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Devon Women in Public and Professional Life, 1900-1950: Votes, Voices and Vocations – Julia Neville and Mitzi Auchterlonie

Devon Women in Public and Professional Life, 1900-1950: Votes, Voices and Vocations by Julia Neville, Mitzi Auchterlonie, Paul Auchterlonie, Ann Roberts, Helen Turnbull

Written by a group of Devon History Society colleagues keen to demonstrate the role of local histories in the interpretation of women’s history, this book focuses on the major contribution made to public life in the county during the first half of the twentieth century by eight women, hitherto largely ‘hidden from history’.

Probably the only ‘history’ Miss Sylvia Calmady-Hamlyn, one of the biographical subjects, had ever expected or wished to be featured in, were the records of pony-breeding societies and pony show prize-winners. A well-off member of a Devon county family, she started her own stud on the edge of Dartmoor before the First World War and made a success of what she did. Her impulse to serve during the First World War led her to take on the organization of women to work on farms and in forestry within Devon and the South West. What she could not have expected was that her demonstrable competence at this work would bring her to the Lord Lieutenant’s notice and so to being appointed as one of the first women magistrates in 1920. From then on she regularly sat and chaired the magistrates in her local area. Her war-time experience of the dismal conditions in which women lived in Devon’s farms and villages also sparked a commitment to establishing Women’s Institutes in the county where women of all classes could meet, learn together and enjoy one another’s company. As a result of her energetic marketing of the benefits of WIs, more than fifty new institutes were established in Devon in the five years from 1919-1924.

Mrs Clara Daymond, another subject provides a complete contrast to Calmady-Hamlyn in many ways. The daughter of a Devonport shipwright and wife of a local builder her background was as urban as Calmady-Hamlyn’s was rural. She first found her voice as a member of the Women’s Co-operative Guild and began her life in public service as a Poor Law Guardian before the First World War. A constant champion for women’s rights she was chair of the Three Towns branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, covering Devonport, Plymouth and Stonehouse, and continued to campaign with the Plymouth Citizens’ Association in the 1920s and 1930s. Elected as one of Plymouth’s first women councillors she championed the needs of her electors, and helped modernize the city’s health services.

The two women operated independently and in separate spheres. One was a countrywoman, a gentlewoman and a Roman Catholic; the other a townswoman, from a working-class background and a staunch Methodist, yet both committed themselves in different ways to public service, and were members of the Devon Council of Women, a group constituted under the auspices of the National Council of Women to bring together women involved in public service to learn and debate issues of the day. In their different ways they each were involved in improving the lives of women and children.

All the women featured in the book had primary interests in different fields – politics (Eleanor Acland and Clara Daymond), medicine and education (Dr Mabel Ramsay and Jessie Headridge), and a variety of voluntary organizations (Florence Cecil, Georgiana Buller, Jane Clinton and Sylvia Calmady-Hamlyn). They all proved to be women of talent, commitment and a strong sense of values who were determined to create, increase and use opportunities for women and girls in a range of settings, particularly in the period after the First World War. The choice of biography as a tool, and the local geographical focus has also meant that the authors have been able to demonstrate how their women subjects worked not only individually but also collaboratively to create change and shifts of opinion in a large, mainly rural, county far from London and the industrial heartlands of England.

The authors conclude that the women involved were neither ‘old’ nor ‘new’ feminists, to use the terminology of previous studies. They worked for radical change, but they also seized opportunities as they came up, fostering, for example, the extension of electrification to lessen domestic drudgery. They were ‘practical, incremental feminists’. Do such groups exist in other communities, rural or urban? The authors would be interested to hear of evidence one way or another.

Devon Women in Public and Professional Life Published by the University of Exeter Press, 2021, see  The University of Exeter Press – Devon Women in Public and Professional Life, 1900–1950 

Dr. Julia Neville is an Honorary Research Fellow at Exeter University interested in twentieth-century social change. Formerly an NHS manager, she now leads collaborative research projects on local history topics. Recent work and publications include Early Victorian Schools and Devon Suffrage Activists. She is currently the Project Manager for a research collaboration on Devon in the 1920s.

Dr. Mitzi Auchterlonie worked for Exeter University’s Department of Lifelong Learning as a Teaching Fellow and Online Tutor in History until 2016. She has written Conservative Suffragists: the Women’s Vote and the Tory Party (2007) and co-authored the International Encyclopedia of Women’s Suffrage (2000). She is currently Book Review Editor of The Devon Historian.