Wifely labour and the welfare state: a question of systematic discrimination?

by Professor Ann Oakley

image of person reflected in puddle.
Image by Olga Seredenko

Charles Booth, that great discoverer of urban poverty, inscribed the last volume of his Life and Labour of the People in London with the following words: ‘My work now completed has been from first to last dedicated to my wife without whose constant sympathy it could never have been begun, continued, or ended at all.’ How many similar acknowledgements have we all read? How many wives have been profusely thanked, while being excluded from the role of formal collaborator?

My book Forgotten Wives: how women get written out of history, addresses this problem of the way in which wifehood shapes how the contributions of women are seen, not just by people in their close social networks but by biographers and historians more generally. It argues that there is often a yawning gap between archival evidence and biographical/historical representations of what wives did to ‘help’ their husbands and on their own account. The book takes four case-studies of wives whose husbands are well-known for their role in founding a twentieth-century Britain that recognized the critical function of the state in providing health and welfare for its citizens.

Mary Booth

Mary Booth, Charles Booth’s wife, is the first of the four: as he said correctly, in his acknowledgement, it is unlikely that the 17 volumes of Life and Labour would have been at all the same without her impact. Indeed, it is quite possibly Mary’s own intellectual background, as the grand-daughter of the statistician and anti-slavery agitator Zachary Macaulay, and a cousin of Beatrice Webb, that gave Charles the methodological tools needed to conduct a major social survey. Much of the work was in Mary’s hands while Charles was abroad managing the ship-owning business that funded the survey; she wrote and re-wrote, edited, advised, and coordinated endless research meetings at the same time as giving birth to seven children and administering the family’s entire private life.

Jeannette Tawney

This domestic labour of wives, being generally seen as what wives are supposed to do, is rarely commented on. But how much of what great men achieve would happen without it? Jeannette Tawney, the wife of socialist historian R. H. Tawney, and a second case-study in my book, is, interestingly, singled out by Tawney biographers for her lack of interest in housekeeping. The untidy and unhygienic Tawney homes were blamed on Jeannette, who is portrayed as a general nuisance in Tawney’s life. Never mind that the Tawney archives in the LSE show how Jeannette railed against her husband’s dirty and slovenly habits, and strove to pursue professional work herself: as a historian, factory inspector and writer.

Jeannette Tawney was the sister of William Beveridge, the so-called architect of the welfare state. The fact that one historian got these relationships the wrong way round and called her Tawney’s sister and Beveridge’s wife is symptomatic of the general lack of interest displayed in wives.

Janet Beveridge

William Beveridge’s own wife, Janet, whom he married at the age of 63 two weeks after the publication of his famous report on Social Insurance and Allied Services in 1942, has come in for a lot of flak from biographers because, like Jeannette, she was not afraid to put forward her own point of view. Janet and William ran the LSE together for 18 years and it was, under their regime, dubbed the LSE’s ‘second foundation’, that the School expanded hugely and emerged as the leading social science institution it is today. Janet’s role in this has received scant attention. Her own work as a civil servant has disappeared into the background, and the extent and impact of her rewriting of the Beveridge Report, while acknowledged by some, has not been properly evaluated.

Charlotte Shaw

The fourth wife, Charlotte Shaw, who married the radical playwright George Bernard Shaw in 1898, is described as his ‘informal nurse’ in his ODNB entry. She was actually one of the founders of the LSE, an achievement remembered today in the LSE’s Shaw Library (which most people think is named after George). At the LSE Charlotte endowed and managed a ground-breaking programme of research on women’s history. She was an active member of the Fabian Women’s Group, and among her other activities she translated the plays of the radical French writer Eugène Brieux and helped to stage them in London, and she worked closely with T. E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) on his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. She provided George Bernard Shaw with ideas for his plays, editorial advice, and detailed suggestions for casting.

The condition of wifehood – and a note on methodology

It’s often forgotten that most feminist movements have focused not on the vote but on dismantling the systematic discrimination against women that is embedded in the institution of marriage. The treatment of wifely labour described in Forgotten Wives is one legacy of this discrimination. It highlighted for me the lack of attention given by biographers and historians to questions of methodology. As with all research, it is surely important to note where we have taken our evidence from, what sources we have used or not used, and how the conclusions we have reached form the stories we tell about people’s lives.

Ann Oakley is Professor in the Social Research Institute, University College London. Her most recent book, Forgotten Wives, is published by Policy Press.

 This blog gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Social Policy Association.