Who was Maud Blacklidge? Sadly, only the women in my family may remember her. Like many others who risked their families’ and societies disapproval and wrath, Maud was one of many suffragettes in England who are now forgotten, but whose efforts began the fight for women’s right to vote. She is my mother’s mother. I know little of my grandmother’s activities as a suffragette, but she was clearly a strong, stroppy, independent woman who made choices with little regard for what society thought.
I was reminded of her story when I read what a friend wrote in her post Everyday Feminism and Knitting. This struck a chord for me – that feminism is about autonomy, being able to make choices and living with the consequences of those choices. I have always thought of my very self-sufficient grandmother as a feminist, and this is one reason why I want to share her story.
Not all feminists in the first half of the twentieth century were trailblazing doctors, lawyers or professors, some, like my grandmother, were women struggling to survive. Being a suffragette was not what made Maud a feminist, although the qualities that motivated her to protest were the same qualities that made her rebel against her family, then become determinedly independent and resilient in hard times.
Born around 1877 my grandmother was from a middle class Yorkshire family. The suffragette movement in England peaked at around 1912, but by then Maud had been banished by her family, turned out for choosing to marry a man the family deemed unsuitable. As it turned out, the family was right, but still, it seems harsh that she and her three children had no contact and no help from them, despite becoming destitute. Maud and her husband must have moved to London because my mother grew up in Isleworth. She recalls secret visits from Maud’s sister to show off her new clothes. (This must have had a tremendous impact on my mother who always managed to dress elegantly all her life, even when our family was living on almost nothing.) As an aside, Maud’s sister became a mannequin, as models were known then, moved to Paris in the thirties and was never heard from again, presumably a victim of the war.
By the time my mother was eleven or twelve my grandmother was supporting the family. With no social benefits, Maud turned the front room of their rented home into “tea rooms” where working men could buy their midday meal. My mother recalls the business as thriving and that Maud had established good business contacts. She must have been perceived by men as an astute businesswoman because she seemed to have no trouble securing credit, for example from the butcher who supplied her meat. For some reason Maud changed tack, and went into “textiles”. In the morning she would go into the poorer areas of London where the markets were, buy up bundles of fabric, then go to the wealthier areas and sell her fabrics to up-market haberdasheries.
In 1941 my mother accepted a marriage proposal from my father, a New Zealand soldier, and in 1943 sailed to New Zealand on the assisted passage programme. (From what I can make out, the colony was still short of women and the NZ government “bought” them in.) I’m not sure how my grandmother continued to support herself because the few letters I saw from her simply asked after my mother’s welfare. However, she must have done fairly well because she managed to make two trips to New Zealand over the next decade.
The second visit in the fifties must have been an interesting one, because despite being eighty or so, Maud was accused of taking away another woman’s husband. That is, until the accuser confronted my mother and realised that her husband was less than half Maud’s age. The farmer/businessman had been taking Maud around New Zealand, no doubt enjoying her stories and admiring her business acumen. She could not be persuaded to stay in New Zealand, finding it too quiet and having no cities.
There must have been other women like Maud who during the Great Depression had to be both nurturer and provider. The celebration of her story lies, for me, in her utter self sufficiency, and her ability to develop and use entrepreneurial and business skills at a time when English society would have been reluctant to accept this possibility. But then, as my mother admits, Maud was an intimidating woman.