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Apr 2006 Journal

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Making a New Life: Women's work

The women we have interviewed have expressed a wide variety of attitudes towards work: some viewed it as merely a stopgap prior to marriage and children; others were more ambitious, claiming vocations held from an early date. However, many of the factors which played an important role in determining their careers, both in Continental Europe and in the UK, were shaped or influenced by their gender.

Some of our older female interviewees entered the UK under the terms of a domestic visa. The situation of these women was often unenviable, although some were fortunate enough to be treated as family members rather than as a source of cheap labour. Generally women were eager to leave this form of employment as soon as they were able to do so. The Yorkshire textile trade offered many employment opportunities, as did the retail sector, and the range of options available increased as male workers entered the armed forces.

Some of our interviewees had commenced or completed their training in nursing or teaching while still living in Continental Europe. While some women were able to resume their work in these fields, others found it necessary to adapt their skills: one lady with some nursing training first became a warden at a boarding school and then a social worker. Other skills, such as needlework or cookery, became a vital means of earning a living, or of contributing to the upkeep of a family. Helena Kennedy, a high-class dress-maker in her native Hungary, was able to re-establish a successful business in Leeds.

In some professions it was not considered appropriate for women to retain their posts following marriage. While many restrictions on female employment were swept away during the war, women again found they were at a disadvantage following the return of males to civilian life. Many women spent years in the home bringing up children and this inevitably had an impact on the careers they were able to follow. Once their children were grown, some of our interviewees were able to engage in part time employment and a number expressed their delight in the self-esteem and independence their jobs had given them. The development of occupations such as market research and of franchise or agency work provided many attractive employment opportunities for women. Access to a motor car, with the freedom which that conferred, was a particular boon. Other women found that charitable or voluntary work provided them with an outlet for their talents while at the same time enabling them to make a contribution to their communities. A number of women learned Braille and helped to transcribe texts. In Leeds the successful Edith Eder WIZO group was founded and run by continental ladies.

Work also provided women with company, in some cases helping to forge lifelong friendships. Many women either learned or improved their English through conversing with workmates. Others were able to build up the experience necessary to enable them to establish their own businesses. The project team would particularly like to hear from women who set up their own businesses or were engaged in unusual occupations.

This is the fifth article in the series (see AJR Journal, January 2006). The author can be contacted at Making a New Life Project, AHRC Centre CATH, Old Mining Building 2.08, University of Leeds LS2 9JT, email:
Amanda Bergen

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