I've just finished two books that in equal and opposite ways have left their mark. One is Singled Out, by Virginia Nicholson, the other Can Any Mother Help Me? They are both social histories, aimed at exposing the state of marriage and womanhood in the first half of the twentieth century (now ripe for memorialization).
Both books take unimpeachably admirable subjects as their themes: Singled Out looks at the 'Surplus Women', the some two million women left behind when all the young men died in France and Belgium in the First World War. Can Any Mother Help Me? looks at what is known as a 'correspondence magazine', a pre-email round robin between invited members, in which each adds articles dealing with subjects close to their hearts (children, husbands, work, illness, loss and so forth).
From the outset then, we are prepared for a great deal of Fortitude, Dignified Suffering, and Achievement Despite (a) Housework, (b) Lack Of Housework. I did enjoy both books, and am glad both exist. And I understand that in treating women's social history, it is inevitable that the analysis is going to circulate around the dilemma 'To Marry or Not to Marry'.
However by the end of both books, I came away in a fuzz of despair at my own sex. Why is it that we are still completely bound to the idea that a woman's life is made or broken by her marriageability and fertility? It could be argued that these two histories examine a time in which marriage was imperative in order to safeguard honour, children, and an old age pension for a woman without many rights of her own. But what amazes and depresses me is that these attitudes have essentially persisted, so that the single and/or childless women I know now talk to me about their anguish not at not having children or a man, but at being constantly subtly victimized, usually by other women, for not having them.
There seems to be the most incredible double standard that persists despite education, contraception, and access to all professions. Now, for all that many people in the West cohabit, or make choices about the extent or existence of families, there is an amazing orthodoxy about heterosexual conformity in general. The apparently innocent question, "And do you have children?", so often addressed to women over a certain age at parties, is a loaded and competitive question. It is an attempt by the questioner to pigeonhole a woman as either out of the running, compromised by her own fertility, or a threat, because independent, and therefore free to achieve (but vulnerable on this one flank). And it is a question asked by women of women, an invisible attack mounted to shape the world according to a particular orthodoxy. Women who don't comply risk expulsion, not by men, but by other women.
I wonder how many women now have children because they are afraid not to?