Thursday, May 30, 2013

No One But A Woman Knows - Margaret Llewelyn Davies

This was my bargain buy from the bank holiday, it did indeed turn out to be a harrowing read but almost a hundred years after it's first publication it's still an important and depressingly relevant book. Margaret Llewelyn Davies was general secretary of the Women's Co-Operative guild from 1889 to 1921. In 1914 she  initiated the sending of letters asking about direct experience of childbirth and rearing and some of those replies make up this book. 

The bare statistics are worth considering from the very beginning 348 mothers had experienced 1396 pregnancies that ended in live births although 122 of those children died within a year, there were 83 still births and 218 miscarriages, 2  of the women had experienced 10 miscarriages each, 1 had 5 still births. In total those 348 women had 1697  pregnancies. Household income ranged from as little as 9 shillings a week to as much as 5 pounds - which roughly equates to £45 going up to about £500, the average seems to be around 25 shillings or £100 - £125 pounds. Even the top end isn't much to raise a family of several children on, and the women who took part in this survey were at the better off end of the spectrum of working class families. 

Without a national health system a doctor was often unaffordable, and certainly not someone you could call on lightly. Getting in help when the baby was born to deal with heavy housework (imagine a world without washing machines) and other young children was another considerable expense. Some of the women describe being almost continuously pregnant for years on end, one tells of a neighbour who's had children 10 months and 14 days apart, another of a woman having 4 children within 2 and a half years (1 set of twins). 

Poverty means not enough food so expectant mothers are often malnourished which in turn leads to sickly children. Lack of knowledge and not being able to afford decent medical care leads to a litany of horrible sounding ailments - it comes as no surprise to read that a pregnancy was the cause of fear rather than joy. It isn't all doom and gloom though, there are a few women who understand birth control, some who have had easy pregnancies, and where there is enough money to make sure that the family is decently fed better health is assured. 

Minimum wage in 2013 means someone over 21 working a full time (39 hours a week) earns just over £240 pounds a week before tax and national insurance. Employers at the lower, unskilled, end of the job market increasingly favour part time workers. Women are no longer the property of their husbands in this country, marital rape has been recognised as a crime since the 1990's, the pill has been available on the NHS since 1961, and abortion has been legal since 1967. Illegal doesn't mean it doesn't happen, and abortion remains a contentious issue. 

This book is relevant because it reminds us why the women's movement was so desperately necessary in the first place, and why it's still so important. Sitting here in comfort with more than enough to eat, the security of knowing if I become ill I'll basically be looked after for free, and having made an educated choice not to have children just as so many of my friends have made the educated choice to have the children they want and can afford, what really strikes me is not how far we've come in the last century but how close we still are to the lives of these women. Yes, things have generally improved for families but 'No One But A Woman Knows' is also a warning not to be complacent. It doesn't surprise me to see that it and it's sister volume 'Life As We Have Known It' were some of the first books that Virago published back in the 1970's, it's fantastic that they're back in print - 'No One But A Woman Knows' feels like a really important book. 


  1. Fascinating! Coming off the back of a week of depressing misogyny in public life in Australia here... books like this are important reminders that as women we can never be complacent that our work is done.

  2. I'm studying about Margaret and all the women's guild, they were/are so important but here in brazil they are unknown