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Double Lives Reviews

Double Lives by Helen McCarthy

Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood

Helen McCarthy

4.13 out of 5

4 reviews

Category: History, Non-fiction
Imprint: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Publication date: 16 Apr 2020
ISBN: 9781408870730

A groundbreaking history of mothers who worked for pay that will change the way we think about gender, work and equality in modern Britain. 

  • The GuardianBook of the Day
4 stars out of 5
Alison Light
1 May 2020

"“There are no typical lives,” Helen McCarthy writes in her impressive and nuanced study"

McCarthy’s is an economic and social history, but she also wants to give “shade and texture” to what has been thought and said about working mothers. In this she succeeds magnificently. She is as much at home with popular novels and journalism as she is with cabinet memos, parliamentary commissions, employment law, or sociological reports. She never treats her sources as gospel, neatly characterising much early social investigation into the lives of the poor as “a genre-crossing blend of statistics and sentiment, empiricism and emotionalism”. And always the voices of working mothers are raised above the cacophony of official and unofficial commentary.


5 stars out of 5
Yvonne Roberts
31 May 2020

"McCarthy’s book eloquently explains why the resistance is still so strong and the roots of the ambivalence towards working mothers runs so deep"

Double Lives is a milestone in women’s history precisely because McCarthy persists in unpicking the contradictions, in understanding that women’s own feelings and desires, not just social convention and economic necessity, were and are “crucial to the reimagining of motherhood” and a life outside the tight girdle of domesticity. Let’s hope that, in lockdown, the diversity of experiences of mothers, many coping with paid work, childcare and managing households under siege, is as well recorded and understood by future historians.

3 stars out of 5
Sarah Ditum
9 May 2020

"The working mother was still a problem, but she was her own to solve"

McCarthy assembles an inestimable quantity of detail here. This is an important book. It is also a boring book. ‘It is not the historian’s job to reveal essential truths about women’s desires, past or present,’ she writes in the conclusion, ‘or to generalise about paid work as either “good” or “bad”.’ This simply means that the book lacks an honestly articulated argument (it would be perverse to maintain that such a history takes paid work as anything other than a good overall). All the same, Double Lives is a forceful reminder that attitudes to working mothers change abruptly and that politics, not nature, will decide the future of female employment.

4 stars out of 5
Melanie Reid
18 Apr 2020

"Melanie Reid is impressed by this account of mothers in the workplace"

This is a doorstopper of a book in every way, more than 500 erudite, quietly enthralling pages, not one of them dull. McCarthy, measured but sympathetic, has done for working mothers what the historian David Kynaston did for the 1950s. For much of the past 200 years, she says, “women’s worlds were shaped by a labour market founded on social difference, a welfare state which institutionalised the dependency of wives, and a wider culture which prized devoted mothering as the apotheosis of femininity. What is so astonishing is not that mothers accepted their second-class status in the workplace for so long, but that they pushed back against it at all.”