Once upon a time, English women fought for childhood – not just for gender equality with men. In 1900 women fought for suffrage, but also for a socialist society – a better deal for all.
Children at that time had become visible in the new elementary schools. They were hungry, poorly dressed, lacking food and boots. Some were ill, some disabled. Women spoke up for these children: they could not benefit from schooling unless their health and welfare needs were addressed. Women argued that the state should share responsibility with parents for their health.
And women also saw that children had things in common: they grew according to laws of development; they learned by exploration – and that school should take account of these points. Therefore children were a special social group, and the future of society. As detailed in my new book, Visionary Women and Visible Childhoods, England 1900-1920: Childhood and the Women’s Movement, it is no accident that measures to improve the status of childhood came at about the same time as measures to improve the status of women. As the Great War ended in 1918, women (some of them) got the vote, while in 1919 children gained international recognition through the Jebb sisters who started Save the Children. And children’s rights were recognised for the first time in Western European history – through the 1924 Declaration of Children’s Rights.
This history cries out to us now. I have not made comments in my book about the relations between women’s arguments then and the present situation. They speak for themselves.
In the post-war years children became a responsibility of the state. During the Labour government (1945-51), and for some years onwards, services such as health, welfare and schools worked to be responsive to children’s health and welfare needs, to their ways of learning. But more recently, this state responsibility has declined. Rates of child poverty have soared, responsibility now rests with parents. Day care is an expensive shambles. And from a child development and children’s rights standpoint, the education system pays little attention to how children learn, nor to what they may wish to learn.
And since the 1970s, the women’s movement, too, has tried to ignore children, focusing instead on adult relations, between women and men. But these matters cry out to the reader from the pages of the past. Above all, this history tells us that adults have responsibility to ensure children have healthy childhoods. And children have rights – to participate in the making of a good society, to be heard in matters that concern them. These are enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), which demands of states that they work to ensure recognition of those rights.
This book uncovers a neglected part of history. Since the 1970s, women have written extensively about women’s struggle for the vote – about the peaceful suffragist movement led by Millicent Fawcett, and on the activism and violence of the suffragettes, led by Mrs. Pankhurst. Neglected is the work of her younger daughter Sylvia, who led the women’s movement in the East End of London during the Great War: this enlisted men, women and children into the battles for fairer wages, for women’s rights and for children’s participation in political activities. Feminists nowadays emphasise relations between men and women, and sideline children; but the histories they write tells us another story.
Visionary Women and Visible Childhoods, England 1900-1920: Childhood and the Women’s Movement by Berry Mayall is published by Palgrave Macmillan. It will be launched at the on 22 March, 4-6pm in the 5th floor seminar room, UCL Malet Place Engineering Building, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT. This meeting will also help to launch Women, Peace and Welfare: A suppressed history of social reform 1880-1920 by Ann Oakley (Policy Press).