Rosemary Crompton rightly points to flaws in Alison Wolf’s analysis of the problems of modern working women. And we agree that Wolf got her history wrong.
Wolf compares a present when highly educated women have wide opportunities in the workplace with a past when they did not. She sees losses as well as gains. Loss of “millenia” of “sisterhood… during which women of all classes shared the same major life experiences to a far greater degree than did men,” and loss of a “specifically female public service ethos” as educated women have abandoned a central commitment to the family, voluntary action and a sense of vocation, for high-flying careers with built-in disincentives to motherhood, creating a serious decline in the birth rate.
History can help us to understand some of the messes we are in, but only if we get it right. Wolf’s largely invented “past”—that vague territory where things were always better—does not help. To suggest that the gentlewomen who “could rejoice in assembly rooms, concert series, theatre seasons, circulating libraries, daytime lectures, urban walks and pleasure gardens” (to quote, as Wolf does, Amanda Vickery on the 18th century) on one hand, and the peasant women working in the fields while their mothers minded their children on the other, “shared lives centred on explicitly female concerns” is romantic nonsense which sheds no light on the past or the present. These women’s lives were as remote from one another as those of their contemporary elite men and navvies.
It is true that since the 1980s the number of graduates, male but particularly female, has exploded, and that many more women graduates both take on careers after graduating and return to work sooner after giving birth. It is also true, as Wolf describes, that before the war it was almost impossible for a married middle-class woman to work in a paid career, and that since the war the range of occupations open to married women graduates has gradually expanded.
But Wolf misunderstands the processes of change. This is clear from the findings of the largest available survey of the life histories of British women graduates through much of the 20th century. Amy Erickson, Kate Perry and I looked at the lives of a sample of over 700 women who attended Girton College, Cambridge, between the 1920s and 1990. In the 1920s, 62 per cent of Girtonians entered teaching as their…