Testament of Youth


The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford.

I have always been fascinated by the early twentieth century. The literature, the music, the art, the fashion. I think about dancing the Charleston, gramophones, 1920’s bobbed hair and rouge lips. Sometimes, I imagine myself in a 1930’s style silk robe that wafts around me as I casually drag on a Woodbine. Again, the red lips feature. I do love a red lip.

Anyway, when I am back in the twenty-first century I often read books about, or set during, the period spanning 1900-1950. I have just finished Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. This autobiography spans Brittain’s life from early adolescence through to her early thirties and focuses on the cataclysmic impact of the First World War on her own generation.

Vera grew up in Buxton, and was the daughter of middle-class, affluent parents. She had a younger brother who was sent to Uppingham school and who, it was expected, would go to Oxford. Vera however was expected to ‘come out’ and then promptly get married and run a household. She had different ideas, and determinedly pursued a place at Somerville College, Oxford.

The First World War broke out during her first year at Oxford and her brother, who was at New College, signed up immediately. Vera’s fiancée also signed up, and off the boys went to war. Vera carried on studying but eventually gained permission to suspend her studies whilst she became a volunteer nurse with the British Red Cross. She didn’t realise that nursing would become her life for the next three years.

Brittain manages to weave her own life events around the wider political and societal changes that were happening during those turbulent years in British history. She focuses, at some length, on her work with the League of Nations in the second half of the book, and commentary on early feminism is given all the way through. At some points this does run a bit dry, especially as her own agenda is very much pursued. She wrote this in the 1930’s and it’s clear that her political activism is still going strong at that point, she has her points to prove. These points are made all the way through, that educated women at that time had to struggle to make use of their education when it was expected that all professional activity would cease on marriage. And also, that the terms of the Treaty of Versailles did not honour the loss of life of millions of young men, including the young men who were the brightest and best. Not ground-breaking for readers now, but for those reading this in the early 1930’s when the legacy of WW1 was still very much felt, I imagine it was thought-provoking.

Is it wrong to say I don’t really warm to her? There is a pervasive sense of arrogance. I know that she had a hard won struggle to get to Oxford, and then to establish a writing career, but…there is something of a cold detachment in the way that she writes.

Nevertheless, it has made me think about women today. I am getting married in September, and thankfully I don’t even have to think about giving up my career as a result. But…I have also realised that middle-class women of Vera’s generation had rather a lot of help at home. They had charwomen, or maids, or housekeepers. Other women who would come in and cook and clean for them. Vera’s own mother had a nervous breakdown during the war, because she simply couldn’t find any servants. She had no idea how to boil an egg, or how to clean their Chelsea flat. I imagine that the strain of worrying about their children (both in France at that time) was the primary cause, but Vera highlights the burden of domesticity on women for whom ‘running the house’ had always been managing other people to do the grunt work. When these women had to do it themselves, they fell apart.

And what of us now? We (women and men) are doing all our own cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing and hoovering, as well as working and, in some cases, raising children. How on earth do we do it? And then we have all the social media to keep up with, and instagram photos of other people’s perfectly put together homes to feel inadequate over…surely it’s nervous breakdowns a-go-go for us all?! I think Vera’s mother would have gone up in a puff of smoke if she knew how much we all try and do now. Something has to give, surely. For me, I know what that is… I don’t iron, I barely tidy (thanks go to the dude for the tidying) and, I never feel on top of anything at the moment. So, for all our equality and emancipation, I am sure that a couple of generations ago we never would have thought of going without a housekeeper. Virginia Woolf had a whole host of servants (managing them drove her to her wits end). If Virginia Woolf was alive now, she would be someone who ‘works from home’ and would end up doing the cooking and housework herself. Probably. And how much time/energy would that have left for writing?

Vera Brittain describes living in a small London flat with Winifred Holtby during her twenties. Both women were writing novels and pursuing careers in journalism at that time, they were busy, young and starting out. And then, she casually mentions the housekeeper who would cook and clean for them. I had to stop myself from laughing out loud on the train, what a hard life those ‘struggling writers’ led. Try being out of the house from 07.30 – 19.30 to work to your employers’ schedule, and then come home to make dinner, and maybe do some remedial housework or just fall asleep. When is there time for writing, thinking, research, ideas?

I don’t know that my mother’s generation during the women’s lib movement of the 1970s, really realised that the burden of running a home would still fall to their daughters even after they gained equal opportunities for us in education and the workplace. If the dude is reading this, he’s just spat out his beverage at that last sentence. But, generally women do still expend more energy (psychological and physical) on housework, cooking, making plans and arrangements with friends and family, and basically keeping the show on the road. I can’t talk about childcare, but it seems to me that women do tend to lead on this one as well, and that’s a whole lifetime of work for a person.

So, instead of clean the house this weekend. I’m going to dance around in my red lipstick, enjoy a cocktail or two, and maybe….just maybe work on that piece of writing that I started.

Happy Friday everyone!

BB x

The F Word

One of my earliest memories is of being on a riverside beach in Cornwall with my mum, sister and some family friends. I must have been about two or three years old and was enjoying a traditionally damp English summer BBQ, pootling about amongst the pebbles when around the river bend came a boat full of merry holidaymakers. My sister and friends started to wave and shout cheerful ‘hello’s’… I mustered all the puff I had and shouted ‘FUUUUUUCCCCCCCCK!’

Time stood still, everyone turned and stared. My poor mother scrabbled around desperately for an appropriate punishment for this delinquent toddler. It was decided that I wouldn’t be allowed any fruit pastilles – sweets which I have never liked so, frankly, I was quite pleased with myself. They all thought that I didn’t really know what I was saying.

‘Fuck’ is one of the most contentious words in the English language. I have gone through life peppering my speech with it. It’s become one of my many bad habits… but strangely, it doesn’t seem to get as much of a reaction as the other contentious F word. Feminism.

Sometimes, saying ‘I’m a feminist’ wins you looks of approval and exclamations along the lines of ‘damn right, sista!’ (not that I live in Queens NYC, but you get the idea). Sometimes, saying ‘I’m a feminist’ results in shakes of the head and the assumption that you are an angry man-hater. Sometimes, I just end up saying ‘Fuck, I don’t know.’

What I do know is this. I grew up knowing that as an adult I would be able to vote, go to university, get a job, have children when I choose, have my own bank account and that my father or future husband won’t be able to commit me to an asylum as a result of my PMT or not wanting to do the housework (always a cheering thought as I would have been committed years ago based on that criteria). So, compared to my grandmother and mother’s generation I’ve got it pretty good. But, surely these are just examples of basic human rights? The Suffragettes might have won us the vote and the Women’s Liberation Movement might have given us birth control and the choice to be something other than a housewife but what are feminists doing for us now?

The debate is fierce and yet we seem to be going around in circles. On the one hand, we want a kick-ass career and on the other we want to have the choice to leave work to look after our children. At any moment we might celebrate the right to make our own choices and in the next moment we criticise women for changing their names after marriage. We want to have the choice to dress and look however we want without being judged by societal norms, but we pick apart other people’s appearances all the time. There is no harsher critic of a woman than another woman.

And that’s partly why I find feminism so confusing. We are in-fighting and it’s resulting in mixed messages. For example, our daughters are growing up to believe that flaunting their sexuality is empowering. I’ve witnessed British teenage girls abroad dancing on bars for free shots. They were having fun, getting drunk and having casual sex. I sat on a curbside craving my pyjamas, a book and a mug of horlicks, but then I started to talk to an 18 year old girl who looked like she had just walked off a glamour photoshoot. It became clear that she genuinely believed that she was an empowered young woman. In the early hours, I sat with her and a man at the hotel bar (I have no problem embarassing myself in the name of research!) – she was so drunk that she could barely speak but nevertheless, happily went back to his room with him. I just wanted to explain to her the difference between enjoying your sexuality and valuing yourself on your sexual desirability alone. I didn’t though, because she made her choice. But I went to bed feeling worried for a young stranger and for young women who base their self-esteem on casual sexual encounters. I’m not sure that’s what the Women’s Liberation Movement intended when they campaigned for women to have access to birth control. I’m not saying casual sex is wrong, but I am concerned that it is becoming too closely linked with feelings of self-worth for some young girls.

I hear women expressing gratitude that their partner has hoovered. I also hear them mocking their partner for not doing the washing up correctly. Each time I cringe because it seems to me that this is not only deeply patronising towards men but also implies that a woman should be grateful when her partner does some housework. The point is that both genders can hoover, iron, wash up and tidy as well as the other; there should be shared responsibility for the household. But, there are some things that we cannot do equally and it is these things that should be celebrated. I like that I can be carried over the threshold by a man, I also enjoy the thought that I can bear him a child. Alternatively, I enjoy the intuitive bond that women share and that, yes, we can multi-task.

But there are things that still need to change. At university I was harassed by a lecturer who made it clear that he wasn’t too fussed about keeping it professional.  I didn’t know how to respond so cried in my room and spent the rest of my degree course avoiding him. I didn’t want to be perceived as having ‘made a fuss’ so I didn’t report him, but it made me feel cheap and angry at myself for not being more assertive. So, when a man shouted ‘suck my cock!’ at me from the window of his van I memorised his number plate, rang the police and reported him for harassment. I also reported the man who followed me home and I would have reported the bloke who grabbed my bum as he cycled past me but on closer inspection he was about 14 years old so I shouted after him that he was “behaving really inappropriately” in my best ‘I-am-a-grown-up-telling-you-off’ voice. These are minor incidents and some people have queried my response to them (which pisses me off frankly), but the point is this… I enjoy my body, I love being a woman but on no account will I be reduced to the sum of my parts. The policeman who took my call said that I had the right to walk down the street without being intimidated. He was right, but I wanted to point out that whistles, comments and occasional unwanted touching are a sad part of a woman’s life. And while we are dancing on bars for free booze and showing disregard for our self-worth, why would other people treat us any differently?

My own stance on feminism has changed over the years, I used to be angrily adamant that I would never ‘just be a housewife’ as if a man was going to come along and imprison me in the kitchen. Now, I know that raising a family is one of the most challenging, rewarding, and important jobs there is and that dedicating yourself to this doesn’t need to rule out individual achievement or aspiration. As with everything, it’s about balance, hard work and, ultimately, team work with your partner. I like being in the kitchen and I also enjoy my job. For me, feminism is equality for men and women. It’s about taking action if you are being groped on public transport and taking action if someone tells you that someone making inappropriate comments towards you ‘was just a bit of banter’.

Feminism is also about respecting each other’s choices, some women will stay at home to look after their children, others couldn’t think of anything worse. Essentially, third-wave feminism is furthering the work of our mother’s in the 1960’s and 1970’s but whilst we continue to strive for our rights, we have to remember the great things about being a woman and support each other’s choices. We are nurturing, emotional, complicated, fragile, resilient, resourceful and downright awesome.  So, yeah, I’m a fucking feminist.