Meet the Book Author: Quiet Revolutionaries

Sharon Thompson, Cardiff University

n our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Sharon Thompson, whose new book Quiet Revolutionaries: The Married Women’s Association and Family Lawwas published in September 2022 with Bloomsbury.

What is the book about? 

This book – which is accompanied by a website and podcast series spanning eight episodes – documents the untold story of the Married Women’s Association; a group of feminist agitators formed at the brink of the Second World War, who realised that furthering the rights of housewives was essential for the emancipation of all women. The Association had one overriding ambition: equal partnership in marriage. They wanted to know whether law could address women’s frequent and acute poverty in relationships, and focusing upon their story provides new insights into this challenging question. 

The book provides a collective biography of the Association, which boasted members such as MP Edith Summerskill, authors Vera Brittain and Dora Russell, BBC Executive Doreen Stephens (Gorsky), and Helena Normanton, who was the first woman to practise as a barrister. The Married Women’s Association campaigned on matters of women’s legal status within relationships that are still being debated today, such as the financial consequences of marriage and divorce, and how to value unpaid work in the home. As well as charting the history of this Association, Quiet Revolutionaries produces detailed analysis of different reform strategies and their effectiveness; revisiting longstanding questions about whether law is in fact the best tool for addressing structural inequality, and whether it is better strategically to pursue comprehensive reform or to settle for the more pragmatic step-by-step approach.

Why did I write it?

The impact of feminist activism on family law in the twentieth century is still a relatively unexplored field. The Married Women’s Association was the first pressure group of the twentieth century to focus chiefly on the goal of legal and economic equality for spouses. They had a subtle, yet significant, influence on the development of married women’s property rights, yet they have been curiously forgotten. Within accounts of family law reform in textbooks and in contemporaneous articles about family law reform throughout the twentieth century, the Association is either omitted or is a brief footnote. Their influence on the law of financial remedies is previously uncharted, and the extent of their influence is previously unacknowledged. 

Though my research focuses upon the financial consequences of marriage and divorce, I had not heard of the Married Women’s Association until relatively recently. In fact, I stumbled across them by chance – when writing about a now relatively arcane piece of legislation called the Married Women’s Property Act 1964 for the Women’s Legal Landmarks collection.

The Married Women’s Property Act 1964 enabled a wife to share housekeeping money equally with her husband. Before this Act, housekeeping money was legally considered to the husband’s money only and so even if the wife saved it and believed it to be hers, it reverted back to him. The 1964 Act first came before parliament as a private member’s bill introduced in the House of Lords by Baroness Edith Summerskill – who was the first president of the Married Women’s Association. Though this Act is still in force today, it is largely dismissed as piecemeal and irrelevant due to its apparently narrow scope. Yet when viewed from the perspective of women’s rights in marriage, the Act was hugely significant, as for the first time, it enabled married women without independent income to acquire their own money. This embodied the spirit of the Married Women’s Association campaigns – as founder Juanita Frances once put it: ‘I’m not asking for protection [for married women], I’m asking for legal rights in hard cash’. 

Like many stories of women’s role in law reform, I was motivated to write Quiet Revolutionaries because the Married Women’s Association’s influence upon law reform had never been assessed, and so the history of how family law was reformed in the twentieth century was incomplete. When writing this book and scripting the companion podcast, I was interested in exploring how feminist activists working behind the scenes have played an important, yet underappreciated role. And, how the tactics of those who wished to promote or resist change often influenced developments in unforeseen ways. 

How did I go about doing this research?

Much of the source material upon which the book is based is either new or previously unexamined. As a result, much of this book is based upon extensive archival research undertaken in The Women’s Library and The National Archives. Before beginning to write the book, I carried out several years of research in these archives. I reviewed more than 6000 documents: letters, newsletters, pamphlets, conference flyers, reports, handwritten notes, speeches, newspaper clippings and minutes of meetings not just of the Married Women’s Association, but from other connected groups and individuals, as well as files from the Lord Chancellor’s Office and the Law Commission of England and Wales. The research also required me to identify the inevitable gaps in this material; missing dates, unclear contexts, action points noted in meetings to follow up on a case, that then has no further information. As a result, this archival research was substantiated by new interview data and secondary sources, both of which help provided a more complete picture of the MWA.

The seven new interviews on which this book is based were undertaken between 2018 and 2020 with friends and family of MWA members. These revealed new information on MWA members that could not be gleaned from the archives, as well as members’ private papers and an unpublished memoir written by Doreen Gorsky, the former MWA Chair. This new and previously unseen information adds to the published autobiographies of MWA members Edith SummerskillDora Russell, and Vera Brittain.

By combining this range of previously unseen and unheard material, the book has sought to find women’s own words on the past, which historians such as June Purvis have noted is a critical aspect of feminist historical research. As a result, the words of the Married Women’s Association are used throughout Quiet Revolutionaries when telling this group’s story of family law reform. Finally, when conducting this research, I employed a feminist approach, which helped to highlight what is missing from orthodox accounts of reform. It became clear that such accounts do not pay much attention to reform efforts, if that reform is ultimately unsuccessful. The corollary of this is that resisters of reform also tend to be ignored if that reform is ultimately successful. And, in the history of women’s interaction with law, resistance is an important, albeit underappreciated strategy if the law being proposed will affect women detrimentally. 

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