A sister's struggle in the film fraternity

To Be a Woman
January 6, 2006

One of the many strengths of this compelling biography is that it is an often painful account of what life was like for an ambitious and talented woman uninterested in living the traditional feminine role during a period when feminism was in a deep trough between the "two waves". It is thus an illuminating contribution to social history as well as a portrait of a fascinating woman and her milieu.

In Carl Rollyson's vivid and intensively researched portrayal of Jill Craigie, her origins and early life remain obscure. She forged a self-created identity, as he observes: "Ambition and self-doubt tore at Jill Craigie's sensibility." While opportunities opened up for women generally in the Second World War, and for Craigie personal contacts also played a part, these were precarious. Doors slammed shut after the war, her dependence on the patronage of individuals meant that her fate was bound up with theirs and if they were out, so was she. This was one factor in the failure of her career in documentary film, also bound up with changes in the British film industry demolishing the "fragile infrastructure" upon which she had counted. She regretted that women's temporary wartime entry into film-making failed to give them the chances available to men to establish a firm foundation through learning the technicalities from the bottom up.

Denial of the opportunity to attend university may have affected her intellectual self-confidence. Her beauty and attraction for men tended to be a double-edged sword, opening doors but also, perhaps, leading her to wonder whether her achievements owed more to these factors than to her own merits. Yet these traditional feminine weapons gave her chances that might not have been available to the most earnest and ambitious striver without them. Craigie did occasionally deploy feminine wiles to advance her interests.

Craigie has had some recognition for her work as a documentarist, though is not considered part of the mainstream documentary tradition of the period. The field was intensely male-dominated: she commented bitterly in later life about the "fraternity of documentary film-makers" and that "a woman didn't get any help from any of these people... except the ones who made passes". In spite of their similar socialist convictions, there was deep antagonism between Craigie and doyen of the field John Grierson, and her aesthetic vision (she was a great admirer of Humphrey Jennings's work) was at odds with the dour puritanism of the Grierson group. She returned to documentary in old age when, with her husband, Michael Foot, she made the film Two Hours from London , set in Dubrovnik, to arouse British public conscience about the hostilities in Croatia.

Another of her memorable achievements was as a historian and curator of the suffrage movement and as a significant transitional figure between the first and second waves. Her initial intention to make a documentary about the fight for the vote ran foul of the persisting hostilities between individuals and groups who had been active in the cause. Nevertheless she did produce a film, To Be a Woman (1951), on the contemporary if unfashionable question of equal pay, priding herself on employing the composer Elizabeth Lutyens to produce the score. She also wrote essays and radio programmes on the nearly forgotten subject of the fight for suffrage, keeping its memory alive during this dark period. Above all, she acquired a huge collection (now at the Women's Library) of personal papers and memorabilia of the struggle, doubtless saving an immense amount of material that otherwise might have disappeared. Sadly, however, she failed to complete her huge work on the history of the suffrage struggle on which she toiled for years, well into the period when it had once again become a topic of historical interest, with a burgeoning literature with which she continued to engage.

She regarded her marriage to Foot and her dedication to advancing and facilitating his political career as her work also. Many were astonished when this stunning woman with numerous highly eligible admirers engaged in determined pursuit of the physically unprepossessing Foot, but they had a long and devoted marriage. Rollyson places this decision in the context of the problems women experienced in pursuing independent political careers during the period, but it is also possible that Craigie was aware that she lacked the necessary background in political activism. Her marriage and her relationships with other leading women in the Labour Party raise intriguing questions about women, power and politics.

This account of Craigie's diverse and discontinuous career, and the considerable achievements she wrung out of the adversities of a period unsupportive of and unsympathetic to a woman uninterested in the traditional role, makes fascinating reading. Rollyson continues his praiseworthy record of producing solid and readable biographies of 20th-century women who stretched the boundaries of what a woman might be and do.

Lesley Hall is senior archivist, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London.

To Be a Woman: The Life of Jill Craigie

Author - Carl Rollyson
Publisher - Aurum
Pages - 381
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 1 85410 935 9

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