Friday, 23 November 2018

'Mildred's Career' by Miss Ramsay

The dedication in the front pages of Mildred's Career

Continuing my years-long project of writing about suffrage books…

The Bristolian writer Miss Ramsay wrote one of the earliest known suffrage novels with her 1874 book Mildred’s Career: A Tale of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Miss Ramsay (her first name is unknown, even on her book cover she is simply ‘Miss Ramsay’) lived at 40 Royal York Crescent, Clifton, and was Secretary of the Clifton section of the Bristol and West of England branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage during the 1870s.

Mildred’s Career follows our sassy shero, Mildred Randall, as she attempts to find her voice in a world that demands women be quiet and remember their place. Fans of Dorothy Whipple will enjoy the themes that would become familiar in a Whipple a few decades later: injustices at the hands of men, cruelty at the hands of men and strong women forging together to turn their fortunes to the better.

The question of a woman born a lady needing to make a ‘good’ marriage is raised, and countered with the suggestion that a ‘cottage woman’ can choose between settling for a kind but dull husband or forging her own way in the world. Which raises the important issue of how girls born into middle- or upper-class homes are taught no skills with which to fall back on with which to support themselves financially and thus achieve independence; Mildred states she would far rather be run ragged as a doctor or lawyer than lead the stultifying "vegetable life” that her social status expects of her. And this ultimately forms the crux of Mildred's career...

It is for this reason that orphaned Mildred, who lives with her two unmarried older sisters (their educated brothers having died), is desperate to be heard as she joins the movement to campaign for women’s political equality. Mildred demands her sisters explain to her why the property they should have inherited from their parents has instead gone to a male cousin, and is simply told that that because their brothers have died, this is the law. Mildred is rightly furious: “The law? Yes, that is what I quarrel with. What right have men to undertake to make laws for the good of the community and then legislate selfishly for their own interest?”

When the company in which the Randall sisters are shareholders goes bust, the women find themselves penniless and in a terrible situation. This calamity leads Mildred to muse on how frustrating that, as women, they are given no education that helps them understand their personal finances, and again her elder sisters shut her down. Rejecting their suggestion that she work as a governess (claiming her own education was so poor that she had nothing to teach anyone else), Mildred instead decides to find an office job and educates herself about how to do this. When she is rejected for a job as a lawyer’s clerk, and is told “There are men’s occupations and women’s occupations”, Mildred resolves to challenge this sexism and prove everyone wrong by going to London… by herself!

Repeatedly told “We do not employ women”, Mildred struggles to maintain her positive attitude. After securing a position in a printing firm, she is sacked after a week when her male colleagues threaten to strike in response to having to work with, gasp, a woman. She is finally offered a lowly position elsewhere, but on learning that women earn half what the men do despite doing the same amount of work, she rejects it in disgust. As she goes about her travels desperately seeking work of any kind, Mildred crudely learns more about the injustices of women: her widowed landlady is accepting of a law that sentences a man to three days in prison for half-blinding his wife but seven years in prison for stealing a coat.

It is perhaps inevitable that Mildred’s attention is caught by a poster she sees advertising a forthcoming women’s suffrage meeting, to which she takes herself. Remember, this is 1874 and the suffrage movement is in its infancy: there are no militant suffragettes or Pankhursts to steal the limelight, instead we have the original suffragists fighting peacefully and determinedly for their cause. With the impressive Althea Warburton as her suffrage sister, Mildred soon becomes embroiled in the campaign.

Miss Ramsay does not write in a subtle or measured way. Her purpose and intent is clear: she has points to make about the injustices women face, and she makes them scattergun, one after the other. What is fascinating though is that this is not a historical novel but a contemporary one - and it is rare to get a feminist novel such as this set in the early 1870s. And that is where the value of Mildred’s Career lies. As a writer, Miss Ramsay is neither gifted nor lacking, she is decidedly average, although when Mildred enters her first suffrage meeting we are finally given detailed descriptions of characters, appearances, places and feelings, all of which would have added colour to the previous 90 pages. This is not a criticism (I would imagine Miss Ramsay is past caring, given her book was written 147 years ago), simply an observation.

Mildred's Career is long out of print and not that easy to come across, but if you do manage to find a copy I urge you to pick it up and have a read. It is an easy read and an absorbing tale, and you will come to care for Mildred enormously.