It was a strange feeling, being thousands of miles away in India (where International Women’s Day is widely celebrated) to realize that back in the UK Pen & Sword were releasing my latest book “Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era – the 18th Century struggle for female success in a Man’s World” – onto an unsuspecting public. It was slightly odd returning to the UK and seeing the book for the very first time – always an exciting moment for an author, and realizing that I wasn’t the first person to have a look at it!
Overall, I am pleased with it because the book marked the conclusion of a fascinating voyage of discovery – until I started the research I hadn’t appreciated the obstacles faced by women 300 years ago – obstacles such as a general lack of proper education, and obstacles of a legal nature (coverture reduced married women to a state little better than slavery). I was intrigued to see that some women pushed the door ajar – only for it to be slammed shut immediately afterwards. It is almost as if the public recoiled from the whole idea of change – the Terror which followed the French Revolution was a clear example of how change could get out of control. And people only had to consider the scandalous behaviour of Mary Wollstonecraft – that fascinating proto-feminist – to see how female emancipation could so easily lead to disaster (she had, after all, been an unmarried mother, had attempted suicide on more than one occasion, and was readily dismissed as a rotten role model and, as Horace Walpole said, as a ‘painted hyena’). There is a certain irony in finding that a pioneer actually set-back the cause which she so fiercely espoused. Nowadays, her ideas are back in fashion, but she certainly went out of favour in the Victorian era!
The book looks at some of the “petticoat pioneers” who started to break the mould – who refused to take a back seat and let the men take all the credit. The 18th Century is, when all is said and done, a century dominated by the roar of male success – men headed the Industrial Revolution, men spearheaded the growth of the British Empire, men explored, discovered, invented – and ruled. But that did not mean that women threw in the towel, and the book looks at pioneers such as Elizabeth Raffald (cook, delicatessen owner, employment-exchange owner, newspaper proprietor, and highly successful author) and Eleanor Coade (who set up a factory making products out of artificial stone). It includes the silversmith Hester Bateman, the formidable chocolatier Anna Fry, and also my favourite paradigm-shifter, the remarkable Hester Pinney. Here was a woman who enjoyed great success as a financial adviser, dealing in stocks and shares – and who preceded the first woman to cross the floor of the Stock Exchange by 250 years. I look at pioneering artists, novelists and actresses, as well as reformers and educationalists such as Elizabeth Fry, Hannah More and the anti-slavery firebrand Margaret Lady Middleton. There are one or two scientists, inventors and teachers (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Jane Mercer and Sarah Guppy) and, perhaps standing out for all the wrong reasons, the astonishing tale of Teresia ‘Con’ Phillips. She was a bigamist, a sex worker – and a woman who never gave up in her pursuit for justice through the courts, inspiring men such as Jeremy Bentham to advocate reform of our arcane legal system, and leading directly to the 1753 Marriage Act of Lord Hardwicke. Here was a woman who just wouldn’t give up, and her life was certainly a roller-coaster!
One of the things I discovered was the often over-looked influence of the Quakers. I had not appreciated that the Quaker belief in equality not only meant that they opposed slavery, but also that they treated boys and girls equally, and generally refused to follow conventional ideas about primogeniture. I was intrigued to see the Quaker introduction of fixed prices for a product – no haggling. Their word was their bond- and the book considers how Quakers “punched above their weight” in the market place. They may have been few in number, but just think of the industries they dominated – not just chocolate-making (Fry’s, Cadbury’s Rowntree’s etc) but also banking (Lloyds, Barclays, Friends Provident). Think Clarke’s shoes, Bryant and May matches, Huntley & Palmer biscuits, and the iron and steel-makers of the Darby family at Coalbrookdale, to name just a handful. And what distinguished these Quaker businesses was that women played an active part in the decision-making process – making it all the more remarkable that 250 years later there are still only seven companies in the Footsie Top 100 which have a woman as CEO. 7% doesn’t look like equality to me!
The book ends with a look at some of the areas where women still have not made a significant breakthrough – such as the miserable 3% of airline pilots who are female, or the unequal percentage of female surgeons, consultants, judges and senior partners in legal firms. But the emphasis is not intended to be on where we are now – it tries to look at how people fought injustice, poor education and legal opposition three centuries ago. I thoroughly enjoyed researching the book – it isn’t intended to be academic, but hopefully it will contain something of interest to general readers. Let me know!
It is available direct from the publishers here, and (in the U.K.) on Amazon.co.uk Those of you who are readers in the States will have to wait until 3 July before it is available on Amazon.com – apparently it takes that long for the copies to float across the Atlantic on a slow paddle steamer….