intention of handing a few things down the line...where's that wooden mushroom for darning gone...its here somewhere

  7. This is about being a grown up - something I certainly have not learnt to be yet...

  8. What a thought-provoking blog. I found myself nodding in recognition.
    It reminded me of my grandmother who had her own version of thrift, more akin to today's clutter clearing. She would chop up unwanted furniture for firewood, which explains my family's lack of heirloom antiques. Whenever anything was broken beyond repair, she would happily dispose of it, announcing that it was "trade". Someone, somewhere would be making a living from providing a replacement and that was a good thing, in her book. She would have been horrified at the 21st century's throwaway society and, as a woman who always made her own bread, would have thought ready meals were appalling.

  9. Same as SBS it's my Mum that has all you grandmother's talents. Turning collars and sheets, making all our clothes, I never had a 'bought' coat until I was 16, baking and cooking for a family of six and spinning out my Dad's meagre wages by taking in sewing and making doll's clothes for the local toy factory. Other Mum's in the road made up Christmas crackers for the local bonbon factory.
    A very thought provoking blog and it's one of my pet subjects too.

  10. Very good blog - thanks Elizabeth. Margaret Forster's Diary of an Ordinary Woman touched on Mass Observation, as did the TV play Housewife 52 (or some such number) with Victoria Wood.

    Your grandmother sounds like mine - the shiny step, pounding washing in a copper, the immaculate house, the imaginative cooking with few ingredients, the mouthwatering baking. She was 'in service' and had a very hard life that left her fingers crooked, her back stooped and her hips crippled with arthritis. But she saved up in schemes at the co-op to buy silver cutlery, fine table linen, bone china tea sets, fox-fur stoles, and she found second-hand jewellery in pawn-shops (my eternity ring is one such piece, we had it remodelled from a sapphire and diamond complete circle ring that my grandmother would never have been able to afford new).

    I have struggled for so long with the idea of a Housewife not being 'good enough' by today's standards. I am at heart happiest when my house is clean and smells of polish, my windows sparkle, the kitchen tins are filled with home-baking, the laundry and ironing baskets are empty and there's a casserole or a roast chicken in the oven. I love being home for my son when he needs me, being here to make my husband's lunch every day. But society tells me that it's not enough, I should use my brain and earn my keep. I'm caught between two worlds. And why do I want to work? To buy Stuff. Shoes with red soles, the latest £13 nail varnish that I wouldn't even know about if I hadn't read about it in the big glossy £4 magazine. There's something wrong with that.

    Consumerism has gone mad and we're all in the trap. Emma Bridgewater, Cath Kidston - we joke about it here, but it's no different from the WAGs buying top-to-toe Versace and D&G, or the 'chavs' buying their fake Burberry clothes from the market and us having a good laugh at their expense. It's whatever floats your boat.

    I'm off to have more coffee in my EB mug, take the milk from my Smeg (smug) fridge, put on my MBT trainers... and worry about not being good enough - or worry about having to earn more money to keep up this empty lifestyle... Or maybe not, maybe today I'll have another of my little epiphanies and learn to accept what it is I want and need from this life. Is it so bad after all to go back to traditional values?

    Food for thought, elizabethm! Thank you once again. Very good forum for debate here!

  11. This was inspired writing Elizabeth and another for a quality magazine or newspaper-You must send this (and the foodie one I so loved few months ago!)

    Of course being brought up with my Nan I had exactly the same values drummed into me...My Nan has money in the bank and yet won't buy anything new...she has her 'hospital clothes,' just in case, otherwise she makes do. You cannot change her after all those years of having so very little...

    I think I am quite similar and rarely buy new clothes and will still scour the second hand shops looking for bargains and something a little different for myself!

    And despite being comfortably well off you will be pleased to learn that the skills of 'make do and mend' are still alive in my household.
    My boys have a set of play clothes that I make from old clothes.
    I cut the legs out of trousers and jeans that are worn and make into shorts.
    I still darn socks and patch trousers where I can.
    My skills with the sewing machine and needle have of course turned into my little business...

    Really enjoyed this and please, you MUST do something with that writing...look at the discussion and interest...this would make for good reading in a mag/paper...

    warm wishes

  12. That touched so many chords. I grew up with my widowed mother in my grandparents house in Cornwall. I think i must have absorbed Grandma's ways, as to this day i wrap up little bits of string, first undoing the knots. I am tempted to iron wrapping papre...but dont! Her cookery skills were amazing. One little thing i remember is that in the days before washing up liquid, Grandma saved little pieces of soap, put them in a little cage and swished it round in the water to make bubbles!
    Some lovely memories, thank you.

  13. But times are so different now. Skills will always be there but it's so easy to nip to the shops and buy something new. Perhaps some of it is laziness. Perhaps some of it is greed. I could never have been a 50's housewife either. But of course if I had been born then I wouldn't have had any choice nor would I have known any different. I feel quite glad that when I moved to this farm my mother-in-law no longer lived here. I know her ways were far removed from mine. On the other hand, I do wish I could have met her, taken her to the shops every week, helped her choose a new frock or new coat, of which I am sure she would have been reluctant to buy. I hold my hands up. I can't sew, knit or even cook. I try to cook, however, but because my husband is so used to his mother's wonderful skills. Perhaps there might be a bit of 50's housewife in me afterall.

    Crystal xx

  14. Oh what a lovely poignant blog. I agree with what you are saying, we only have to llok at recent disasters to see how dependent everyone seems to be becoming on the state and how the important skills of 'survival' are being lost in a technological age. Posie
    PS Never got organised to coming down to see you, if you can ever make it up, it would be lovely to meet you.

  15. CL are you reading? Yet another fine example of what you have missed. A really evocative and thought provoking account of how women's lives and views have changed. I had tears in my eyes thinking of your grandmother's coat and her reluctance to spend money on herself. We have, as people are probably sick of reading, chosen to try to make our livings doing what we love and that has meant sacrificing many 'luxuries' but my quality of life has never been better (freely admit to having the odd sulk over something I covet and can't afford) but it is choice not necessity. I was also really, really hard up as a student due to problems on the home front so I learned to cook well with cheap ingredients. Do make curtains but am very impatient with sewing so am not adding much to the skills bank there!

  16. This blog and the comments have finally made me realise I'm not too weird, My Grandmothers saved string, paper bags, well everything, I think my Mother rebelled and event though she can sew,cook etc she was a war baby and is consumerism personified, i in turn have rebelled and gone back a generation, my girls can cook well and one does like sewing and flower arranging (thats YFC for you) so not sure which way they will go, i guess if you give them the skills it's up to them
    Having read the comments from SM, CCA, SBS and Kittyb i know that I'm with very like minded friends

  17. i like crystal jigsaw's observation--that she thinks she could not be a '50s housewife, but that if it were the '50s right now, she would be. we rise to the occasion. we do what we have to do. we meet expectation.

    expectations are different now. not less, just diferent. we are now expected to get educations, find good work to do, and yet still keep a good home and almost always raise children.

    in some ways, it's more. more varied, anyway. something has to give. if it's homemade bread and hand-stitched clothing, so be it.

  18. A lovely blog that brought back good memories for us all, thankyou.
    I can remember the little plastic cage for soap Eb i loved it, And the soap was FAIRY big green blocks with a baby on the front...
    Are you still ok to meet up on friday 31st? x

  19. I love your blog Elizabeth. You are so right. We are coming close to totally devaluing the traditional womanly skills that were art forms in their own right. My mother was a housewife during the war years and the times of shortage that followed those years. Her utter dependence on my father, what she could make and mend, and what could be coaxed from the garden made me determined to always be independent and earn my own living.

  20. Hello my dear! Just popped into say it's a bit rough out there tonight, isn't it?!

  21. Loved reading this, Elizabeth, and then loved reading all the comments too. So much shared experience. yes, my upbringing was very similar, both from my grandmother and my mother. All our clothes were made - my mother sewed and my grandmother knitted. When jumpers became too small they were unpicked (I remember holding the yarn) and made up into new ones (inevitably striped! I hated them!). The only alcohol in the house was Mum's home-made wine and Dad's home-brewed beer. A bottle of Corona was a real highdays treat.
    I find our consumer/celebrity society quite disgusting really, particularly having travelled to places like India and Egypt, and even parts of the US where shanty towns sit in stark contrast to the bloated communities nearby. Our greed is phenomenal.
    But part of me can't let go of that frugality. I hate anything going to waste and avidly recycle. I was horrified to hear from a London friend that she puts her child's old toys out with the rubbish as nobody wants them - the charity shops turn them away as there are 'too many'. Out here on Exmoor nothing seems to go to waste....and that's how it should be.
    Sorry, ramble, ramble.....but very lovely blogging....

  22. What a fantastic blog Elizabeth; I almost found myself cheering in agreement. I can sew. cook well and imaginatively (leftovers are my speciality!) and also do a myriad other things which I don't really remember being taught. I think I absorbed them almost through osmosis as my own mother was also very able in this way. My daughters are taking after me and both my sons can knit though are a little out of practice. They all cook and I have also taught my stepson Elias to be quite proficient at cross stitch. It is so important for these skills not to be lost, yet I also cherish the choice to NOT do them if I please. I suppose we want it all don't we? xx

  23. Absolutely hit the nail on the head. And thank you for reminding me of donkey stones. I was only just talking about them yesterday to someone but couldn't remember what they were called


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