Forgotten Wives: How Women Get Written Out of History, by Ann Oakley

Not before time, the female partners whose intellectual contributions enhanced their husbands’ work get long-overdue credit, writes Emma Rees

八月 19, 2021
Woman on mobile phone with head covered by newspaper, illustrating review of Forgotten Wives: How Women Get Written Out of History By Ann Oakley
Source: Getty

In 2017, the Twitter hashtag #ThanksForTyping went viral. It was initiated by the American novelist and academic Bruce Holsinger, who had noted, as he said in an interview at the time, how often male authors’ acknowledgements anonymised and casually dismissed the academic labour of “gently thanked wives”. “My wife transcribed the first draft of the manuscript,” wrote one writer in his acknowledgements to a book in the early 1970s, “working from the Black Letter type, sixteenth-century spelling, and wondrous punctuation of the original publications.” This anonymous uxorial adjunct had, as Holsinger tweeted, in effect done the complex palaeographic heavy lifting for the husband whose name appears on the book’s cover.

I reviewed Ann Oakley’s Women, Peace and Welfare: A Suppressed History of Social Reform, 1880-1920 for Times Higher Education in 2018. In that book, she continued her life’s work of moving women from history’s margins, footnotes – and acknowledgements – to centre stage. I wrote then of how influential her publications have been in shaping my own academic career. In Forgotten Wives: How Women Get Written Out of History, Oakley continues this project of putting women firmly back in the frame – a venture that began nearly half a century ago with her important and now near-canonical Sociology of Housework (1974).

In reading this review, many wives – particularly, perhaps, those married to men – will recognise how often matrimony is not an equal partnership. The invisibility of much of women’s domestic labour has been well documented, not least by Arlie Hochschild, but Oakley’s concern is with the specifically intellectual contributions made by wives and how these have been represented – or, significantly, denied – by biographers and historians.

Mary Booth, for example, born in 1847, was a social reformer in her own right, but she spent nearly two decades working on books attributed solely to her husband, Charles, whose landmark Life and Labour of the People in London was published in several volumes from 1889. She also gave birth to seven children, and, during Charles’ frequent illnesses and absences, ran their household singlehandedly, shouldering the responsibility for “the infrastructure of their life together”, and managing the “enormous edifice of domestic support her labours sustained”.

Booth’s work is, Oakley acknowledges, beginning to be recognised. However, there remain many biographers who have done the greatest of disservices to the wives of their subjects. Jeffrey Meyers, for example, in the supremely confidently titled Married to Genius: A Fascinating Insight into the Married Lives of Nine Modern Writers, describes George Bernard Shaw’s wife, Charlotte, as having an “unimpressive appearance”. He also notes what he terms her “sexual frigidity”, drawing the conclusion that she was a “selfish, pampered and frightened neurotic”.

Oakley is having none of this. In her book, Charlotte is fleshed out in ways that redress Meyers’ vicious characterisation. Where Meyers described T. E. Lawrence as Charlotte Shaw’s “surrogate son”, Oakley demolishes the myth of “frustrated motherhood as a popular diagnosis of Charlotte’s attraction” to Lawrence. Further, she notes that Charlotte “was Mrs GBS for 45 of her 86 years”, but in biographers’ hands, “Mrs GBS is what she has wholly become”.

The curious double disservice done to wives of well-known men is illustrated nowhere more clearly than in Oakley’s chapter on the historian Jeannette Tawney. Tawney has repeatedly been relegated to the position of an also-ran in the lives of her brother, the social reformer William Beveridge, or her husband, the socialist historian Richard Henry Tawney. Jeannette Tawney’s is a case of what Oakley characterises as “forgetting of a particular kind”: her home’s untidiness (in a lovely personal aside, Oakley recalls her own mother, Kay Titmuss, dismissing Jeannette “as a poor housekeeper”) has led to a view of her not only as eclipsed intellectually by a brilliant husband, but also as “not fitting a highly gendered stereotype”. Poignantly, Oakley argues, Tawney is not “forgotten in the same way as Charlotte Shaw, Mary Booth and Janet Beveridge” because “she is remembered, even celebrated, for her derogation of wifehood”.

Tawney’s brother, William Beveridge, married Janet Mair in 1942 after decades of having worked with her, and two weeks after the publication of his famous 200,000-word report, which, according to Oakley, was “full of technical details, and would have made tedious and unimpressive reading were it not for Janet’s intervention”. Despite – or perhaps because of – this key role in one of the most important moments in the development of the welfare state, Janet is another forgotten or misrepresented figure, a “she-devil, a woman who departs from conventional norms, not merely by smoking cigars, but by being an outspoken claimant” not only of “her own achievements” but, most significantly, “of the right to an acknowledged share in his”.

Oakley’s gaze is not an uncritical one. Her approach to the four women at the heart of Forgotten Wives is certainly rehabilitative, but it is emphatically not hagiographic. As she writes of Janet Beveridge, “We may like, or dislike, the people we write about, but to what extent should these personal opinions influence our judgement and our choice of language?” Oakley’s sensitive and vivid rendering of her four subjects offers a welcome corrective to endlessly recycled anecdotes and biographical truisms.

She redirects the critical spotlight not only on to these figures who have been at best ignored, and at worst vilified, but also on to the space that has preoccupied her since the 1960s – the home. “It all comes back”, she writes, in a touching concluding chapter, “to the tricky, irremediably dirty and neglected topic of housework”. Her plea is ultimately for a fundamental recalibration not only of what heteronormative marriage meant for the four women at the heart of Forgotten Wives, but also of what it means for women today.

Oakley is characteristically upfront about her book: “Forgotten Wives isn’t a comprehensive guide,” she writes, “but I’ve been researching and writing about gender for more than half a century, and I’m tired of careful phrasing and modest claims.” She’s also disarmingly frank about the possible errors caused by the pandemic having abruptly curtailed her archival research. She acknowledges that she could have delayed publication until the archives reopened, but instead, she writes, “I decided to finish the book with the material I’d already gathered. By the time it’s published I shall be well into my 78th year and patience doesn’t grow with age.” If there are omissions, they certainly aren’t obvious ones.

The legendary dancer Isadora Duncan once said: “Any intelligent woman who reads the marriage contract, and then goes into it, deserves all the consequences.” Certain cultural assumptions persist about heterosexual partnerships in the Global North. Oakley’s “default prism of wifehood” is an important paradigm in considering what being a wife means, and her four case studies illustrate it brilliantly. Marriage remains a contract that continues to favour husbands over wives, and tucked away in Oakley’s acknowledgements is a deliciously knowing refutation of it: “Forgotten Wives is dedicated to Robin,” she writes, “who is not a forgotten husband, and who did not do the typing.”

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.

Forgotten Wives: How Women Get Written Out of History
By Ann Oakley
Policy Press, 256pp, £19.99
ISBN 9781447355847
Published 6 July 2021

The author

Ann Oakley, professor of sociology and social policy at the UCL Institute of Education, was born in London and lived in Chiswick and then Acton – in a house that now carries a blue plaque commemorating her father, the pioneering social researcher Richard Titmuss.

She read philosophy, politics and economics at Somerville College, Oxford, and when sociology was introduced as a new option in her final year, she “knew immediately that [she] had found [her] intellectual home. The other subjects seemed aridly theoretical or unimaginative (or both), by comparison.”

The author of core feminist texts such as The Sociology of Housework (1974) and From Here to Maternity (originally published in 1980 as Becoming a Mother), Oakley has also written biography, autobiography and fiction. The Men’s Room (1988) was dramatised by a celebrated BBC television series in 1991.

Her new book, she says, “follows the trail of two of my long-term interests: the ways in which the lives and work of women are subject to processes of neglect, marginalisation, misrepresentation and devaluation; and the question of methodology: how the tools of research and scholarship are formed and influence narratives of public and private life. A subsidiary question, with which the book is much concerned, is how marriage as a defining status for women affects historical and biographical stories.”

Asked about the choice of the four women Forgotten Women uses to illustrate these broad themes, Oakley responds that all were “married to well-known men who played significant roles in shaping modern Britain’s welfare state. I was interested in charting how the women contributed to this, and how wifehood in this social context shaped what they as individuals were able to do. While there have been huge strides over the last century towards greater sex equality, the evidence clearly shows that the social system remains heavily weighted against women.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Overdue kudos for invisible toil



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