Why 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
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
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.
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.