For International Women’s Day I thought I’d tell you about Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science, as well as Ma Isabel Sánchez Vegara’s books about Agatha Christie and Marie Curie in the Little People, Big Dreams series. They are the perfect way for children – boys and girls – to learn about Agatha and Marie, as well as the many intelligent and successful women in Rachel’s illustrated book about female scientists.
But I’m going to tell you about Mother-of-Witch instead. For obvious reasons, newspapers have had more ‘women articles’ in the last week. And the more I read them and the more I thought of this special day for women, the more irritated I got. The Q&A with Gloria Steinem in the Guardian was better than expected, but when even someone like her can write about reading Little Women as a child saying ‘it was the first time I realised women could be a whole human world,’ I thought enough is enough.
It’s the kind of thing I never discovered. Because I didn’t need to. As the only child of a single mother I never harboured doubts about what women did or could do or were allowed to do. The whole idea is alien to me.
My mother had a humble start, but she pulled herself up by her bootstraps, achieving a lot in her life. For me it seemed so natural and obvious that I hardly appreciated her efforts. (I’m a bit of a disappointment, not following in her footsteps or anything, but that’s another story.) If it needed doing, she did it.
That’s not to say she repaired the car exactly, but she had a car. And when our landlord came to change the washers in the bathroom taps, she peered over his shoulder to see how it was done. Later on as a house owner, she knew what to do (while her male colleague barely knew what a washer was).
For girls of her background the choice at school was cooking or typing. She was intelligent, so was allowed to learn to type. The – prizewinning – typing took her away from her home town, and she perfected her secretarial skills and was doing really well. And then I turned up, so she took those skills and got herself a teaching job, passing on her knowledge to countless students at a sixth form college, while still being the girl who’d left school at 15.
So she could enjoy the same level of education as her students, she did some distance learning by correspondence, and when I was seven she achieved her goal. A few years later she got herself a university degree in much the same way. That was ideal for me; evening lectures meant we didn’t see much of each other, and for a young teenager that’s a good thing. We were also so poor we ate a lot of macaroni and pancakes, which I loved. I didn’t spare much thought to how hard she worked, or how much she worried about money.
Her old boss, the head teacher at her first school, was getting old and wanted to surround himself with his favourite staff, so he designed a teaching post requiring such specific qualifications that only she could apply for the job, and almost overnight we found ourselves back where we started.
At fifty she bought a house, even though some of her students told her that houses ought to be for younger people who could ‘enjoy them properly.’ She changed washers as required and enjoyed that house until she died, many years later.
Mother-of-Witch didn’t need any special days for women. She needed a job and an education and a home, and she got it all. She also surrounded herself with lots of friends, nearly all single women, which meant that I grew up in an almost exclusively female environment.
And that house purchase; for the second viewing she brought me along. The salesman was dreadfully disappointed as he’d counted on a sale when she came back [‘with her husband’]. I’m still working on perfecting the look she gave him as he enquired about her lack of male company.