Feminism 1913-2013 and why there’s still more work to be done


One of the more extraordinary discoveries in my research for the Downton Abbey books and subsequent talks that hang their hat on the TV show, was that of the ‘Surplus Women’. After the First World War it was widely acknowledged that Britain had lost an entire generation of men and so it was quickly realised that the logical consequence was a shortage of men for women to marry.

Newspaper reports in 1919 wrote of the misery of the ‘one million women’ who would never know love or marriage. Then, after the 1921 Census, it was realised that there were in fact almost two million more women than men in the UK. If you added in the 1.7 million men who returned from war injured in some way, whether physically or mentally, many of whom were unfit for work, marriage or fathering children, then you were dealing with a lot of women who were destined for spinsterhood. Given that a woman’s education pre-war consisted of the little more than the three Rs (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic) so she could at least write her shopping list and manage her home finances but not, you know, go to university (a very few did even though they were not allowed to actually earn a degree), this meant that a great number of these women simply didn’t know what to do instead. They had been trained for marriage and now marriage wasn’t an option.

Downton Abbey reflects this particularly well with the daughters, Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil. Julian said of them that upper class women pre-war could find independence and power only through their marriages; if they married well, they might run a house to which people of influence would come and stay. But so long as they were unmarried they had to live at home and under the rules of their parents. (Middle class women had little power and influence in the wider sphere, and working class women none at all except within their own communities.)

The war changes this, although not for everybody. Mary was prepared to find power the old-fashioned way, with a suitable husband, said Julian. Sybil wanted it the new way – via progressive politics and the Suffragette movement. And Edith? She just wants ‘anything she can get’. Poor Edith. But she is the one who best demonstrates the complete turnaround in expectation for women of the time.

[As an aside, it was this excess of women that meant they didn’t get full suffrage in 1919. Only women over the age of 30, who were householders, could vote. Not until 1928 could both men and women over the age of 21 vote. There was a concern that women voters would outnumber male voters after the war – and it would have been far too risky to let women decide who should run the country. Really, they were better off thinking about kittens than politics.]

Editorials referred to ‘the problem of the Surplus Women’ and there were even articles suggesting that they be shipped off the Colonies to find husbands there. But while there were women who had lost fiancés or husbands during the war – as well as brothers, fathers, cousins and friends – and had been left broken-hearted, alongside the many women who pined with the genuine, acute frustration of never knowing marriage or motherhood, there were others still who saw that they had been freed.

Unmarried, they could not be kept behind the front door of their home, chained to a lifetime of domesticity, but instead could go out to work. (It wasn’t viable for all those women to stay with their parents and the advent of motor cars, fast growth of cities and new jobs made it easier for them to leave.) Singledom was no longer a sign of failure but circumstance. They became teachers all too frequently but also secretaries, researchers, scientists, doctors, shop proprietors and telephonists to name but a very few. They were often poorly paid as they were not judged to need equal pay to a man who would, after all, have dependents. They were frequently lonely, seeking their camaraderie from women in similar circumstances, living in blocks of tiny bedsits, all trooping off to work during the week. All the same, there were others who did it jubilantly and others who, by dint of their hard work and penury, inspired even men to alter things. But many men were terrified that women would rule the world and a propaganda campaign was run in which women were reminded that their place was in the home, looking after the men, not stealing their jobs. The fact that there were hardly any men to marry was conveniently left off the posters. Guilt and loneliness: a winning combination.

Nonetheless, these women created the change and push for equality that we enjoy today. It is sometimes argued that had it not been for the loss of the men between 1914 and 1918 and the bold steps the women left behind took in their place, the female position in society would have been slowed down by about 20 years.*

When I talk about this subject I like to highlight the fact that the world has changed enormously since then – less than a hundred years ago – and that we have those women, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, to thank for many of those changes. But then, sometimes, now and again, or…alright, almost every bleeding day, I think… yes, there have been changes but not enough people. Not enough.

These are the reasons today that there’s still more to be done to change tomorrow.

1. Caroline Criado-Perez being issued with rape and death threats on Twitter – alongside her address – for having successfully campaigned for Jane Austen to be printed on ten pound notes.

2. Kate Middleton’s post-baby figure being discussed on the front cover of a magazine just one day after she has given birth. (Thanks, Katy Hill, for bringing this to attention.)

3. Any editor, whether for magazines or TV, who allows Katie Hopkins to say anything at all – they are providing rope for her to hang herself with.

4. Words like ‘betch’ becoming cultural flashpoints almost overnight. See also: ‘Bitchy Resting Face’.

5. Ongoing: Page 3, the absence of properly funded childcare, unequal pay, young girls obsessing about their weight, single/childless women being regarded with suspicion.

There’s more, but that’ll do for now. More work, people. More work.

*If you want to read more on this subject, I highly recommend Virginia Nicholson’s book ‘Singled Out’, available HERE.

BBC TV Breakfast discusses Downton Abbey

BBC Breakfast

When you work for yourself, as I do, you must engage in the rather unseemly (it seems) act of self-promotion. With no corporate PR hired to cheer my latest publication, or monthly salary paid out to alert a boss to my presence, I must keep reminding readers to read me and commissioning editors to hire me. There is, in short, no supper for me unless I have sung for it, with my busker’s hat beside me.

So when I was called last Friday afternoon by the jolly Anthea in the BBC TV Breakfast production office and asked if I’d be interested in taking a train to Salford, Manchester, staying overnight and appearing for approx three and a half minutes before taking the train back again (a six hour round trip), for no fee, I barely hesitated before saying ‘yes’.

But the truth is, the six hours and the overnight in a Holiday Inn (you know, really not bad at all) were hardly downsides. I practically enjoyed myself. Uninterrupted reading time on the train and a whole night in bed with no duvet-stealers, large or small, to break my sleep… yeah, kinda nice. But I also enjoyed the process of the filming itself. I’ve done a few TV things now, from a BBC4 panel show (‘Never Mind the Fullstops’, hosted by my uncle, Julian Fellowes) to those lunchtime magazine shows, and despite the fact that almost anybody can get on the tellybox, there’s still something of the futuristic excitement about it that captivates the 1970s kid in me. There’s still something amazing about knowing that you are appearing in the corner of someone’s sitting-room, even if it’s only your own. Plus, I really like the hair and make-up bit (breakfast hair and make-up girls are renowned in the industry for being the best, given that they have the hardest job to do, making people look normal at 6am in less than ten minutes).

me in gym

It’s unusual to get asked to discuss Downton on the BBC, given that it’s an ITV show. (In a rather strange twist, the Brits watch Downton on commercial tv, ie interrupted by ads, and the Americans watch it on PBS, their nearest equivalent to the BBC in that it is partly funded by the government – though mostly funded through pledge drives – and therefore ad-free.) So they weren’t going to be talking about how lovely it all is – the ‘controversial’ line that my hosts took was that Downton Abbey was pandering to its American audience by introducing another American character – Harold, Cora’s playboy brother, to be played by Paul Giamatti in the final episode of the fourth series (broadcast in the UK on Christmas Day).


On the red sofa with me – we were being interviewed by Charlie Stayt and Louise Minchin – was Paul Allen, an arts critic. I imagine the idea was that we might disagree, but unfortunately for the producers, we didn’t. My line was that there was no pandering because Cora, the original American character as played by Elizabeth McGovern, was the genesis of the whole show.

In the very beginning, Julian and Gareth Neame (the executive producer) went out for supper to discuss another project that wasn’t achieving lift off. Gareth said to Julian that he thought he should revisit his Gosford Park territory for a TV show – early 20th century, big country house, ensemble cast, following characters both above stairs and below. Gosford Park was the movie directed by Robert Altman and scripted by Julian that won him an Oscar – it was, in other words, his major break into Hollywood and the film that changed his life forever. Julian said that to ask more of that territory was like asking lightening to strike twice in the same place, so he didn’t think he would do it.

But he went home and happened to be reading ‘To Marry An English Lord‘ by Carol Wallace and Gail MacColl (I’ve since become quite friendly with Carol and the book has been very successfully re-printed since the show began), which was all about the Buccaneers coming over to England in the 1890s and marrying into the aristocracy. He wondered what it would have been like to have been one of those women, leaving behind their friends, family and society in Wisconsin or Virginia or wherever, and find themselves in a freezing cold castle in Yorkshire some twenty years later. And so Cora was born, and the rest followed swiftly after…

There was no hard-headed thinking then about American audiences and what they would want. Shirley MacLaine was a brilliant injection into the show in the last series, and represented in just the right way how America felt to Britain in 1921. They were rich, vital, energetic and optimistic about the future. Sure, sometimes that felt brash, but it was a much-needed blast of fresh air in a country that was feeling depleted and bereaved after the war.

Paul Allen’s point was that casting an actor such as Paul Giamatti showed ingenuity in that he is a great character actor, not a classic leading man. He usually plays the geeky losers in cult movies, although in Sideways he was the geeky loser that got the girl, while the conventional handsome leading man turned out to be the bastard (poor Paul forgot we weren’t allowed to say that word on breakfast telly and got Charlie and Louise into a fluster of apologies to the viewers – it’s a pretty low-grade word that is clearly fine by 7pm. It’s probably fine by 1pm. I wonder if all the swear words have their own time slots on the BBC?).

Also, isn’t it usually the case that when we watch an American show we like it to be full of Americans? And Americans probably watch Brit shows for the same reasons? An anthropological study of  another nation, which is identifiably cast with characters that bear strong resemblances to but do not in fact live real lives as we recognise in our own. So when someone from your own country appears, it never feels like a comfortable fit. I was never very keen on Emily in ‘Friends’, though I like the actress in other shows and was mad about Ross, Rachel et al. However, I ought to stress here that I think the US characters work very well in Downton, these being rather more beautifully and sensitively written parts – what I mean to say is that one wouldn’t generally go about trying to do it deliberately in order to satisfy another country’s set of fans.

Three minutes or so of that and – all over. Thanks for the memories! Which, unfortunately, are all I have, as the You Tube clip someone put up of it has been taken down again for reasons I do not know, and the BBC don’t put their breakfast show on iPlayer. But that’s probably as it should be – a passing moment in telly, not something to be revered in posterity. We’ll leave that to the box sets and deservedly so.


PS. Er. The link got put back up. So I’ll stand by what I said about the box sets but if you do want to watch it, you can see it HERE. *Oops*