Mary Macarthur

I’m delighted to see that Mary Macarthur, who was a campaigner for women’s rights to sickness benefits, has been commemorated today by a blue plaque on her home in London. Information here

In her very short life, Mary Macarthur was active in the labour and trade union movement, campaigning for women’s rights in the workplace. She stood (unsuccessfully) for parliament in 1918, as a Labour candidate, campaigning, among other things, for equal pay, a living wage, peace, the abolition of the Poor Law and the House of Lords and the right of allotment holders to ‘the fruits and vegetables of their labours’.*

Mary Macarthur and sickness benefits

Less well known are her efforts to improve sickness benefits for working women.  The UK’s first national insurance sickness benefit scheme was launched in 1911.  Within a year of its introduction a committee was set up to look at ‘excessive claims’ for benefit.  The committee met for seven months and collected evidence from ninety-four witnesses and looked at 1,500 pages of written evidence.  Mary Macarthur was a member of the committee, representing the Women’s Trade Union League.  Her involvement on the committee included listening to the evidence of the witnesses, giving evidence on behalf of the National Federation of Women Workers and writing a dissenting memorandum to the final report.  In her evidence and her dissenting memorandum she stressed the need to take account of the realities of working class women’s lives in deciding their claims for sickness benefit.  She dismissed ideas that women were claiming benefit in order to get away from the factories, or because they could get more money from benefit than they could earn her wages, or because they couldn’t understand the principles of the insurance scheme.  She argued instead that women had a right to benefit because they were ill and had contributed to the scheme through their work in the factories.

For more information about the committee and Mary Macarthur’s involvement in the sickness benefit scheme, see my contribution to the Dangerous Women project and  Gulland, J. (2013), ‘Extraordinary Housework: women and claims for sickness benefit in the early 20th century’, Women’s History Magazine, 71, Spring 2013, pp23-30.

For further information on Mary Macarthur, see Angela John, ‘Macarthur, Mary Reid (1880-1921)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004).  Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/30411 Access to the online edition is often available through public libraries

* Election address reproduced in Barnesly, T. 2010 Breaking their chains: Mary Macarthur and the chainmaker’s strike of 1910, London: Bookmarks Publications.

Hunt, C. (2014) The National Federation of Women Workers, 1906-1921. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

 

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Connecting the Turra Coo and women’s work

Turra Coo plateWhy would someone give me a plate with a cow on it? This was a gift from a family member, recognising my obsession with all things to do with the 1911 National Insurance Act. The plate commemorates the incident of the ‘Turra Coo’ in 1913. The National Insurance Act required employers and workers to make weekly contributions from their wages in return for sickness and unemployment benefits and the right to health care. Some employers objected to the principle of making contributions, including a farmer from Turriff in Aberdeenshire. When he refused to pay contributions for his farm workers, his cow (the Turra Coo) was impounded by the local sheriff officers, leading to a local riot and the cow becoming an emblem of local protest. For the full story, see here
A hundred years on from this farmer’s protest, the Coo has now become a tourist attraction, with a statue in Turriff town centre*:

Turra Coo 2015

Turra Coo 2015

and a commemorative plate. So now I have my plate but I’m not sure I really want the plate on my office wall. The problem with the Coo is that it symbolises objection to the Act and the principle of National Insurance. There are a lot of problems with National Insurance as a principle for funding the welfare state but it has its supporters too and, at least in 1911, it provided the basics of health care and sickness benefits for low paid workers, particularly women.

Connecting the Turra coo to women’s precarious work

But I found another connection between the Coo and my research at the Social History Society conference last week. Here I had the privilege of hearing a paper by Valerie Hall on women farmers in North East Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th century. Professor Hall’s paper described the complex working lives of women, who combined domestic work, running the farm and a variety of entrepreneurial activities, including selling eggs and dairy products, breeding dogs, cattle and prize chickens, while also bringing up many children and grandchildren. Her presentation including some lovely pictures of cows and references to the Aberdeenshire ‘Doric’ – I couldn’t help but think of the Turra Coo. More important to my research though was the clear argument that it was not easy, or indeed possible, to identify where ‘work’ and ‘not work’ happened in these women’s lives. On the same panel we also heard from Professor Dianne Newell who talked about the indigenous women in British Columbia at around the same time, combining their ‘work’ in the salmon canning factories with household maintenance and ‘doorstep entrepreneurship’: making traditional baskets and rugs and trading these for cash or goods with middle class white tourists. Again the division between ‘work’ and ‘not work’ was blurred in an endless and seasonal struggle for survival.
The women described in these two conference papers lived in a different era and in worlds which have long changed but the reality of the complexity of women’s working lives continues, particularly for poor women in precarious part-time employment. In some ways these papers look like a reinforcement of the gendered idea that a ‘woman’s work is never done’, particularly a poor woman’s work, but for me they illustrate a rather different point.  Welfare benefits, and particularly incapacity benefits, depend on an understanding of what we mean by ‘work’.  Women’s working lives, and many disabled people’s lives, do not fit a conventional idea of work.  If welfare states are dependent on the idea that people (men or women) should ‘work’ and that their entitlement to benefits and services should be conditional on that, then we must question conventional, gendered assumptions about what constitutes ‘work’.
So thank you to the Turra Coo plate for helping me to make these links.

*thanks to Viv Cree for the photograph

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Book reviews

I’ve recently published a couple of book reviews, one on the history of the ‘underclass’ and another on women and social security. These two books provide important background for my own work which concerns the history of concepts of incapacity for work and how that relates to policy on the ground and on the particular challenges for women claiming incapacity benefits. Here’s a brief summary of what I thought about them.

Welshman, J. (2013) Underclass: a history of the excluded since 1880 2nd ed.
Bloomsbury: London (review published in Social Policy and Administration)

Media of Underclass

Welshman’s book provides us with a guided tour of the concept of the ‘underclass’ since the late 19th century, moving through related concepts such as ‘problem families’, ‘unemployables’, ‘socially excluded’ to the recent Coalition Government’s idea of ’troubled families’. A lot of this is about language: the language that policy makers use to talk about social problems and how that relates to the ideas that researchers use to look at the same problems. They don’t often connect but these ideas really matter. Once a concept like the underclass takes hold it is difficult to escape from it. We see that in the field of disability benefits with the current media obsession with ‘benefit scroungers and ‘hardworking families’. There isn’t much evidence for either of these concepts but the ideas take hold never-the-less and make it much more difficult for real people to navigate the shark-infested waters of benefits claiming. Welshman’s book is important because it shows us how these ideas have developed over the last century.

Goldblatt, B. and Lamarche, L. (eds.) (2014). Women’s Rights to Social Security and Social Protection. Oñati International Series in Law and Society. Oxford: Hart Publishing. (review published in European Journal of Social Security)

http://www.hartpub.co.uk/coverimages/9781849466929.jpg

Goldblatt and Lamarche, on the other hand, are mainly concerned with the present day. Their focus is on the difficulties that women have with accessing social security across the globe. The book reminds us that, across countries and across time, men and women’s participation in paid work and unpaid domestic and caring responsibilities is unequal and that this leads to unequal access to social security in old age or when paid work is not available. The book has a very broad reach, covering countries as far apart as China and Bolivia. There is a lot of detail for readers interested in particular countries but perhaps the most useful chapters are those that look at the issues from a broader perspective. These chapters provide useful overviews of the debates and may be particularly useful for readers who are looking for an introduction to the issue of women and social security with an eye to human rights and feminist analysis.

For the full reviews, see the links to the journals.

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to review books. Now I have to get on with some more.

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Gender history seminar

The gender history seminar at the University of Edinburgh has asked me to talk about my work.  I’ll be presenting ‘work in progress’ on Wednesday 6th May, 5-6.30pm, Meadows Lecture Theatre, William Robertson Wing, details at this link.  Access information at this link  All welcome. Find out more about the gender history network on their facebook page

My talk will provide an overview of the research discussed in this blog.  Here’s the outline:

A considerable capacity for housework”: gender, disability and the construction of (in)capacity for work across the 20 century

This paper is based on research the development of incapacity benefits in the UK across the 20th century. Incapacity benefits are usually paid to claimants who are considered to be ‘incapable of work’ but the legal and social construction of this concept has been debated since the first sickness insurance scheme was introduced in 1911. While we might expect definitions of ‘incapacity for work’ to focus solely on the kind of work that people can do outside the home, in the early 20th century, policy makers and decision makers continually struggled with whether or not women’s work in the home should count as evidence of capacity for work in the labour market. Students of social policy and post-war social history are familiar with William Beveridge’s statement that housewives did not need to be part of a scheme for national insurance because they had ‘other duties’*. The problem of the ‘male breadwinner’ model of national insurance has been widely discussed in the literature. However, little attention has been paid to the working women (both married and single) who did qualify for benefits as a result of their national insurance contribution records. This paper looks at these women and the ways in which gendered assumptions about their role in the domestic sphere were used to consider the capacity for work in the labour market.

Using archive data from across the 20th century and legal decisions on disputed claims, the paper explores the relationship between ‘household duties’ and ‘work’, showing that the concept of ‘incapacity for work ‘ was closely connected with assumptions about the kind of work that women (and men) were expected to do, both within and outside the home.

* Beveridge, W. (1942). Social Insurance and Allied Services, Cmnd 6404. London: HMSO, para 114.

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Housework and child care, reflections from International Women’s Day

So we’ve just celebrated International Women’s Day.  All over the world women demonstrated for equal rights and celebrated women’s achievements.  I spent International Women’s Day at a workshop run by the ‘Women work and value’ network in Budapest. Apart from the network event, the only signs of International Women’s Day seemed to be discounts in the tourist bars: one woman 10% off drinks, 2 women 20% off etc. I’m not sure that is what the International Day is about, and, no, we didn’t take up the offers.

At our workshop we were a little more focussed on women’s rights in the more usual sense of the word, from trade union activists in post-war Italy to redundant textile workers in today’s Croatia and care workers fighting for the right to overtime payments in the USA. All women, all low paid and all trying to get a better deal. My contribution was on the household duties tests in the UK sickness benefits schemes from the 1900s to the 1980s.

Housework not child care

I’ve written in other posts about these housework tests but what struck me at this workshop was the discussion on housework duties and ‘care’. Several of the other speakers talked about ‘care work’, either paid or unpaid in connection with providing personal care for older people and disabled people, or the work of looking after small children. In all the discussion of ‘housework’ in the archives that I have been looking at, the focus is almost entirely on the daily work that has to be done to maintain a household, with little mention of the people who live in it. So it is all about cleaning and washing, dusting and hoovering, shopping and cooking. Obviously the existence of small children or many other people in the house will increase the volume of these activities but there is barely a mention of the personal care which small children need or the sheer daily grind of getting children up and out to school, keeping them clean and getting them to bed. I also realised that the discussion in the archives is always about ‘married women’ not ‘mothers’. Now it may be assumed that married women and mothers could easily be equated in the early to mid-twentieth century but in many of the housework cases that I’ve identified, the women’s status as mothers was not mentioned. Either they did not have children, or their children were grown up or it was not felt to be relevant to discuss them. So what is happening here? It looks to me that the emphasis on housework was really that: the cleaning, cooking etc that was needed to maintain the house or the household, not the ‘child care’ that we think about today in relation to women’s ‘double burden’. So this was a recognition that housework was work but perhaps that looking after children was not – or maybe it was just so taken for granted that there was no need to mention it.

There is nothing like an international workshop like this to get you thinking about your research in a new way.

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Gender, housework and incapacity

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. I have been thinking about men and women and claims for incapacity benefits. One recurring theme has been how to deal with housework. After all, as the feminist sociologist Ann Oakley told us in 1974: ‘the only difference between employment work and housework is housework’s lack of pay’ (Oakley 1974, The  Sociology of Housework, p26).

Across the twentieth century, policy makers worried about how to decide whether or not women’s work in the home should count as evidence for capacity for work when they claimed sickness benefits.

If we count housework as ‘work’, then we can understand why it might be appropriate to use evidence of capacity for housework as evidence of capacity for paid work.  Policy makers battled over this problem for the first forty years of sickness benefits.  By the 1950s they came to a more considered view.  A legal test case in 1951 said that that  a woman’s housework should only be considered as evidence of capacity for work if it was reasonable to assume that she could be paid to do similar work for an employer, for example as a cleaner or cook:

Thus for example if a woman is capable of doing the domestic work of a normal household that would be evidence to support the view that she was capable of remunerative work because by doing for an employer what she does for her family she could reasonably be expected to obtain remuneration. [Commissioners Decision R(S)11/51, para 6]

But what about men?  The legal case did not discuss the position of men but the civil servants at the time thought about it.  They were discussing how to crack down on married women who were capable of doing housework and pondered how to treat single women.  They thought that they should be treated in the same way as married women:

I agree that the spinster or widow running a home for her sisters (or brothers) should be covered as well as the married woman

Handwritten note, October 1951 in TNA PIN 35/41

But not men:

but I think we should not be too avid in our search for the mere male who is doing his best with the housework while his wife goes out to maintain the home.

So men doing housework were just ‘helping out’ and were not to be policed in the same way as the women.

That is not to say that men were left off the hook. Gendered assumptions about men and work could also mean that men were refused benefit if they did not fit expectations of masculinities and work.

And of course the whole housework question reappeared in the 1970s when they invented Housewives Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension which I’ve discussed before here.

belated Happy International Women’s Day

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Severe Disablement Allowance in Scotland

This week I have been thinking about the proposals to devolve some welfare benefits to the Scottish Parliament.  You can find the detailed proposals in Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement here.  One of the proposals that has been puzzling me is the plan to devolve powers for ‘Benefits for carers, disabled people and those who are ill’ (page 51).  This proposes to devolve Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance, Carers Benefit,  Personal Independence Payment and Industrial Injuries Benefits.  These are benefits for ‘carers and disabled people’.  But who are they thinking about when they say they are going to devolve benefits for ‘people who are ill’?  Most of us would imagine that this meant people who are short term sick (who might currently be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay or an employer’s sick pay scheme) or perhaps people who might be currently entitled to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).  But the Report is quite clear that ESA and the new Universal Credit will remain reserved to Westminster.  The only benefit to be devolved which appears to be for ‘people who are ill’ is Severe Disablement Allowance (SDA).  Now this is a strange thing.  Severe Disablement Allowance was stopped in 2001 and the only people who qualify for it are people who were eligible at that point and who have a continuing entitlement.  There is a program to transfer all of those claimants to ESA eventually. This clause looks as if it is proposing to give the Scottish Parliament powers to decide what to do with the people who are currently claiming SDA in Scotland, but that is all.  According to government statistics there were around 25,000 people claiming SDA in Scotland in 2011. I can’t immediately find up-to-date figures but the number will be less now that some of those will have been transferred to ESA. What puzzles me is why this benefit has been included in the plans to devolve disability benefits while all the other ‘earnings replacement’ benefits for disabled people will remain reserved to Westminster.

Severe Disablement Allowance and history

So what does this have to do with my research on the history of incapacity benefits?  Severe Disablement Allowance has an interesting history because it was first introduced in 1983 to replace the discredited and sexist Non-contributory Invalidity Pension and Housewives Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension.  It was designed to make sure that roughly the same number of people who had qualified for NCIP and HNCIP would qualify.  It was always an unusual benefit because it was non-means-tested and non-contributory and paid at a lower rate than most other contributory benefits.  This meant that the people who qualified for it either had to depend on means-tested benefits as well or had other income, for example from a working partner or a pension or private income from another source.  The main people who really benefitted from it were married women with working partners – the very people that HNCIP had attempted to exclude.  When it was abolished in 2001 these married or cohabiting women were the people most likely to lose out again (Wikely 2000).

Was there a mistake?

So why has it been included in the proposals to devolve benefits to Scotland?  I suspect it is not because of its convoluted history. Having a whole new separate set of rules for the remaining 25,000 or so claimants in Scotland seems quite bizarre and it is very strange that this is the only earnings replacement disability benefit to be devolved. The Scotland in the United Kingdom report makes a snide comment about the Smith Commission when it comments on its failure to get its terms right in relation to industrial injuries benefits ‘This is not at term used by the UK Government’ (p51, footnote 5).  There is a form of industrial injuries benefit called Exceptionally Severe Disablement Allowance. This is paid to people with impairments as a result of an industrial injury or disease which means they need constant care and attention and are likely to need this on a permanent basis.  Is it possible that this is what the Smith Commission meant to recommend devolving and that neither report understood what it meant when it proposed to devolve Severe Disablement Allowance?

Maybe I’ve missed something but these proposals only add to the strange and confused history of Severe Disablement Allowance and its predecessors.

References

Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement Cm 8990, (2015) London, HMSO

Smith, (2015) The Smith Commission: Report of the Smith Commission for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament

Wikely, N (2000) ‘Social Security and Disability ‘ in  Harris, N. (Ed.), Social Security Law in Context. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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All mod cons

Can you imagine a world where married women had to prove that they were unable to do housework before they qualified for benefits?  This was the UK in the 1970s.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Not the 1920s or even the 1950s. In 1975, at the same time as the Sex Discrimination Act, legislators in the UK came up with a social security benefit which made specific rules barring married women from claiming unless they could prove that they could not do the housework.  This was Housewives Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension (HNCIP).  To be fair on the legislators, the idea was to make a benefit available to women who had been unable to collect enough national insurance contributions to qualify for Invalidity Benefit because they had been out of the labour market.  But the main benefit Non-contributory Invalidity Pension (NCIP) was only available to men and single women. Married women had to pass the extra ‘housework’ test.  The thinking was that married women did not expect to work outside the home, that they would be financially dependent on their husbands and that they should only qualify for a state benefit if they were unable to do their ‘normal work in the home’.

So what did these housewives have to do to show that they couldn’t do their housework? The claiming process was the same as for everyone else trying to get an invalidity benefit:  they needed a certificate of ‘incapacity for work’ from their doctor but then they also needed to fill out a lengthy claim form.  This form included questions about ability to dust, iron, stand in a queue, keep the home clean and tidy and other such ‘normal household duties.  It also asked whether the claimant need to use any ‘special appliances’ to carry out such duties.  Critics of the scheme pointed out that it was not clear at all what a ‘special appliance’ meant and whether or not it included such things as hoovers and automatic washing machines.

Disability campaigners and feminists at the time recognised the discrimination in this system and published detailed criticisms of it*.  Eventually, as a result of campaigning by various organisations, the practical difficulties identified by the policy makers and increasing pressure from equal opportunities policies, HNCIP was abolished and replaced by a non-contributory benefit which the same for all men and women: Severe Disablement Allowance (SDA) in 1984.  This benefit had its own problems which I’ll write about another time.

All mod cons or living in a slum

While HNCIP still existed, policy makers took the whole problem of assessing capacity for housework seriously and conducted inquiries and reports into whether it was possible to make the household duties test work better.  In one of these reports the authors pointed out that questions about the ability to carry out ‘normal household duties’ depended very much on the social circumstances of the claimant:

‘In the matter of shopping, a definition would have to cover the different requirements of a housewife with a car and a telephone on the one hand and on the other hand of another housewife living in a tower block half a mile from a bus stop with neither car nor telephone.  Similarly a definition of cleaning duties would have to embrace the cleaning required not only in a modern purpose built bungalow full of mechanical aids but also in a slum tenement with neither hot water nor inside toilet facilities’

National Insurance Advisory Committee (1980) Report of the National Insurance Advisory Committee on a question relating to the household duties test for non-contributory invalidity pension for married women, London: HMSO. p10

 

This may seem very dated to us today but illustrates very well how the social model of disability is better able to describe the challenges that disabled people have than a purely medical one.  It is obvious that someone living in a bungalow with ‘all mod cons’ will be more able to keep their house clean than someone living in a slum and that a woman with a car and a phone can more easily do the shopping than another woman living in a high rise flat without these.  If only policy makers could see that the same issues apply to assessing people’s ability to do paid work.

*For example, Lister, R. and Loach, I. (1978) Second Class Disabled – a report on the non-contributory invalidity pension for married women, London: Equal Rights for Disabled Women Campaign.

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Researching the history of incapacity benefits

Claiming incapacity benefits

If you claim Employment and Support Allowance in the UK today you will undergo a medical test to assess whether or not you are ‘capable of work’. If you are found capable of work you can appeal against this decision.  Not everybody appeals of course but many of those who do are successful, raising questions about whether the medical tests are fair.

Looking to the past

These debates are not new.   I have been looking at similar questions about how to assess people’s capacity for work right back at the beginning of the welfare state in the early 20th century.  In the National Archives in London there are records of appeal hearings against refusals of sickness benefits.  These include the case of a former miner, who could no longer work in the mines.  He was that told there was nothing wrong with his voice and he could work as a public speaker.  This man used the appeal procedure to get the decision overturned.  Another housebound disabled woman was not so lucky as the appeal judges told her that she could take in lodgers, echoing some of the debates we hear today about the bedroom tax.

My research shows that decision makers used an assortment of measures to check whether people were capable of work, ranging from sick visitors who spied on claimants to state doctors who provided second opinions on cases.  Like today, people were often unhappy with these decisions and appealed against them.  These cases involved ordinary working people who had little experience of dealing with paperwork or the law but somehow they made their way through this process to have their cases heard.

What do we mean by ‘incapacity for work’ and how has this changed?

If people qualify for benefit because they are ‘unable’ to ‘work’ then we need to have a common understanding of what we mean by work and who is expected to perform it. Looking at these appeal cases shows me that there were a whole lot of social assumptions about ‘work’ and particularly about men and women – so men were expected to do manual labour but not domestic work like cleaning or taking in washing.  Women, on the other hand, could have their benefit stopped because they had been caught doing the laundry – if they could do their own washing, then they could go out and do someone else’s; they were capable of work

I’m looking at how these ideas changed – or possibly stayed the same – across a hundred years, from the first sickness benefit scheme in 1911, the effects of mass unemployment in the 1930s, the introduction of the modern welfare state following the second world war, then the changes brought about by European laws on gender equality in the 1970s and up to the Employment and Support Allowance reforms today.

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