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Sunday, 21 December 2014

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The times when nobody wanted a job and women weren’t allowed one

Nobody wanted to go and work in Workington Library back in June 1948.

The Library Committee had advertised a job for a library assistant which, if a 16-year-old lass had secured it, would have paid her £2 a week – with guaranteed future wage for age increments.

I don’t know how much they were offering if a young man got the job – but it would have been more.

Older readers might remember that this was a time when men were paid more than women – even if they were doing identical work.

Men assistants were more expensive – and they were likely to qualify for future salary increments.

Young women, when they married, stopped working.

This made it possible to replace them with more 16-year-olds.

But the question of the gender of a new library assistant was irrelevant – because nobody applied for the job.

Yet 10 years previously, a similar advert attracted some seventy applications, then for the princely sum of 10 shillings a week. But then back in 1938 the country was still in depression – it was bust. Come 1948 and, if you believe the reports, it was boom time in Britain. And when it came to jobs – workers could pick and choose.

And the workers who could really pick and choose were women. Employers, reportedly, couldn’t find any for routine clerical work and shopkeepers were desperate to find young women for “behind the counter” work. It was so bad that newsagents had to resort to paying OAPs to deliver papers in the early morning – with some newsagents “paying 20 shillings for two hours work.” According to a West Cumberland Times reporter, a shorthand typist could “command a wage of five guineas a week – and get it without any trouble!” This, in many cases, was more than their fathers were earning – truly a case of the world turned upside down!

But a number of new factories had opened in West Cumberland – all of them looking for operatives and experienced office workers to do jobs which were then seen as women’s work and all of them, seemingly, willing to pay good wages. Work opportunities galore – for those who wished to take them.

Or, in many cases, for those whose husbands allowed them to take them. I suspect that most young, or younger, people today will find it almost impossible to understand that husbands would forbid their wives, even if they didn’t have children to raise, to work. Even as late as the early 1960s I can remember men, and not all of them long in the tooth, emphatically declaring that “no wife of mine is going out to work” This, of course, could be translated as “no wife of mine needs to go out to work.”

Then, as now, there was also a body of opinion which positively encouraged young mothers to stay home and look after their children. Working mothers were made to feel guilty. How many of you remember the much discussed problem of “the latchkey child”? Were you a latchkey child? And did it do you any harm?

In the latter part of last century, when the going got tough, many women found that they had to work. It was a choice which didn’t go down well with some childcare experts. Take the following: “I am very strongly against women leaving home to work when they have young children.” These words were spoken by Lady Ponsonby at the annual meeting of the West Cumberland branch of the NSPCC.

The audience of over 100 women applauded. She further claimed that most of the cases they had to deal with “were of neglect rather than wilful cruelty” and that “young children should not be left without parental supervision.”

A later speaker, JA Stobart – the organisation’s northern counties organiser – agreed, claiming that the term ‘juvenile delinquency’ was overstated and that it should be called ‘parental delinquency’. So how different is that from what many politicians are going on about nowadays?

Equal pay was being talked about at the time. Letters were sent to the editor. “Mere Man” was not in favour, because – to quote: “The output of women is not equal to that of men in either quantity or quality.” He also claimed that “absenteeism from sickness, nervous breakdown, etc is 50 per cent higher than among men.” Adding that “for young married women the rate is usually double that of men.”

And there was more – and I suspect that a lot of men would have agreed with his opposition to equal pay for women. But remember – this was back in 1948.

No one thinks like this nowadays. Unless, of course, you know any different!

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