A History of Women in 100 Objects – Review

A History of Women in 100 Objects book review logo

By Clare Jenkins

So here’s a tricky question: if you were asked to choose one object to express a significant moment in the social history of women, what would it be? After reading books such as Margery Spring Rice’s 1939 Working-Class Wives – Their Health and Conditions, I’d probably go for the contraceptive pill. In that book, the hugely influential social reformer explored the conditions endured by wives of labourers and other low-paid workers, and the ways in which recurrent pregnancies not only affected their bodies and minds, but also led to domestic abuse and the endless cycle of poverty.

For example: “Mrs C of Rotherham is 37 living in a Municipal Housing Estate. She has eight children and her husband is a labourer but has been unemployed for two years… Mrs C suffers from headache, rheumatism and tuberculosis… She says her main difficulties are ‘money matters owing to large family to keep…’ Children unable to attend school having no boots…” No wonder Spring Rice helped found the National Birth Control Association.

In separate research published as ‘Maternity: Letters From Working Women’ in 1915, another important campaigner, Margaret Llewelyn Davis, quoted one woman as saying, “I am a mother of eleven children – six girls and five boys. I was only nineteen years old when my first baby was born… for twenty years I was nursing or expecting babies”. Another wrote: “I was my mother’s seventh child, and seven more were born after me – fourteen in all – which made my mother a perfect slave. Generally speaking, she was either expecting a baby to be born or had one at the breast.”

A History of Women in 100 Objects shows how medicalised birth control helped women take control of their fertility. Various other methods had been practised since time immemorial, but crocodile dung, honey or the withdrawal method were not 100% effective. The very first oral contraceptive – Enovid – was licensed in the USA in 1960 and available (though only to married or soon-to-be-married women) in Britain on the NHS the following year. It was to take another 14 years before family planning clinics were allowed to prescribe it to single women. Even today, over 200,000 million women across the world still don’t have access to the Pill.

This instructive and broad-spectrum book follows in the wake of the hugely successful A History of the World in 100 Objects, originally a Radio 4 series presented by the British Museum’s former director Neil MacGregor. Both, note, are called A History… not The History. As Maggie Andrews and her co-editor Janis Lomas point out in their introduction: “The choices we have made will not, and should not, be those that others would have made. Historians are not neutral or impartial; they start from where they are at, their own experiences and knowledge, values and interests, their concerns and politics.” So, while spanning different cultures and times, many of the objects represent Western culture, while at the same time exploring common experiences for women across time and place.

The eight sections – ranging from The Body, Motherhood and Sexuality through Science, Technology and Medicine to Women’s Place in the Public World – cover forceps and force-feeding equipment, menstruation (including continuing restrictions on menstruating women entering temples and mosques), masturbation and Marie Curie’s desk. They cover – not heavily but informatively – fashion and factory work, lesbianism and ladies’ train carriages, rape and Joan of Arc’s ring, the Brontës and the Brownies, witches and Women Against Pit Closures.

There are entries (all illustrated) on the sewing- and washing-machines, Marilyn Monroe’s subway dress and Mary Quant’s cape, the bicycle and mini car, the typewriter, a nursing qualification certificate, Rosa Parks’ mugshot and Margaret Thatcher’s statue in the House of Commons.

“Highly knowledgeable and readable book”

A History of Women in 100 Objects book review coverThen there are The Bones of Lucy – bone fossils from 3.2 million years ago, found in Addis Ababa and described as belonging to “the grandmother of humanity”; ‘Strange Fruit’ – Billie Holliday’s 1939 recording of a powerful anti-racist song from the time of the Ku Klux Klan, with its horrifying image of lynching; notes from a mental asylum showing the incarceration of a 26-year-old farmer’s wife for three years on her husband’s evidence. When he finally said the marriage was over, she was released and recovered.

All the entries include references to today, illustrating what has (or hasn’t) changed. So the chapter on an online food bank advert, while referring back to the 19th century Poor Law, shows the expansion of food banks in recent years as people across the UK sink deeper into poverty. As Lomas points out: “Women and children continue to be the most vulnerable members of society; across the world, food poverty remains the lived experience of millions of women”.

The subtitle to the chapter on the barbaric scold’s bridle is “silencing women’s voices”. And the point is made here that those voices are still being silenced, Twitter trolls having replaced the metal frame worn over a woman’s head, a plate immobilising her tongue. But, as the chapter concludes, “These attacks are… also evidence of the strength of the women’s voices trolls seek to suppress, and like the scold’s bridle, show that women’s voices have the power to shake the very foundations of society”.

As all this shows, the book covers the manifold ways women around the world have been subjugated, restrained, controlled, objectified or commodified throughout the centuries. One particularly shocking case is that of the so-called “Hottentot Venus” – Saartje Baartman, a South African women brought to England in 1810 and displayed semi-naked at sideshows and fairgrounds. She was scrutinised, sold to a French animal trainer, inspected by scientists and likened to an orang-utan. Her genitalia were studied after her death and eventually put into a jar displayed in a French museum until 1976. It took another 26 years for them to be returned to South Africa, where she was finally buried.

Another chapter – on the silicone breast implant – has a sidebar asking, “Why were 90per cent of the 20 million cosmetic procedures that took place across the world in 2014 performed on women?” There’s a link here between the objectification of the Hottentot Venus and the self-objectification practised by women today desperate to look like Kim Kardashian with her Barbie-doll (another entry) hourglass figure. Who ‘owns’ – or who’s to blame for – that image of the supposedly desirable female figure?

There is much to debate throughout this highly knowledgeable – and readable – book. In the section on Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, for instance, the point is made that celebrity cooks over the generations “have promoted idealised images of domesticity, unattainable versions of women as perfect homemakers”. Yet women still buy into those images. Why? As another sidebar asks: “Does technology release women from domestic drudgery or further tie them to the kitchen and domesticity?”

All told, A History of Women in 100 Objects documents the developing role of women in society over the centuries, and the pressures put on them. As its editors say, the objects “celebrate women’s skills and resourcefulness, their tenacity and creativity, their sense of fun and freedom in the face of constraints and criticism.” A valuable addition to women’s history.

‘A History of Women in 100 Objects’, edited by Maggie Andrews & Janis Lomas, is published by The History Press, £20 paperback


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