Google+ Followers

Friday, 19 February 2010

Muriel Simkin: 1914-2010

My mum died last week. She was 95 years old and was desperate to go. The last few years have been very difficult for her. Several times she told her children they she had enough and wanted to die. Mum said that she should have died just after her ninetieth birthday party. Several people made speeches at her party paying tribute to her life. Mum said afterwards that it was like attending her own funeral. Before that I had sent her a long letter explaining why she had been such a great mother. I know we usually say these things in conversation but it is important to put in into print. I would urge everyone who enjoys a good relationship with their parents to write to them explaining your thoughts about them.

Everybody liked my mum. One of her great features was that she never made value-judgements about other people. I cannot remember her ever criticising anything I ever did. That is not to say that she did not influence my behaviour. Such was the loving bond that she created, that I was very keen to please her. The same goes for my brother and sister. She used to proudly boast that none of her children had caused her any problems. She was the main reason for that situation.

My mum was in many ways very different from her children. Although she was an intelligent woman, she was not well-educated. When she was a child, her mother, who had been a domestic servant before her marriage, told her that girls did not read books. Mum admitted that she did as she was told and never read a book in her life.

My dad, like my mum, left school at fourteen and after serving in the British Army during the war, could only find unskilled factory work. However, he was a reader of books. I can still see him walking down the street carrying a pile of library books (he used my mother’s tickets as well as his own) that had been tied together by an old belt.

I also remember having to keep quiet while he sat in his chair reading his library books. My mum was the one person who did not keep to this rule. I can still see my dad putting his book down and telling my mum that she had five minutes to say what she needed to say before he went back to his secret world. This usually resulted in my mum forgetting what she had wanted to say and retreating back into the kitchen.

My dad was killed when I was eleven. This was before I had developed a love of books. Later I asked my mum what books my dad read. Unfortunately, she had no idea, nor did my aunts and uncles. It was really his secret world.

My mum had a tough life. Her parents were poor. As the eldest child she was expected to take care of the younger children. When she found a boyfriend, she was told she had to be back home by 10. As a result, she never saw the end of a film at the cinema. The Second World War was declared while she was on honeymoon. My dad was called-up into the army and mum worked in an armaments factory in the East End of London and she saw some terrible sights during the Blitz. My dad survived the war but his experiences left him with deep depressions. His physical injuries meant that he lost the trade he loved and was forced to take low-paid, unskilled work. Her hard life was made even worse when he died when she was 42.

Mum never asked questions about your school work. She just assumed that like her we would leave school at the earliest opportunity. This we did, although all three of us returned to education later in life. I remember on one occasion she asked me with a very confused look on her face: “Why have you gone back to school.” Both my brother and I became teachers. Several years later a newly qualified teacher was given use of a council house next to my mum’s house. She proudly told him that both her sons were teachers. He asked her what we taught. With some embarrassment she admitted that she did not know. This incident reflected the cultural gap between my mum and her children. I cannot remember once in my life asking my mother for advice. I am sure my brother and sister would tell the same story. However, that does not matter, because we had each other. But what she did give us was unconditional love. Once you have that, anything is possible.

Mum’s only hobby was talking. The only demand she ever really made of you was to listen to her talk about what was important to her. She told stories. She never really discussed issues. One of the consequences of her lack of education was that she found it difficult to look at problems in an analytical way. Without the support of her children, especially her daughter, she would have found life very difficult.

Mum did not really enjoy her last few years. She had spent her life looking after others. She saw that as her role in life. Mum disliked intensely the idea that she could no longer do that. She hated being dependent on others. Three months ago she took to her bed and tried to will herself to die. Mum stopped taking all her medication, insisting that she was no longer a diabetic. She also asked the doctor for an injection to put her out of her misery. It is a shame that the end of so many people takes the form. This is the flip-side of medical progress.

In those last few months mum developed a belief in God. It was important to her that she saw again her two husbands and Judith, my wife. My sister, who used to be a nurse, says this is not unusual when people are dying.

When my mum was in her seventies I spent several days with her taping her life-story. A few years ago I returned and filmed the interviews. It will probably be sometime before I am brave enough to watch and listen to these tapes.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Helena Normanton

Helena Normanton is one of the most important women in history but there is very little on her on the web. Born in 1882, her father was killed when she was only four years old. Her mother, Jane Normanton, moved to Brighton with her two young daughters. She ran a small grocery shop and also turned her family home at 4 Clifton Place into a boarding house.

Normanton was a talented student and in 1896 won a scholarship to York Place Science School in Brighton. She eventually became a pupil teacher but on the death of her mother in 1900 she left school to help run the family boarding house and look after her younger sister.

In 1903 Helena became a student at the Edge Hill Teachers' Training College in Liverpool. After qualifying in 1905 she taught history in Glasgow and London. She was a member of the Women's Freedom League. As well as campaigning for women's suffrage, she wrote several pamphlets on the issue of women's pay. In Sex Differentiation in Salary (1914) she argued for equal pay for equal work. After the First World War she wrote: "During and after the war, many soldiers' wives and widows became the breadwinners for families. Should they be paid according to their sex or their work?"

In 1918 Normanton applied to be admitted to the Middle Temple. When this application was rejected because she was a woman, she took the case to the House of Lords. However, before the case could be heard, Parliament passed the Disqualification (Removal) Bill. Normanton immediately applied again and therefore became the first woman admitted as a student to the bar. After passing her exams she was called to the bar on 17th November 1922, a few months after Ivy Williams, had become the first woman to do so (but she did not practise).

While a student Normanton married Gavin Bowman Clark (1873-1948). As Joanne Workman has pointed out: "Her application to retain her maiden name after her marriage attracted considerable public interest. Helena deplored the loss of a woman's identity on marriage and its disadvantageous legal results. While she believed in the respectability of retaining the title Mrs she also wished to maintain continuity of identity in her professional career." In 1924 she became the first married British woman to be issued a passport in her maiden name.

Normanton gained a great deal of fame "from her writing, public speaking, and feminist activities". This led to claims that she was guilty of advertising her services (forbidden by legal etiquette). In April 1923 she requested the bar council to hold a full inquiry into whether she had ever advertised herself. As this did not happen she curtailed her public speaking engagements and stopped writing for newspapers and magazines.

In 1924 Helena Normanton became the first female counsel in a case at the Old Bailey. The following year she became the first woman to conduct a case in the United States, that established American women's right to retain their maiden names.

Helena Normanton campaigned for changes in matrimonial law. At the annual meeting of the National Council of Women in October 1934, her proposals were strongly attacked by the Mothers' Union. In 1938 Normanton was co-founder with Vera Brittain, Edith Summerskill and Helen Nutting of the Married Women's Association. The organisation sought equal relationships between men and women in marriage.

Helena Wojtczak remarked in Notable Sussex Women (2008): "In 1948 she became the first woman to lead the prosecution in a murder trial, and the following year became one of the first two women to be appointed King's Counsel. She was an excellent public speaker, wrote articles for various publications and books on a wide variety of subjects, from Shakespeare to buying a house."

Normanton was a pacifist and was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She also played a significant role in the campaign for a university in Brighton. In 1956 she made the first donation to the Sussex University appeal. She wrote at the time: "I make this gift in gratitude for all that Brighton did to educate me when I was left an orphan." This was followed by larger donations and she bequeathed the capital of her trust to the university.

Helena Normanton died on 14th October, 1957, and is buried at St Wulfran's Churchyard in Ovingdean.