Last week I had a really special experience.
I said goodbye to my daughter at pre-school, and went to visit a lady I was going to write a profile about for the local magazine I’ve recently started to work for. This was to be my first proper interview; by which I mean I wasn’t just chatting with a friend and jotting a few things down while our children ran rampage. This was going to be something more professional with someone I’d never met before.
At the same time, I was aware that I should also start the reading for my university seminar on Women and Work in the twentieth century with Professor Amanda Vickery – her module, Modern Girls, is the reason I ever conceived the idea of doing an MA.
The questions we were going to be discussing included, ‘How compatible was work with marriage?’ and it was perhaps with this at the back of my mind that I asked my interviewee what job she’d had before her marriage.
This is how she came to tell me about working at a famous bank in the City in the 1950s. I was enthralled by a story of typing pools and partner’s secretarys; the wonder of a first photocopier; the strict segregation of the sexes. All the women who worked there were secretaries and, ‘you didn’t carry on once you were married’.
It was a more rigid and formal world than we know, but it was also fun. Friends travelled together on the steam trains up to London to their work, and when they got home again their evenings were spent at cocktail parties and balls.
She was happy and lucky in her marriage. She also often did have jobs alongside raising her children, although commuting to London was no longer an option.
Everything she talked about will not only go towards an interesting article; it was also incredibly relevant to my study of the changing role of women in the last century. Last week my work, studies and home life coincided in a happy harmony. It probably won’t always feel this serendipitous, but I am feeling lucky. I can work from home and have the flexibility to organise my work and life as I want – a relatively new experience for me.
The other thing that struck me personally is perhaps less positive. The world of work in the 1950s and the society around it is completely alien to us in the 21st century, but the world my interviewee experienced when she’d had children was extremely recognisable. She found ways to work alongside raising her children; she used school hours and friendship networks; she juggled in ways that we still do now.
It can’t be surprising, then, that parents of 2016 often feel frustrated; we belong to the 21st century, but we’re trying to operate within a structure that was already feeling worn out in the 1960s. The role of women has changed; but society’s expectations of us as mothers hasn’t changed enough, and neither has the ability of the workplace to accommodate the needs of both parents – to give everyone a better work-life balance.