Letters to my Daughter

At school, we are taught about the past to make sense of contemporary gender expectations. The Suffragettes fought for our votes. The Land Girls were proof we can labour. The contraceptive pill ‘gave’ us sexual freedom (!) How will I explain the 2020s to my daughter when she reaches adulthood? A baby now, it won’t be long before she looks to me – her past – to figure out her present. She will ask me, no doubt, about being a woman in 2021. Pithy narratives, polished and reduced, do nothing to gloss over the reality that my experiences are not good enough for her.

Because here we are; sexual assault and predation an ahistorical and acultural reminder that our physical spaces are dangerously scaffolded by sexist cultures and institutions; increases in domestic violence and murder during lockdown a reminder of the corporeal tyranny that has threatened us within our homesteads for time immemorial; the silence that met I May Destroy You at the Golden Globe awards, a reminder that such recognisable representations of abuse, rape, harassment and their counterpoint – empowerment – still don’t fit mainstream perceptions of women’s lives; teenage girls’ testimonies about rape culture in schools a reminder that even the nominally safest of places are ridden with iterations on male power play; discrimination against, and the belittling of furloughed, caring and parenting women a reminder that the pandemic’s long-term career, employment and financial repercussions are undeniably gendered across class and culture. We presume that societies progress and that the future will be better, but when the present is dismal those presumptions are hard to uphold.

Edith Summerskill, Labour Party MP and feminist, wrote a series of letters to her daughter, Shirley, that ended in 1956 with the following endorsement: The shades of the women who blazed the trail that you and I might be free to fulfil ourselves seemed to sit with me on the green benches of Westminster last night. I feel now that you in your turn will go forward to destroy finally those monstrous customs and prejudices which have haunted the lives of generations of women. I want to write to my daughter with similar hopes, but I lack Summerskill’s optimism. Is this a 2021 feeling I wonder, as yet another day of depressing news hits my newborn-baby-fatigued face? How many other women share this gloom? I sense that a slowing down in tangible change is obscured by insta-story-simulacrums – they are inspo not inspiration, released rather than realised. The status quo is repeatedly upcycled in policy reviews, contract clauses, and tweaked legislation, to seem appealingly forward-thinking while rarely shifting those hardy metaphorical goal posts.

Indeed, some of Summerskill’s statements sound so modern that progress feels even more distant:

From tokenism:

I have been the only woman present at official dinners in all parts of the world, have served as the only woman on countless committees, and been the only woman on Parliamentary delegations so often that I am familiar with the official attitude, namely, that by adding one woman’s name to a list which has been compiled for some purpose or other one can appear unprejudiced in the face of increasingly critical female public opinion.

To the gender pay gap:

… you will be glad to know that a start has been made this year to remove the long-standing grievance of women employed by the Government. A formula has been devised which will ensure that women teachers and civil servants will enjoy equal pay with men in a few years’ time – a rather churlish end to a long and exasperating struggle.

To the mental load:

Everybody loses – the children, the husband, and the country – from keeping an intelligent, industrious, energetic woman chained to the sink.

Summerskill was one of the first women to qualify as a doctor in the UK, graduating from King’s College and Charing Cross Hospital in 1924, she went on to assist the creation of the NHS in Clement Atlee’s post-war government, she didn’t take her husband’s surname and neither did her children. Summerskill described herself as ‘feminist’ in the 1950s, a decade in which the word ‘housewife’ was having a renaissance. We can’t see Shirley’s replies, but her mother’s visionary tone gives us the impression that they both believed that the cultural, social, economic and political standing of women would only improve.  

You can’t blame Summerskill for her hope in future generations of women – she was writing when seemingly the times were shifting and women were being brought increasingly and conscientiously into public life, voicing their needs and defending their rights. Reading her letters, I am reminded that history is not teleological, not linear, not progressive, not inherently and automatically advancing. It is understandable that amidst improvements to marriage and divorce laws, electoral rights, civil liberties, gender pay, employment policy and childcare, Summerskill could hope. Not to mention the fact that her white middle class, Oxbridge educated background contextualised hopefulness full-stop. But here am I, a white middle class, educated mother with very little hope to put in a letter to my daughter. As much as I’d like to be completely convinced that her and her peers’ futures will be better than mine, I cannot. The interminable news cycle, the mechanics of maternity leave, the long-term impact of career breaks and career moves, the permanent physical danger, the overwhelming social norm that is body obsession and body shame, it all depresses me.

While her gentle, warm and intelligent tone is admirable, Summerskill’s enthusiasm is impossible to emulate: we live in different times. In the twenty first century, I’ll need to be more honest with my daughter than I’d like. I will need to acknowledge how sad some statistics are, how outrageous some behaviour is, how archaic some institutions are. I will need to commiserate and apologise. I used to believe that a positive attitude supports positivechange, but it is naïve to think that in a world moving backwards as much as it heads forwards, positivity alone will impel transformation.

Sadly, Summerskill’s letters have aged well (despite her matronly and clipped post-war tone) because much of the injustice that she railed against remains in place today. Whether or not she felt justice in her own life, Summerskill sensed betterment across society in the time it took to become a mother. Based on my experiences so far, I can’t pretend that my daughter’s life will be contextualised by true equality. Knowing that though – being sad about it – is just as feminist as cheerfulness. My letters to my daughter will be bold, brutal and somewhat bitter, but no less feminist in motivation.


When does a war myth serve a pandemic?

The exhortation to channel our ‘Blitz Spirit’ during the outbreak of Covid-19 falls short of contemporary needs. It is right to criticise this myth each and every time it is invoked, not least in a pandemic. Contemporary reaction to the establishment’s tenor of plucky stoicism indicates that society is jaded by the predictability of ‘Blitz Spirit’. There is a twenty-first century reluctance to buy into politicians’ co-opted fantasies and victories. Nevertheless, as Political historian Steven Fielding writes, ‘All myths contain an element of truth or they cannot be sustained’: myths have form, function and purpose. Herein lies an opportunity to complicate easy, lazy wartime analogies and encourage unity between those enduring a twenty-first century pandemic rather than those re-living a cliché.

I started thinking about this at work over a week ago as I watched a senior executive sail cheerily into our office clutching a fluorescent yellow bottle of bleach and a pair of rubber gloves. No doubt, this man could not locate a jiffy cloth in a line-up of fabrics. Here was the sight of an operations chief preparing to launch his Covid-19 response. An obsession with the entrance door handle ensued, which, he wrote on a personally worded advisory, posed ‘the greatest threat to the office in terms of the danger introducing the Coronavirus’. We were reminded to use kitchen towel not tea towels to dry our hands after heeding the revolutionary guidance to wash them. Tea towels being ‘in any event meant for glasses and crockery’. Of course, there were other dangers to the health of the office. A lack of guidance on Statutory Sick Pay, for example, which led me to continue going to work despite having a bad cold; the fact that we were all travelling to work on London Transport; the fact that it was too soon to tell what ‘the greatest threat’ really was in spreading the disease.

A few days later, the same satisfied executive passed by cuddling a multi-pack of Imperial Leather. His war effort was progressing efficiently. Despite most of us being able to work from home if directed, it was announced that the office was staying open. Just last week, many British people were exercising more than a hint of our favourite Second World War anachronism, ‘keep calm and carry on’. Contrasting starkly with images of the real national front liners – nurses, doctors, social workers, public health advisors – this ‘business as usual’ attitude smacked of failure and tragedy. The paternalistic reminder to wash our hands was correct, of course, but reflected a deep naivety about the depth of the crisis and its impact on people much worse off than ourselves. It was disrespectful to those in occupations where this ‘war’ was real, such as the Lewisham cleaning staff who walked out over pay and conditions, despite being the people most critical in keeping-up Covid-19 prevention efforts.

Anyhow, ‘keep calm and carry on’ was patently ineffective, so we moved onto another old favourite, ‘doing our bit’. This myth is a useful one; it is no fiction. We can all dramatically slow the spread of contagion by following simple public health advice. There is truth in this. And, in a highly individualised era, this effort is accessible and very ‘now’; some may even be excited by newfound opportunities to bake homemade bread, grow herbs and learn to crochet – nothing wrong with that. But, the true parallel between Covid-19 and the Second World War is not necessarily in the sacrifices made by individuals, it is in the unprecedented mobilisation of employment sectors we have either been under-appreciating or have never even recognised .

This more useful Second World War tale illustrates how government can re-frame skills and specialisms, reorder the social and economic status of labour and completely reconfigure workforce expectations of employers and workplace legislation. While wartime dictats did not destroy the class system or eradicate pay inequalities, from 1940 onward, by orchestrating a mammoth policy shift on holidays, working hours, occupational health, nutrition, access to medical care, etc., Ernest Bevin, Minister for Labour, challenged government, the private sector and ordinary people to reconsider the value of various occupations. Now, those of us without the expertise to stop the spread of Covid-19 or support communities to overcome its effects should be re-evaluating which social groups we view with esteem and respect. Indeed, as the Lancet editorial recently stated, “It is vital that governments see workers not simply as pawns to be deployed, but as human individuals. In the global response, the safety of health-care workers must be ensured.” I would extend this wish to the cleaners, delivery drivers, catering staff, pharmacists, shelf-stackers, nursery workers, teachers, who are maintaining the human dignity of our health and social services.

‘Blitz Spirit’ is not an entirely fabricated story, individuals made local decisions to support and protect their communities in ways that complemented and reflected the culture of the time. From religiously cleaning a door handle to making cups of tea for off duty air wardens, ‘Blitz Spirit’ describes common sense courage and kindness, the likes of which most of us would expect in an emergency. It is not necessarily a change in behaviour; it is an elevation of existing behavioural standards. But, individual behaviour alone did not win the war, nor would it ‘win’ against coronavirus. The adage that we all must ‘do our bit’ is as true as it is misleading. Of course, the unity and collective endeavour it takes to distance, isolate, change food choices, alter hygiene practices and concede to the curtailment of freedoms is an inspiring national venture against pandemic. Yet such ‘spirit’, so to speak, would be nothing if it were not also an opportunity for permanent structural change and reconfigured employment policies fit for a dignified and equalised society.