“If there is one subject more than another which is of paramount importance and interest to girls and young women,” opens the book, “it is that of a career.” Admittedly, the book in question is Leng’s careers for girls (1909.7.2981), but to me, it still seemed an impressively enlightened attitude in an era where you tend to hear about women searching for husbands rather than climbing the career ladder. This volume aims to help young women “to determine what career appeals most strongly to them, or appears best suited to their talents, tastes, and education”, by providing details of different occupations, including the working conditions and pay that women might expect.
Careers for girls

According to the book’s foreword, the “horizon of interests and occupations for women has broadened immeasurably within the past twenty years”, and recent research bears out this claim. The early years of the 20th century were ones which saw a massive increase in the paid employment of women: the number of middle-class women in work in England and Wales rose from 427,000 in 1881 to 1,114,000 in 1911, and for working-class women in the period the number rose from 2,907,600 to 3,687,000. Moreover, the professions open to women weren’t just the typically “feminine” ones (nursing, teaching, etc.). The increase in the educational opportunities for girls and young women enabled them to pursue less traditional careers: amongst others, Careers for girls suggests that girls might like to become journalists (“none perhaps possesses more glamour and attraction for educated girls … in London alone now it is reckoned that there are at least twenty women editors”), factory inspectors (“at the top of the tree, as regards status and emoluments”) and pharmacists. 

Careers for girls endeavours to offer the reality of different jobs – nursing is “utterly commonplace, menial, and unromantic”; those wanting to be a lady’s companion are warned that, not only is it ill-paid and “vague”, there is little demand for it – and of the qualifications and qualities required, for everything from medicine to waitressing. (Librarianship is one of the professions discussed. Apparently the would-be librarian should “have a reading knowledge of at least three languages and a wide acquaintance with literature”, and should also be in good health, “for the atmosphere of a Library is more or less unhealthy”. Oh, good.) Still, the spectrum of careers on offer is rather cheering, as is the belief running throughout the book of the ability of young women to be “clever, capable, cultured workers”.

Not, it must be said, that I’m trying to argue that the Edwardian era was a totally enlightened one. Not long after I catalogued Careers for girls, I came across Napier Hawke’s (extremely odd) novel, The premier and the suffragette (1909.7.1984), which espouses a less enthusiastic view of the capabilities of women. It begins with a leading suffragette named Theodosia (who, from the picture on the cover, has clearly been using her Edwards’ Harlene) breaking into the Prime Minister’s car while he is in it. They are subsequently kidnapped by shadowy forces who want them, together, to resolve the issue of votes for women and find a way to “paralyse the Socialist party”. Theodosia, it must be said, clearly lacks the courage of her convictions, as she quickly gives up on her own cause as “illogical” (thanks). They then spend a full fifty pages discussing socialism (at this point, I admit, I was too bored to pay much attention) and work out a solution (something to do with setting up a very big bank, apparently). By the time they’re released, they have, with crashing inevitability, fallen in love; the end of the book finds them happily married, and Theodosia, now a “radiantly fashionable lady”, is transformed from the “hoidenish Suffragette” she once was. I’m not entirely sure who the novel was originally aimed at, but if you’re looking for a combination of romance and economic theory, it might just be the book for you.

 

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