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She’d Been Good, It Hadn’t Worked

Esther Draycott

Blackhill: an area of Glasgow erected on a golf course in the mid-1930s to abate the city’s ongoing housing crisis. Unlike neighbouring Riddrie, the ‘intermediate’ scheme built to house higher-income working-class families a decade before, Blackhill was designated as ‘rehousing’: the cheapest, most rudimentary kind of development made for those displaced from the poorest areas of the city. Discrepancies between the quality of the buildings in Riddrie and Blackhill – the former mainly composed of ‘cottage-style’ houses, bordered by front and back gardens, the latter, multi-apartment tenement buildings of reconstituted stone – were clear, but equally as dramatic was the level of surveillance imposed on Blackhill tenants in comparison to those in better-off areas of council housing.1 Fearful of allowing the perceived squalor, illicit behaviour and overcrowding of the city’s slums to ‘transfer’ into its new schemes, these measures were designed to engender a new set of values among former slum dwellers. As those deemed responsible for the proper upkeep of a home, and the proper raising of children, women were their primary target.

In 1957, a nine-year-old Meg Henderson and her family were relocated from Blackhill to a new flat in Drumchapel; another, much larger estate built as part of later slum clearance programmes in the city. The process of switching council houses was long, with transfers decided through a points-based system of recommendation. Gaining sufficient points to be considered for a new home required a positive reference from a factor, who would send a housing visitor on their behalf to inspect the general appearance of the family and furniture. After that, there would be an inspection by a Glasgow Corporation health visitor, who could arrive at any time to examine the cleanliness of the flat. Blackhill’s poor reputation meant credit histories and other financial records were checked particularly assiduously. ‘Looking back, it’s hard to imagine why we put up with such indignities,’ writes Henderson in her memoir Finding Peggy: A Glasgow Childhood.2

Inspection was a fact of life in the ‘rehousing’ category. Often carried out under the auspices of Glasgow Corporation’s Public Health Department, constant visits or patrols by the authorities were justified by late-Victorian principles of social care, in which bad hygiene was equated with loose morals – two parts of the same undoing. Under the purview of burgeoning middle-class concern about the spread of the so-called ‘disreputable poor’ in slums, roles such as Health Inspector, Public Health Nurse, and Sanitary Inspector were created alongside Blackhill’s construction, many with the power to gain entry to and inspect new council homes, and their tenants, at any time. Factors – responsible for soliciting rent from tenants and maintaining the general ‘peace’ of estates – would maintain a personal presence on every scheme in Glasgow, patrolling back courts and stairwells to discourage ‘gossiping’, untidiness and loud behaviour. Records of residents’ activities would be maintained and exchanged among local authorities, including schools, employers or banks: if a family failed a sanitary inspection, or built up bad credit, a mark would go in their rent book, meaning they would be unable to apply for housing elsewhere. Children would be inspected by the school nurse for impetigo, ringworm and other conditions associated with the poor – nurses exercised the right to shave students’ heads if they were thought to have something contagious. Public health nurses, women wearing the same long, regulation green coats as health visitors, would usually attend Blackhill women’s home births: if they lacked sheets, clean towels, or the right underwear, a note would be made.3

In many cases, these records make up the few that exist of women living in Glasgow’s poorest housing schemes between the Wars. The question arises, then, of how to remember a set of people for whom official record is only made for the express purposes of control, moralisation, and degradation. It is one addressed by feminist thinkers, in particular those working at other intersections of marginality, through the idea of ‘refusal’. Definitions vary, however, and contexts are often unaligned, rendering one form of patriarchal resistance seemingly unrelated to another. In her book Landscape for a Good Woman, Carolyn Steedman places refusal specifically in the context of what it meant to resist working-class womanhood in mid-20th century Britain: a society strained by war, intent on mobilising that identity to cater for specific state demands around domestic servitude and reproduction.4 To Steedman, refusal meant transgressing the gendered, moralising practices of social investigation replete in Britain at that time, which disciplined working-class women according to Puritan dogma around ‘good’ mothering, or ‘good’ housekeeping, allying more official forms of surveillance with the force of social judgement. The issue, Steedman argues, is that stories of women’s transgression of these standards were made ‘marginal and secret’ by the very conditions of their existence – confined, at best, to personal memory, family histories or the occasional memoir, else a black mark in a rent book with no further context. For the most part, they remained secrets, mired in shame and silence: the prospect of their uncovering like reopening a wound.

An anecdote: Steedman is a small child, watching her mother stare, barefoot, out of the curtainless bedroom window of their council house in the 1950s. They have just had a visit from a health inspector to assess the suitability of the ‘living environment’ for Steedman’s newborn sister. The inspector casts a glance at the carry-cot on the floor before remarking, casually, ‘this house isn’t fit for a baby’, and leaving. A four-year-old Steedman looks up to see her mother is crying. ‘She’d been good,’ she writes, ‘it hadn’t worked.’  ‘And I?’, Steedman reflects, ‘I will do everything and anything until the end of my days to stop anyone ever talking to me like that woman talked to my mother.’5

Histories may emerge, then, from impulses passed from one generation to the next to flout expectation, heal pain, and work against the world into which one was born. In an oral history of an interwar housing estate in Glasgow, Anne McGuckin writes about the ways in which encounters with authorities were often identified among female residents as singular, character-forming moments of their childhood, times when their identity was laid out in front of them as a badge of shame.6 These incidents – queueing at the parish for regulation school uniform, branded in red to prevent theft, the small ‘x’ drawn by a sanitary inspector on a dirty stairwell – remained in the minds of interviewees for decades afterwards, entering into a kind of family mythology as something to work against to prove oneself as passable, unremarkable, ‘good’. Space itself structured these subjectivities – Steedman’s ‘bare, curtainless place’ a stand-in for all those rooms and houses built to remind women both of their social inferiority and their need to live up to certain, externally imposed standards. In the case of Blackhill, those requirements were integrated into the very design of the buildings themselves. The ‘rehousing’ category of council housing schemes were the only developments to be assembled in short, straight rows, so their exteriors could be patrolled at ease. The view from your window matters, writes Steedman, especially as a child. It shapes the way you understand the ‘first loss, the first exclusion’ of your life as personal or structural, transient or permanent – organising a narrative that is almost impossible, then, to shake off.

Esther Gamsu, Dancing in the Dark, 2018, wool.

How might we summon the sense of ‘secret and shameful defiance’, which acts as a driver for Steedman, to uncover stories like her own? How might we use degrading records to re-assemble the complex individual stories to which they partially refer? How could a failed (or passed) inspection be reimagined as a critical history of Glasgow’s housing? Thinking through these questions, it feels necessary to move beyond the contingencies of working-class women’s experience in Britain to think about their interrelation with other spaces of marginality. In an essay on Hamiltonhill, another ‘rehousing’ scheme built in Glasgow around the same time as Blackhill, Seán Damer called slum clearance programmes in the city ‘carceral systems’, maintained through an expansive regime of ‘social control’.7 How have other communities responded similarly to reconceive of what it is to resist? The answers lie within Black feminist thought, as a form of feminism always engaged in re-orienting notions of social and spatial politics, and so often starting with the question of home. ‘For us,’ write Saidiya Hartman and Tina Campt in an article for Women and Performance, ‘practicing refusal’ names the urgency of rethinking the time, space, and fundamental vocabulary of what constitutes politics, activism and theory, as well as what it means to refuse the terms given to us to name these struggles’.8

One shared tenet between Campt and Hartman’s conception of refusal with that of Steedman is the political resonance of intimate space. In the case of Black feminist thought, that association draws partly from bell hooks’ concept of a ‘homeplace’: the often fragile and tenuous domestic landscapes, deriving from the free house in the wake of slavery, which have since been guarded zealously by generations of Black women to allow themselves and their communities to ‘freely construct the issue of humanisation’ away from the order of white supremacy. These spaces, hooks argues, have become resistant through the dissonant meanings attributed to them by Black women on the one hand, and authoritative powers on the other. Devoting time and attention to the home allows sites of state surveillance and neglect to become shelters for subterranean cultures and alternative values, unreachable by authorities even as their boundaries are frequently transgressed. Describing the journey to her grandmother’s house as a child, hooks points out that houses felt, then, like spaces that ‘belonged to women, were their special domain, not as property, but as places where all that mattered in life truly took place’. Listening, intrigued, to her grandmother’s stories about how they had ‘lived and survived as black people’, hooks came to understand homeplace as a space inscribed with a sense of ‘shared history, of common anguish,’ of her community, articulated by the women who raised her.9

In her essay Beauty is a Method, Christina Sharpe details the efforts of her mother to create spaces of style and elegance in her childhood home in Pennsylvania. Beauty is mobilised to provide a language where official record falters.  Precarity and stigma stalked the family in the form of ‘holes in ceilings, walls and floors from water damage that we could not afford to repair; the fears and reality of electricity and other utilities being cut due to nonpayment’, an overwhelming police presence in their community, and the constant vigilance of the wealthy white neighbours across the street. In a hostile environment, Sharpe’s mother’s routine acts of care – arranging peonies and zinnias under a collapsing ceiling, crafting Christmas ornaments by hand while she lay dying – were strategies that filled their domestic space with symbols of agency and personhood recognised only by those who mattered. Attending to their home in ways of no immediate use or translatability to the state was a disruption of the relationship between homes and social status which had seen their community systemically violated, criminalised and dehumanised. Shelves lined with books, the garden, vegetables and flowers, this was a space in which Sharpe was able to flout her position in the dominant social order and ‘feel precious – as in vulnerable, as in cherished.’10

But in the work of Black feminist thought, neither refusal, nor beauty, necessarily begins with a demonstration of care. Instead it is a ‘rejection of the status quo as liveable’, as Campt and Hartman explain.11 hooks describes practices of care within the home being an expression of womanhood many Black women in post-slavery society were ‘too weary, too beaten down’ to make.12 As Campt points out, drawing that distinction instils dignity, interiority and politicism in women’s actions which might first appear to be passive: redescribing ‘giving up’ as refusing to go on.

In her autobiographical essay Dear Green Place, Liz Heron recalls visiting her grandmother in a one-room flat in Parkhead in the 1950s as one of the formative experiences of her childhood. Despite being 80 and bow-legged from rickets as a child, the flat would always be sparkling clean, and she, despite the grinding poverty she had endured throughout her life, would always be cheerful. Heron contrasts those vivid memories of her father’s mother with hazy recollections of the squalid home kept by her maternal grandmother, also in Glasgow’s East End. ‘Layers of dust coated the jumble of furniture and holy pictures and pious bric-a-brac,’ she recalls, the kitchen ‘filmed with grease’. Where the silhouette of her paternal grandmother remained vivid in her mind, Heron struggled to recall the face of this other woman: she only ever appeared to Heron ‘like a ghost’, failing, even at the time, to fully materialise.13

Among Glasgow’s working-class women, particularly those hailing from slums, cheerfully and assiduously embracing the standards imposed on them from elsewhere was a form of what sociologist Beverley Skeggs calls ‘distinction’ – allowing women who built on and excelled within those constraints to feel ‘superior’ to others who did not.14 Like her grandmother, it is the former, writes Heron, who were able to better escape the scrutiny of social policy to find a positive place in a certain narrative of the city.

There must have been many women like her, all over Glasgow; that there were then in the early 1900s when she was marrying and becoming a mother, that there were later. Many women whose courage has to be admired. Working-class women who endured hardship and self-sacrifice and survived with something of themselves intact.15

But what did it mean, instead, to refuse superiority? To refuse the scant terms on which ‘distinction’ was offered to women of a certain status? These were, Heron writes, ‘women whose courage failed them. Women who did not have the heart or the will to live up to what the social order said they should be, but who lived by it nonetheless.’16

Here, dirt, grime, and a woman’s slumped body enact a criticism of the system which decrees the working-class home should be a space of cleanliness, order, and compliance. When, in Finding Peggy, Meg Henderson’s mother is finally granted a transfer from Blackhill to a new flat in Drumchapel, she is delighted – she sees moving to a high rise flat in a new area as a rare chance at gaining a better life, sees tower blocks themselves as places of innate cleanliness and modernity. Henderson, however, is suspicious of her mother’s optimistic view of Drumchapel, saddened by the threat to her families’ social bonds, and her own sense of rootedness, posed by her frequent relocation.17 Later in the book, in their Drumchapel flat, Henderson’s mother, Nan, begins to exhibit signs of a breakdown. Howling and sobbing at night, obsessively pacing and cleaning surfaces, she moves between frantic conversation and prolonged periods of detached silence. Her condition is accepted almost without hesitation by her family – it is seen as a natural response to living conditions which act as a strain to so many women who had lived as she had.

But the true source of Nan’s erratic behaviour is later revealed when her sister Peggy, still living in Blackhill, dies from haemorrhaging during a home birth. Peggy had endured both medical discrimination and neglect throughout her pregnancy, dying a protracted, painful death in labour from a known, preventable and elsewhere easily treatable condition. Lacking the voice to articulate her sense of foreboding, and the deep injustice suffered by working-class women at the hands of local authorities, Henderson’s mother subsequently plunges into a decades-long silence. She appears for the rest of the text almost as a ghost – unable to leave the house, unable, or no longer willing, to perform the duties of care expected of her. They move, listlessly, to another estate.

Slum clearance aligned good housing with an idealised version of womanhood, and by extension, the women who embodied the slum as less-than women, agents of contagion, to be defined by certain spatial limits. Steedman interpreted refusal as a statement of ambivalence toward the social order imposed on British working-class women – a refusal to acknowledge the moment of exclusion so many suffered in childhood as a harbinger of some deeper truth about their identity. While that goes some way to gauge the meaning of political resistance among women who ended up in Blackhill, it is the complete upending of the terms by which resistance or compliance are defined within Black feminist thought that feels vital here. In these tenements, the home was a space inscribed with violence and exclusion, but the stories of these injustices were written and embodied by women as the ‘owners’, as bell hooks describes them, of the house. Plumes of dust, sheets soaked in blood, the arrangement of flowers, frantic hands: all of these things map lives which exceeded the record of the sanitary inspector. They are the beginnings of a womanhood imagined otherwise, of failed or denied attempts at womanhood, and the remembrance of others who did the same.

Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing Up in the Fifties, the anthology in which Dear Green Place is published, is a collection of writing by British women whose commentaries on their childhoods trace the seeds of a movement that would latterly be known as feminism. ‘Women of my generation were the first to refuse debts that just couldn’t be borne,’ Heron writes, by way of introduction. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and refusal comes in many forms.

  1. Seán Damer, ‘Engineers of the Human Machine: The Social Practice of Council Housing Management in Glasgow, 1895 1939’, Urban Studies, 37.11 (2000), pp.2007-2026. ↩︎
  2. Meg Henderson, Finding Peggy: A Glasgow Childhood (London: Corgi, 1994), p.87. ↩︎
  3. Anne McGuckin, ‘Moving Stories: Working-class Women’, in Out of Bounds: Women in Scottish Society 1800-1945 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992), pp.174-197. ↩︎
  4. Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987). ↩︎
  5. Steedman, p.2. ↩︎
  6. McGuckin, pp.174-197. ↩︎
  7. Damer, pp.2007-2026. ↩︎
  8. Tina Campt and Saidiya Hartman, ‘Black visuality and practices of refusal’, Women and Performance, 29.1 (2019). ↩︎
  9. bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), p.383. ↩︎
  10. Christina Sharpe, ‘Beauty is a Method’, E-flux, 105 (2019) < method/>. ↩︎
  11. Campt and Hartman, ‘Black Visuality’, p.1. ↩︎
  12. hooks, p.382. ↩︎
  13. Liz Heron, ‘Dear Green Place’, in Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties, ed. by Liz Heron (London: Virago, 1984), pp.153-171. ↩︎
  14. Beverley Skeggs, Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable (London: Sage, 1997), p.8. ↩︎
  15. Heron, p.159. ↩︎
  16. Heron, p.168. ↩︎
  17. Henderson, p.87 ↩︎

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