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HEARTS AND MINDS (Transworld, 2018)
In 2018 we shall be celebrating the centenary of votes for women. Mention ‘the Vote’ to most people, and stock images immediately come to mind: in a haze of green, white and violet, a group of determined-looking Edwardian women strides towards us in long-skirted suits wearing hats and glossy sashes; they carry inflammatory placards – ‘Who Would be Free Must Strike the Blow’ - or bricks; one or two of them are being man-handled by policemen with thin lips and helmets askew. Ethel Smythe’s ‘March of the Women’ is playing in the background. Perhaps we see a young girl with wild eyes and loose hair, strapped down in a prison cell and being force-fed through a tube, or Emily Wilding Davison lying on the Epsom turf with her broken head wrapped in newspaper. Ah yes, we say. The Vote: it’s all about the suffragettes.
In fact, it’s not. The suffragettes played their part, of course, and some lost their health, families, even their lives in defence of their political beliefs. But they were a minority: the ones who caught the headlines. Their militancy distracted public opinion from the patient, imaginative and more quietly courageous work being done by tens of thousands of ordinary women across Britain, dressed not in amethyst and emerald but in berry-red and leaf-green. The centrepiece of their campaign was a six-week march, what they called a pilgrimage, from the edges of the UK to London, to attend a rally for 50,000 people in Hyde Park in 1913. When they set out at the end of June, 1913, they had been housewives, grandmothers, aristocrats, illiterate girls, actresses, colliery-women, teachers, students, frightened, unsure, naive, perhaps a little reckless; activists, certainly, but all these other things as well. Now, they were women of influence. Citizens of the world. Exhausted, but exultant. The Pilgrimage was a rite of passage, not just for the participants, but for those of us who have been following them to the polling booths ever since.
And they weren’t the only non-suffragettes to fight for the Vote. Men and women were actively involved from all walks of life, political and religious persuasions. The ‘anti’s are great to listen to, too, with their talk of women’s inherent physical and intellectual disabilities. ‘No doctor,’ said one medical man, ‘ can ever lose sight of the fact that the mind of woman is always threatened with danger from the reverberations of her physiological emergencies... There is mixed up with the women’s movement much mental disorder.’
I am so excited about this book. Can you help me with it? Are there any suffragettes or suffragists in your family? As usual, I’m interested in real people, not ciphers; the ordinary men and women whom historians so often ignore. Please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org: I’d love to hear from you.
IN THE FAMILY WAY: ILLEGITIMACY BETWEEN THE GREAT WAR AND THE SWINGING SIXTIES.
My last book, published by Viking Penguin in February 2015, has proven a fascinating and revealing project. It’s about the personal experience of illegitimacy – from parents’ and children’s point of view – from the end of the First World War to the dawn of the permissive age in the 1960s. There has apparently been a complete change in attitude to bastards since then. Why? How can something mean so much to one generation, and so little to the next?
The National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child was founded in 1918 in response to the number of ‘fatherless’ wartime babies, and one of the WI’s first national campaigns was in support of the Bastardy Bill in 1920, lobbying for legal and financial support for single mothers. That seemed a good place to begin. And sexual intercourse was invented in 1963, according to poet Philip Larkin; the sixties brought us the Pill and the abortion act, too.
Like Bluestockings, In the Family Way is based on first-hand accounts, and tells a story which at times will be shocking to a liberal modern audience. It has its triumphs, too, and plenty of evidence that the human spirit can find strength, humour, and forgiveness in the most difficult of circumstances. The reviews have been great: here’s a link to a digest: Reviews. The paperback comes out early next year.
A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH.
As centenary year approaches, my history of the Women’s Institute continues to storm along: it reprinted within a fortnight of publication and again a month or so later and the Virago paperback is now in its 4th printing. An audiobook is also available, and a large-print edition. Reviews were very positive: Miranda Seymour in The Sunday Times said ‘Robinson’s book offers a witty, informed and continuously entertaining account of an organisation for which Robinson herself demonstrates a sincere and thoroughly well-founded respect’. It was a Readers’ Digest ‘Recommended Read’, called ‘fascinating, affectionate, and surprisingly funny’. Laura Feigel in The Observer said ‘thanks to Robinson’s wide-ranging research and stylish writing [the book] is a spirited and engaging read'.
I regret that I’m unable to visit individual WIs, simply because I wouldn’t have time to fulfil every request, and don’t think it’s fair to pick and choose. But I’m delighted to have been asked to speak at various County Federations, Group meetings and Literary Lunches. I’m also busy with literary festivals, bookshops, and other engagements. Such occasions are a great way to celebrate a hundred years of the WI in 2015.
Please contact me on email@example.com for more information on forthcoming talks and check for dates and places on the events page of my Blog.
I recently spent a fun day filming with Carol Vorderman for the BBC ‘One Show’, chatting about her heroine and mine, the wonderful Mildred Bruce. Mildred was a pioneering Queen of Speed: a record-breaking racer over land, sea and sky. Follow me on Twitter for the transmission date.