Women in History - poverty & sexual oppression on the Yorkshire Moors

Article by Guest Writer, Janet Dean Knight

March is the month for remembering #WomenInHistoryMonth – the women who faced enormous challenges to do incredible things. In my novel, The Peacemaker, I chose a historical setting for a novel which explores contemporary themes, and in doing so, I make the point that the experience of women resonates again and again throughout our history.

My book draws on extensive family history research, particularly from the mid nineteenth century to just before the Second World War, but I also went back as far as the sixteenth century in my explorations. Although I didn’t use all this research, the patterns which I saw had an influence on how I developed my story. I was researching my mother’s family who primarily worked on the land of the North York Moors and then later mined ironstone there and coal in South Yorkshire. Time and again I saw women who faced enormous difficulty primarily through poverty brought about by widowhood, large families and loss of employment. I saw the records of women widowed and designated as paupers entering the Workhouse. I saw the records of countless babies stillborn, or who died as children, right up until my mother’s generation. I saw many women giving birth before they were married, not because they were promiscuous particularly, but because the cost of marriage and setting up a home with the father of the child was prohibitive. I saw women absorbing their daughters’ babies into their own families, managing the burden of large extended families in homes with only two or three rooms. For three hundred years these patterns of poverty reverberated through my family tree.

Little wonder then, that my mother drilled me in how to defend myself against poverty, how to take advantage of education, get a good job, be able to fend for myself. I was warned particularly against getting pregnant and finding myself dependent on a man or on my parents. My mother had been threatened by her father that he would abandon her if she had a child out of wedlock. I had always thought this threat was driven by my grandfather’s view of morality – that illegitimacy was a sin. But actually, what I discovered from my research was that illegitimacy was fairly common and supported in my family, and by understanding the specific details in my family history, I could see that the fear of poverty was the primary concern behind my grandfather’s threat.

In this extract from the Peacemaker, Violet discovers that her mother’s sister had a child who was brought up by her grandmother, and she connects that story with her growing realisation that she may indeed be pregnant.

Violet stared at Alwyn. More secrets. Another story she had not heard before, was this another child born out of wedlock?  As far as she knew Aunty Poll had married and emigrated to Canada about five years ago; Peggy always talked about Poll as her sister, not as a niece. Violet felt her own shame welling up, the shame she had felt when Tommy Hayes – she can’t even say the word in her head. She understood why her mother never revealed the truth about Polly and Queenie. Violet couldn’t help but ask, ‘Did people snub her?’

‘Snub who?’ asked Alwyn.

‘Well Queenie, or Poll, you know because Poll was a ...you know. Because Queenie wasn’t married.’

Bob flashed a foul look at Violet drawing in a long breath before he spoke.

‘If you’re trying to say because she was a bastard, you should spit it out. And no, they didn’t. Queenie was our firstborn, and we had her before I married Hannah. You don’t know what it was like then, Violet, we couldn’t get married until we had somewhere to live.  Hannah stayed with her family and they helped with Queenie.  I’m a bastard if you want to use that term, I’ve no shame. There is no shame in poverty, no matter how much the rich and the so-called godly might persuade you there is. And if you’re poor, you’re not going to waste your money on a marriage licence until you can put a roof over your family’s head, are you? Them rich buggers, they marry to keep the money where they want it, not for decency’s sake; don’t fool yourself, Violet.’

The sea-change brought about by contraception has transformed the expectations and prospects for young women today. Fewer than 2% of women under 19 have a baby, and I like to think that on the whole every child is a wanted child. What young women still face, though, is pressure to have sex, and to take risks with their own bodies. They also face criticism and condemnation even in situations where they are being raped. This is a continuing theme and one which was high on the agenda when I was writing my book. The #Metoo movement has shone a light on the sexual oppression which women feel on a daily basis in every walk of life. But it feels as if there is still so much more to do.

I am proud that my book is being published in Women in History Month, and I hope it makes a small contribution to highlighting how far women have come, and how much farther there is to go.

Janet Dean Knight earned her MA in Creative Writing in 2015. Her debut novel The Peacemaker, longlisted in the 2017 Mslexia Novel Competition, publishes on 29th March 2019 with Top Hat Books. Also a poet, Janet has had poems shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and commended in the Stanza Poetry Competition. She publishes regularly in magazines and anthologies. Janet co-runs the Awakening the Writer Within Retreats in France and the UK. She lives in York, UK.


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