Wolfson History Prize 2021 – Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood

Hello, and welcome to my to a very special post today. I’m so pleased to be back for this year’s blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize after having also been involved for the last two years, and I would be lying if I hadn’t said I was beyond thrilled to recieve that email again.

Today I’ll be looking at Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood by Helen McCarthy, which has been hailed as ‘groundbreaking’, and for very good reasons.

A groundbreaking history of mothers who worked for pay that will change the way we think about gender, work and equality in modern Britain.

In Britain today, three-quarters of mothers are in employment and paid work is an unremarkable feature of women’s lives after childbirth. Yet a century ago, working mothers were in the minority, excluded altogether from many occupations, whilst their wage-earning was widely perceived as a social ill. In Double Lives, Helen McCarthy accounts for this remarkable transformation, whose consequences have been momentous for Britain’s society and economy.

Drawing upon a wealth of sources, McCarthy ranges from the smoking chimney-stacks of nineteenth-century Manchester to the shimmering skyscrapers of present-day Canary Wharf. She recovers the everyday worlds of working mothers and traces how women’s desires for financial independence and lives beyond home and family were slowly recognised. McCarthy reveals the deep and complicated past of a phenomenon so often assumed to be a product of contemporary lifestyles and aspirations.

This groundbreaking history forces us not only to re-evaluate the past, but to ask anew how current attitudes towards mothers in the workplace have developed and how far we have to go. Through vivid and powerful storytelling, Double Lives offers a social and cultural history for our times.

It’s impossible to read this book and not be impacted by it. It’s one of those that gets under your skin, into your brain, and makes you think, on an almost constant basis, about it. How did we get here? is a question I’ve asked myself so many times when I look at the world around me, and this book swoops in and answers that, at least part way.

The biggest thing that strikes me from these pages is choice. The ability to choose, and to have that stripped away from you, until we face situations like the present day; opinions have shifted enough that some will praise a mother who works, while others will say she should be at home with her children. If she’s not at home with her children, who is looking after them? And if she couldn’t afford to have children and not stay at home with them, then why did she have children at all? I know these things because I have lived them. I have been a poor working class mother. I still am. I still dread the question “and what do you do?” when meeting people for the first time, although these days I fix a bright smile on my face and say, “I’m a very successful book blogger”, working on the basis that people either will be a) too bemused to know what to say, b) won’t know what a blogger is, or c) will be so uncomortable that I don’t have a “proper profession” they will change the subject. It almost always works. The few exceptions are the ones who actually want to know more about what I do, and that’s when the 2000 business cards I bought two weeks prior to Covid starting actually come in useful. That box will never be empty.

The right to choice and having our options laid out before us is what we are told we have now as young women. They say it over and over at school, at collage, at university; “you have so many more choices now”. But in reality, we don’t. We are still looked upon as walking incubators by a certain portion of society, and whether that is delibrate or not doesn’t matter. The moment a woman reaches the age of twenty five and hasn’t met a man to settle down and marry, people seem to look at her as if she needs to hurry up. But if you have met a man, settle down, and marry, they still look at her to hurry up, just in different ways. As soon as a child or children comes along, so does a whole different set of judgements.

I felt so much reading this book. I felt empowered in parts, but mainly I felt angry. I felt such surges of rage that time can have sped on but so much hasn’t changed. Women’s rights and fight for equality is on a much slower timer – and that just isn’t right.

As always, I’m rooting for the book I’ve been allocated to win, because I’m the competitive sort, but I urge everyone to pick up this book, especially men. There is so much to learn from it, so much to take from it and help improve society with. We are not free until all of us are free.

My thanks to the Wolfson History Prize as always, and to Midas PR for my copy of Double Lives, a book that will stay with me for a long, long time.


  1. Powerful review for a powerful book. We forget sometimes how much was done before us to give us the choices we have today, and yet, as you pointed out, we still have a long way to go. I love a book that helps explain how hard it used to be and how hard some women worked to give us the choices we have today. Thanks so much for highlighting this book.


  2. This does sound a very important and powerful book and I hope it does well from this extra publicity. I hate the imposition of values on women (usually by other women), I get people assuming I have children because I work from home for myself, or people assuming I didn’t want children because I don’t have them – both untrue and fairly maddening. Great review and I’m glad you got a lot out of it, even if it was a lot of emotions, too!


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