Friday, October 15, 2010

Stereotypes and Women's Power

May Fair Wells, my husband's grandmother on his Dad's side. She was General Douglas MacArthur's first cousin, and just as bossy, it seems, despite being a "Southern Belle". She'd never be called a battleaxe. She was tall and thin like a fashion model and always dressed to the nines - and she was Upper Middle Class.

I once heard a BBC Radio production Archive on Four, where they replayed a documentary called The Death of the Battleaxe, by theatre director Jude Kelly. No one does social history better than BBC Radio Four, but this was an especially good program, and one that encapsulated many Threshold Girl themes.

We all know what a battleaxe is, an ugly loud bossy old woman (often a widowed mother in law) of the working class type. The stereotype, says Kelly, was spawned in the music halls of Northern England, where these women were often played by men (hence their perceived heft).

This stereotype was created in response to the power older women held in the working class, especially in Northern England, for these matriarchs often ran the homes while both parents were out working in the factories.

Anyway, Kelly discussed some famous stage and small screen Battleaxes, Mrs. Sharples (the classic) of Coronation Street, to Hyacinth Bucket (the pretentious) to Sybil Fawlty, (the frustrated coquette) and she claims this particular stereotype is finished, replaced by the ambitious 'working woman' archetype except in the ethnic communities, where matriarchs still loom powerful.

I recently read Nella Last in the 1950's  and the other Nella Last Diaries. Nella was from Lancashire, but she was a docile, even abused wife. I wonder if someone as bright as Nella acted this way rather than be branded a Battleaxe.

Of course, she was middle class, as were the Nicholson women.


The Nicholson women 1909 and Marion, same era. Marion was as boffo as you get, rising to be a Union Leader. But the men loved her.

Marion, Edith and Flo  of Threshold Girl worked hard not to be battle-axes, as did their mother Margaret (they were fashion-conscious in the extreme, even vain) but they were also strong strong women - and very opinionated. Hmm.

Margaret did her best to build up her husband's esteem, while remaining independent. She manipulated him a bit, I'd say.

Kelly says Battleaxes were just older women who didn't bother dieting and fixing themselves up. Very true. Why bother spending the time and the money. No man wanted them anyway. Edith Nicholson, on the other hand, remained careful about her looks to the end, despite her spinsterhood and rather empoverished circumstances.


It's all about class really. I'm sure many of these Society Women who battled for women's rights were battleaxes, with nice clothes and deep pockets.

The British suffragettes were very wary of being called battleaxes or worse. Their key speakers were often beautiful elegant young women like Barbara Wylie or Annie Kenney, whose feminine appearance beguiled some reporters.

Ps. As I understand it, a battleaxe often beat her husband with frying pan (in the cartoons).

 In another BBC documentary, a History of Private Life, Amanda Vickery says that the frying pan was a woman's most important possession and it was used for protection. If the marriage broke up, she kept the pan.

When Norman and Margaret Nicholson set up house in 1883, they spend 50 cents on a frying pan. As far as I know, Margaret never hit husband Norman with it.