A great thinker but an ordinary man

October 4, 1996

When Ann Oakley sat down to write a biography of her father, social thinker Richard Titmuss, she discovered that like many men of his generation much of his public success had been based on the private sacrifices of his wife. Fact differs from fiction, truth from its interpretation, and telling the story of one's own life is different from telling the story of someone else's. But neat dichotomies often crumble and rearrange themselves in more interesting patterns when closely examined or put to the test of some specific project.

When my father, Richard Titmuss, died in 1973 I became his literary executor, which meant that I inherited many box files of private papers and correspondence. I vaguely wondered whether I should write a biography one day. It was obvious; no one else had. But what kind of book would a daughter write about a father? When you added to this our fundamental intellectual disagreement over the question of women, the obstacles seemed enough. But my mother's death in 1987 resurrected the dilemma. She left me a compact suitcase stuffed with her own history and her own version of my father's life and their relationship. The suitcase's contents were the starting point for Man and Wife.

The book was originally called Public Visions, Private Matters. I did not want to write a straightforward biography of my father because that would ignore the contents of the suitcase, relegating my mother to the position of traditional, supportive wife. Biographies of this kind are not very revealing, because they gloss over one of the most important problematics of our time: are women really human, like men, and, if they are, then why are they so notably absent from everything we consider so important in public life?

There was my father's public work, recorded in the publications and in the private papers, and my mother's long-kept record of hers, and her carefully pruned account of their early relationship set out in diaries and letters. There were my own memories of growing up as their child, and my own adult perspective as a feminist sociologist on marriage and the family, the role of the state in private life, and the development of health and welfare systems. This was the raw material.

There were also questions. By the end of his life, Richard Titmuss had an international reputation as a social policy analyst and critical thinker on questions of social welfare and ideology. He had published influential books, established the academic subject of social administration, advised foreign governments on health and welfare issues, helped the British Labour party to develop its pensions and other welfare policies, and sat on many important British government committees, including the National Insurance Advisory Committee, the Royal Commission on Medical Education, the One-Parent (Finer) Committee, the Community Relations Commission, and the Supplementary Benefits Commission. He had accomplished all this with the limited resources of an obscure social background and no formal education beyond the age of 14. How did it happen? What was the key to his success? The second, more general question was the one about gender. What happened to my mother? How and why do women so uniformly disappear within marriage and the family, and what does this do to them and to men and children? As the book developed, I came to see that these two questions, the individual and the cultural, were linked.

In the beginning, my parents' relationship was not conventional. She was older and more experienced than him, she came from a lower middle-class urban background, and was active in social welfare work for the unemployed. Richard Titmuss was gauche, uneducated, from a poor rural family, and apparently condemned to a lifetime in an insurance office, with a dabbling in reading, writing and arguing on social questions reserved for evenings and weekends. She taught him middle-class ways and introduced him to the world of poverty and charitable endeavour. Through her he learnt possibly the two most significant ingredients of his later success: how to write and how to network successfully with important people. As his career took off, hers was relinquished, becoming instead that more familiar preoccupation of women: looking after men, homes and family life.

As with most "great" men, Richard Titmuss's path to success in the public world was partly paved by what happened in his private one. But, more importantly, his own views of society, of the meanings of social policy and justice and altruism, his conception of the welfare state, were all deeply informed by his acceptance of a particular role for women. It was a role exemplified by his own marriage, and one his wife shared, at least intellectually, though the papers she left in the suitcase provide an alternative narrative she wished to preserve, one in which she railed against the limitations of such a life, and remembered with nostalgia and affection her other life as an independent woman half a century before, working to better the lives of the unemployed in south London.

During wartime separations, Kay and Richard wrote often to each other, and these letters demonstrate the evolution of the conventional, far from satisfactory, marriage I experienced as their only child. There is this curious sense, too, of history being written as it is lived in this particular gendered way, as my father, sitting in the Cabinet offices in Whitehall, composes a volume of the official war history, Problems of Social Policy, which effectively made his reputation, and my mother, banished to the provinces with a small baby, struggles as one of those very problems about which he writes. There are other themes, too. It is in these years that the discipline - if we can call it that - of social medicine, later medical sociology, and even later the sociology of health and illness, is born. Its birth has a close affinity with that particular understanding of class inequality that marks British socialism. Class reeks only faintly of a Marxist interpretation, and even less of a feminist one. The connections with the eugenics movement are clear, but shadowy in their meaning. What is clear is that Richard Titmuss's own climb to public success was made partly on the ladder of work with and for the British Eugenics Society.

Of course, what some readers of Man and Wife are likely to query is how much of this is only my interpretation. My interpretation must be doubly biased: as a daughter and as a feminist. It is true that, as others have said, children tell particular stories about their parents. Revealing a parallel truth underlying the fiction of the happy nuclear family is only part of this. It is also clear that having a special sensitivity to the fate of women merely exposes the more traditional bias, which is to see the division between the private world of women and the public life of men as complete and unproblematic.

There is perhaps one legacy of my childhood that has inspired me more than any other - the contrast between what it meant to grow up in a "political" home and the fact of anything to do with gender being regarded with unmentionable distaste as lying quite outside politics. Naively, perhaps, I was never able to understand or accept this distinction.

Neither in his marriage nor in his intellectual philosophy was Richard Titmuss unusual in these respects. On the contrary, it is the absolute ordinariness of his position that makes it so fascinating. Many similar stories could be told about other leading figures in British party politics of both rightwing and leftwing persuasions. The cumulative weight of these narratives helps to explain the failure of postwar British culture and social policy to tackle in any fundamental way the "problem" of women's relegation to the private sphere, and men's domination of the public one. The liberal fiction of equality simply will not do as an account of how men and women either do, or should, relate one to one other. And we must stop being seduced by that other fiction, that how our everyday lives are lived can somehow be neatly divided from the pronouncements we make as academics, scholars and public figures.

Ann Oakley is professor of sociology and director of the Social Service Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. Man and Wife is published by HarperCollins, price Pounds 16.99.

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