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I belonged to a very lucky generation


Women’s rights and equality
Katharine Whitehorn Writer
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The Oldie had me review a book on governesses which told me a lot of things I hadn’t quite known about just exactly how badly women used to be treated. How few opportunities they had. What... the governesses for example, one of them was unwise enough to get married to somebody to try and get out of being a governess, because there were very few jobs that middle class or women who aspired to be ladies could get, except governessing. One of them unwisely married.

Until the Women’s Property Act... and no, I can’t remember the date off the top of my head... even if she moved away from him and earned her living again, her earnings would still belong to her husband. And those... you know, you can make fun of the suffragettes, and interestingly somebody said, well you know, all these women tying themselves to the railings and throwing themselves under race horses... the British being the British, of course, were far more concerned about the horse... they say that didn’t help at all. There were these sensible, quiet committee women proving what they could do.  But I think Mary Stott herself said, 'No actually you needed both'. Because the quiet committee women would never had got the attention if it hadn’t been for these. And ditto with the civil rights movement. And we had it long before... small feminist rant coming up now. Are you sitting comfortably?

One of the few things I thought Mrs Thatcher said absolutely right, was when somebody said, 'Do you believe in women’s liberation?' And she said, 'Some of us have been liberated for a very long time'. And we have. My aunt went to Cambridge and chose her own career in the ‘30s, she didn’t think it was odd because her aunts had been to college before the First World War. And I talked to one woman who started a thing which used to be called the Women’s Employment Fund Foundation until people thought it meant housemaids so they changed the name. And she’d been at Edinburgh University before the First World War. Her father had been reading Darwin with her when she was eight, she’d read zoology. She said, yes, we did get the same, except when it came to human anatomy, gentlemen and the ladies were dealt with in different rooms. I think it was rumoured that there were bits of the gentleman that the ladies never got. But you see, I was at the end of the first wave of feminism and my mother wanted... she... because she had spinal meningitis when she was 16 and was half deaf all her life and so on, didn’t get to Cambridge where she had a place, she did have a year at college, you know.

But she wanted to bring me up like that. And when I was going through some of the earlier stops and starts that we were talking about earlier on... and I found when she died a note among her effects which was the pros and cons of having another baby at the end of the war. You know, the cons was would it be right to have a baby with a deaf mother and so on. One of the ones was another chance... a con... a pro, another chance to bring up a girl. Con, but it might work out no better this time. Well fortunately I didn’t find it until I knew she was enormously proud of what happened to me.

A distinguished journalist and renowned author, Katharine Whitehorn (1928-2021) has written for The Spectator and Picture Post. She was the first woman to have her own column in the Observer and was their star columnist for the best part of 40 years. Educated at Newnham College, Cambridge, is recognised as someone who has transformed 20th century women's journalism. She took a keen interest in social welfare issues, was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and was the first woman rector of the University of St Andrews.

Listeners: Bob Bee

Bob Bee is a Scottish documentary maker who has made many films on the Arts and Science for ITV, BBC and Channel Four.

Tags: Cambridge University, Edinburgh University, Saga Magazine, Women’s Property Act, suffragette, governess, Women’s Employment Fund Foundation, Mary Stott, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Charles Robert Darwin

Duration: 3 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2010

Date story went live: 16 February 2011