Wednesday, 13 October 2021

No ordinary woman

The Hard Way Up: The Autobiography of Hannah Mitchell, Suffragette and Rebel Hannah Mitchell describes herself as a "very ordinary woman" in her autobiography The Hard Way Up. The fact that she's managed to write a fascinating account of working-class life in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries belies that description. Her story is incredibly uplifting and an example of what one can achieve with determination.

Born in 1872, Hannah divides her life into chapter-sized periods, describing the trials she endured and the obstacles she had to overcome in order to further her own aspirations and improve the lives of women and disadvantaged people. As a child her mother denied her the education she badly desired. As a woman (from the age of 14) she worked long hours for little pay, and was involved in the fight for better conditions. It was surprising to read of her life in Bolton that she "envied the cotton workers, who streamed out of the mill gates as soon as the ‘buzzer’ went at half past five. At least they knew when their working day would end." Marriage brought different problems, for husbands "expected that the girl who had shared their weekend cycling or rambling, summer games or winter dances, would change all her ways with her marriage ring and begin where their mothers left off."

As Hannah became involved in socialism, she also joined the struggle for female suffrage. Although she was never subjected to lengthy prison time nor force-feeding, her descriptions of the casual brutality meted out to activists is shocking. After WW1 she became more political and was elected a councillor for Manchester. She was also a magistrate, and in this position did a lot to temper the patronising morality of those who had no direct experience of poverty. There's a lot of humour in the book, especially when Hannah reports on how she dealt with hecklers at meetings, and, surprisingly, in some of the cases in which she was involved as a magistrate.

Early on in her tale, Hannah relates how every week from childhood she had to help with household chores. She says, "I think my first reactions to feminism began at this time when I was forced to darn my brothers’ stockings while they read or played cards or dominoes." Whilst praising all the battles fought and won by women such as Hannah, I regret to say that 100 years after her birth, this type of thing was still going on. At least it was in my family.

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