7th March 2012 Washington DC, USA
An unconventional flapper lives the American Dream
My mother’s mother was born early in the 20th century in a small Welsh mining village. She was the third of 11 children and she left school – illegally – at 12 to work in a factory. This was not uncommon – indeed only her very youngest sister finished school. Married at 17, to avoid the then disgraceful fate of having an illegitimate child, my grandmother lost her husband (my grandfather) in the Second World War. She persuaded a bank to let her take over her husband’s mortgage and let rooms to keep up the payments. She eventually scraped together sufficient funds to put a deposit down on a second property which she ran as a boarding house (and so my mother grew up to the smell of laundry drying). This was my grandmother’s first real step on the ladder to prosperity. She grabbed at every opportunity, and had a natural talent for selling things. And at her death, she was the proud owner of a shop in Brighton, which sold second hand clothes.
I never knew my grandmother, and she never visited the US – for most of her life travel on that scale would have been out of the question. But living here now, and meeting people from all over the US, I think she would have loved the people and the country. Adams’ definition of the American Dream – “life life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth – fits her story well, with her rise from being the daughter of a miner to being a comparatively prosperous shop owner.
I suspect she might never have described herself as a feminist. She wasn’t involved in politics and I think rather saw herself as too busy – with too many responsibilities – for any kind of campaigning. Perhaps even more importantly, having left school so young, she also saw herself as not clever enough to have views about such things. But she valued the right to vote and participated from the 1929 election (also known as the “flapper election”) onwards. And she absolutely recognised the need for women to be treated equally to men: she was paid less than her male counterparts throughout the time she was employed and only began to really change our family’s position once she was self-employed. Throughout her life she had to struggle against perceptions of what was appropriate for a woman – it really wasn’t seen as “right” that a woman should be a property owner, for example.
She would be amazed if she could see me now: a lawyer and a diplomat (Britain first gave women the opportunity to serve as diplomats in 1946, whilst women were only allowed to remain in the Foreign Office once they were married from 1972). And she would be amazed to find that things had evolved so much that women can work and have a family without being stigmatised. But having seen how far we have come, I think she would be a little disappointed when she looked a little closer at the realities, to find that women are still not paid equally to male counterparts and are still less represented in business and politics than men.
On International Women’s Day I remember my remarkable grandmother. She was a feminist, even if she didn’t know it. And she lived the American Dream, even if she didn’t know that either.