Recovering Lost Voices: An interview with Professor Jane Martin (in full)

On behalf of Bluestocking, Ali Nihat interviewed Professor Jane Martin, of the Institute of Education in London, whose work focuses on the relation between education and politics. Professor Martin spoke to us about her recently published work Making Socialists: Mary Bridges Adams and the Fight for Knowledge and Power, 1855-1939, and the difficulties ofrecovering the voices and contribution of forgotten figures in the histories local communities and political movements.

Mary Bridges Adams was an influential and intriguing figure of the late 19th and early 20th century labour movement. A teacher in the 19th century elementary school system of working-class origin, she plunged into militant socialism in her 20s and, notably, militated on the London School Board as a self-confessed representative of organised labour. The dissolution of the School Boards in 1903 did not diminish her extra-parliamentary activism, which focused on education but couched the question within wider issues of social justice. Mary Bridges Adams pushed for a socialist education, drawing diverse groups into the movement, as seen in her address to working-class Lancashire women through the Cotton Factory Times, or her in interest in Russian affairs and internationalism.

Mary forms part of a forgotten history. She was an‘outsider’ by necessity and by calling – a figure of the extra-parliamentary left throughout her life, a believer in revolution devoted to class struggle. Her contribution to the labour movement was overshadowed in part by the reinforcement of parliamentary labour. Yet Martin’s portrayal of rich networks of militancy, the biographical material suggesting that ‘political thought is not so neatly distributed’ and crystallised in stances and assumptions, present an outsider who was – and is – by no means peripheral.

AN:     How did you first conceive of writing about Mary Bridges Adams and what did you find interesting about her?

JM:    The journey began with my Phd research, where I imagined I was going to be looking at the educational experiences of girls attending school in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was going to be a cross-class comparison of their differing educational experiences.

A few months into the research, I started to look at a publication called the School Board Chronicles. It was bought by teachers and people involved in the developing state education system, which originated in the 1830s with the first government grants towards the provision of education for the working class. The 1870, the Education Act allowed the establishment of school boards, responsible for “plugging the gaps”, as it was called, in existing working-class elementary education.

School boards were, at the time, the most democratic body of local government. They were one of the only places where women could be elected representatives. They could also sit on Poor Law boards from 1869, but these required a property qualification. School boards also had a distinctive franchise, which meant that representatives of electoral minorities had a chance of getting elected, and there was a presence of women and representatives of the working classes from the very beginning.

The novelty in the School Board Chronicles was that they contained what claimed to be practically verbatim accounts of debates at weekly public meetings at the London School Board. I was pleased to have records of the words of women members and others as they debated what to offer working-class girls. The focus shifted toward women policy makers.

AN:     Did Mary Bridges Adams’ voice stand out in particular?

JM:    29 women were elected to serve on the London School Board over the period of

its existence (1870-1904) from around 326 members, but in reality, at a certain moment, the percentage of female representation was higher than it was in the House of Commons until 1997. Mary Bridges Adams stood out for me because all of the other women were of various middle-class social origins. Annie Besant, for example, is another elected radical socialist, but she was comfortably middle-class. Others were even quite wealthy. Mary Bridges Adams came from the labour aristocracy and had worked in the schools as a student teacher. That intrigued me.

In the School Board Chronicles, her second public speech was on the subject of free school meals. It absolutely drew me to her because what she’s saying to her majority male, majority middle-class peers on the board in public is that they cannot possibly understand what it is to be poor! She is outraged at the fact that they are prepared to spend more time debating subjects like the question of religious education than facing the fact that you cannot possibly educate a hungry child. She wanted to achieve the provision of free school meals for all who needed them and she was articulating a concept of radical poverty against the dominant genteel concept of poverty.

AN:    Why did this resonate with you?

JM:    It grabbed me because – and here my own biography comes in – I grew up with stories from my mother about the fact that her mother couldn’t get an education, despite having won a county scholarship. My mother missed out on a scholarship herself. She was born just before the passage of the 1944 Education Act, which abolished secondary school fees. She won a scholarship with a written paper but, as was common in certain parts of the country, she had an interview and failed it. I grew up with stories of lost opportunities. My mum felt she was discriminated against for having a working-class Cambridge accent. She also grew up in a single-parent family.

I remembered all these stories while reading about Mary Bridges Adams, who is also very much an outsider – so left-wing in her politics, to the left of the mainstream labour movement. She described herself as a representative of organised labour; she was the only one, male or female, to do that. She stood out.

AN:    So school boards were an area where the voices of working-class women were first heard in a political context?

JM:     And where working-class women had a say, where they could shape the education of their children. For working-class activists, it was of prime importance. Education was absolutely fundamental to the labour movement.

I wouldn’t venture to say that female motivations to run for election were homogenous. In 1870, one of the women elected was Elizabeth Garrett, who had just qualified as the first home-trained woman doctor and was a woman that was well known at the time. Her friend Emily Davis represented Greenwich, and both candidates demonstrated to the contemporary public that women could be politically involved. They did have an interest in educational issues – Emily Davis founded Girton College, Cambridge, in 1870 – but they seemed to be motivated by the struggle for the vote.

For women, the board was a pathway to a particular form of power. By and large, it rested in an area of the political literature seen as “gendered” – child welfare. For example, Rosamund Davenport Hill made a name for herself campaigning for an expansion of the domestic curriculum. Other women were involved in issues of corporal punishment. Still, I didn’t want to analyse it through essentialist notions that would suggest that women are “inherently more caring” than men.

AN:    Was Bridges Adams especially motivated by her socialist convictions? Where did these come from?

JM:    I would have loved to have told the full story of her politicisation in the book, but I couldn’t do it with absolute certainty because of gaps in information. I knew she was influenced by William Morris and Peter Kropotkin, and that her husband was an early founding member of the socialist league. I knew she supported Morris’ arguments on the importance of “making socialists” through education, but there is no detailed information about her life in the 1880’s. The only way to assemble the pieces was through a detailed history of South Wales and Newcastle, by seeing which events took place during her formative years. In addition, I wanted to place her in her networks – in Woolwich, for example – to try to capture the way she experienced politics. I was influenced by Sheila Rowbotham’s The Friends of Alice Wheeldon. It made me want to link individual biography with collective biography.

AN:    How challenging was it to construct such a biography?

JM:    Mary Bridges Adams was a difficult figure to research because there was no collection of personal papers. But I passionately believe in the notion of lost voices in history, so it was a personal challenge. I was unable to discover enough about her personal life to make it possible to write a linear narrative. I was also influenced by the writing of Carolyn Steedman. In one of her early works, Landscape for a Good Woman, she uses the life of her mother and her own life to retell different historical periods through an individual narrative. She also wrote a biography of Margaret McMillan, a work that was more thematic than linear and chronological. I like the way Steedman plays with form.

For me, the biographical approach was, in part, a necessity. When I began the work on women in the school board, the majority were completely written out of history. I wanted the reader to have a sense of their political journey, why they took the decision to go for office, and so on. I felt you needed to know something about them as individuals, above and beyond their public acts as elected members of the school board. Some of the women are now in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, far more than when I started the research in the late 1980s. My work was formed partly by the feminist approach to the relationship between the public and the private: how can you explore what goes on in the public sphere, unless you have some sense of what goes on in the private, too?

AN:    There are tensions between the public and the private in Making Socialists. For example, you mention Bridges Adams’ decision to send her son to Bedales, a progressive private school. How natural was that decision, given her educational principles?

JM:    There is a tension there. I can only speculate as to the reasons behind those choices. Notably, her son’s education was paid for by her husband’s family. Bedales was a very progressive school in the private sector. It was co-educational by the time her son attended, and was a school chosen by other early labour figures. For example, two sons of Ramsey MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, went there.

Mary Bridges Adams’ son was sent to Bedales after she had been widowed. I spent time trying to establish to what extent she inherited her husband’s money. It appears that she did not. It seems that she had a very hand-to-mouth existence. One could also argue – and this isn’t to justify the choice – that it gave her the ability to continue her activism. Sending your son to a boarding school might be attractive to a busy working woman.

AN:    She was also supported by her patron, the Countess of Warwick. Can you tell us about the relationship between the two women?

JM:       The impressive salary that the Countess of Warwick paid Bridges Adams as her secretary was equivalent to the salary that would have been paid to a female head teacher of a large elementary school of that time.

However, there appears to have been an estrangement between Bridges Adams and her patron, with their political paths splitting over the issue of militarism in the lead-up to the First World War.

Sadly, Lady Warwick’s papers were destroyed by fire. A couple of biographies on her have been written. I do think she deserves more scholarly treatment. There is space for work on her contribution to the labour movement. With respect to the mainstream accounts of politics, she’s been largely dismissed, but her biographies draw attention to other aspects of her life.

AN:    How does your work on Mary Bridges Adams fit into the wider context of your academic discipline?

JM:    I think the story of Mary Bridges Adams reinforces an argument around the ways in which women were able to get involved in particular forms of politics in a particular historical moment. I’d like to see it featuring on politics courses teaching about the early labour movement. School board politics has actually been marginalised within political history, which is partly to do, I think, with female marginalisation.

Patricia Hollins wrote a key book on women in English local government (Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government 1865-1914). Joyce Goodman and a few others now have looked at individual school boards now. But if you were to look at the mainstream history texts on English local government there’s been little mention of School Board politics in general. Generally it has been historians of women – not necessarily feminist historians – searching for examples of past activism who have looked beyond the national level. Most mainstream political texts focus on high politics.

AN:    How is Mary Bridges Adams’ activism relevant today?

JM:    Her activism is interesting with reference to current debates, for example, her position on secular education in view of the recent debate over the expanding number of faith schools. She also has interesting things to say about popular democracy. And, on the subject of different kinds of voices entering the political arena, it’s intriguing to compare debates about the new localism to what was possible during the school board era. One shouldn’t overstate the number of working class people who were involved in school board politics, but the potential to get involved was there. Obviously, we’re now in very different circumstances from those prevailing in the 19th century, but if you were to think that, 120 years ago, women of different backgrounds were making use of particular kinds of spaces to carve out what some have described as a form of social power, you wonder: who will enter the emergent social spaces that may be carved out in the next few years?

Mary Bridges Adams and her fellow activists argued the case for state maintenance for all who wanted education all the way through the system, from the age of five up to higher education. They fought for the restoration of what they called the “misappropriated” educational endowments. They had a range of welfare demands that they argued could be funded by restoring these endowments.

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