It is impressive that Griffin managed, in Bread Winner, to correct for this bias, milking her scarcer and briefer women’s texts to write an account as attentive to women’s experiences as men’s. She has found that gender mattered a great deal, telling us (echoing Virginia Woolf) that ‘the private world of the family is not separate from the public sphere of politics and economics.’ I believe that her conclusions and indeed her statistics are basically right. But I base that judgment less on my faith in her autobiographical source base than on the fact that her arguments mirror, in almost every detail, those made by a generation of women social investigators, social reformers and socialists who worked with and among working-class housewives in the two decades before the First World War. The settlement house worker Anna Martin, the district nurse Margaret Loane, the Fabian socialists Barbara Drake and Maud Pember Reeves, Margaret Llewelyn Davies of the Women’s Co-operative Guild and, especially, the social reformer and politician Eleanor Rathbone: these were the women whose studies first documented the inadequacies of the male breadwinner norm.
Griffin’s point is not to demonise working-class men, but rather to point out the ways in which the role of “bread winner” could be as oppressive to a man as it was to his dependants. Many autobiographers report a father’s drinking becoming heavier in response to overwhelming pressure – the death of a child, an industrial accident, a local downturn in trade. Griffin is also exquisitely alive to the fact that, while memoirists may find it just about acceptable to mention a father’s drinking, there are all kinds of incidents that may feel too shaming to get a public airing. Stories of a mother who leaves, or gets sent to the asylum, or has an extra baby with the lodger may simply be impossible to share, especially with the grandchildren for whom so many of these accounts were touchingly written.
Such extracts bring into focus a world very different from our own, although the reader might wish for Griffin to step back intermittently and provide more background material and, especially, more analysis. For example, she notes that hunger appears to have dropped steadily from the 1830s. Yet the decade that followed is known to historians as the ‘Hungry Forties’. How does that fit in? She does not say. Her reliance on the autobiographies, too, means that the reader finds points repeated several times across chapters. This, however, is a small price to pay for a work of great originality.
Despite the title, the book’s focus is really on the working-class women who managed the heroic task of coping with an inadequate portion of the family income, while looking after an ever-increasing number of children, in a society where the only form of welfare was the dreaded poorhouse. “Bread Maker” might have been a better title. Although Griffin seems to pooh-pooh the statistics and graphs of traditional economic history, there were times when I found myself wishing for a few figures.