BOOK REVIEW / Mums cannot live by bread alone: Natasha Walter on the reprint of a 1913 book that reminds us of the women's movement's true potential: Round about a pound a week - Maud Pember Reeves: Virago, pounds 7.99

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Recently, I went to a talk given by Naomi Wolf, the young American feminist. A questioner from the floor asked why Wolf seemed to be addressing her programme for change exclusively at middle-class women. 'You must understand,' Wolf responded, 'that in America everyone thinks they're middle-class - except the poor. . .' This was a telling non-answer. Wolf and Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia can hardly be blamed for their backgrounds, but their arguments are aimed solely at one another: at childless, well-educated white women. Is it surprising then, that their debates appeal so much to television and magazines, being so exclusively about sex and culture, the freedom to be powerful and beautiful?

The strongest and best strands of British feminism have been effectively obscured by the spotlight swinging to such amusing and fashionable women. Writers such as Beatrix Campbell and Sheila Rowbotham, academics such as Pippa Norris and Joni Lovenduski, politicians such as Clare Short and Harriet Harman - these could never be persuaded to forget the other sites of feminism, the non- middle class and even straightforwardly poor women whose problems seem mundane to the media. Their analytical books and gritty arguments have been sidelined. A relentless drift to the middle-class has characterised the debate.

Partly, this drift rests on a warped history of feminism. For young feminists now, women's liberation began in the Seventies, with the 'personal is the political' movement - new thinking on sexuality, relationships, self-image, language and reproduction. But precious as it was, this is only one facet of the women's movement's long development, which began at the close of the 18th century with Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It has continued to the present day through battles over social issues - degrees for women, medical training for women, bicycles for women, votes for women, trade unions, rational dress and contraception for women. It is this spirit of idealistic and engaged, but highly commonsensical feminism that comes easiest to British women. It shines out in the work of our greatest feminists and it deserves its renaissance, just as the more sexy individualist feminism is enjoying its renaissance.

At the beginning of this century, the grassroots women's movement was fizzing with energy. Groups and committees, pamphlets and journals, charities and societies dedicated to the cause of women were springing up everywhere. The Fabian Women's Group was founded in 1908 by Charlotte Wilson as an offshoot of the Fabian Society, and its attempts to monitor child health resulted, in 1913, in the publication of a remarkable book. Round About a Pound a Week offers a limpid description of the domestic lives of 30 working-class families in Lambeth from 1909 to 1913. The focus on the working class came from Fabian socialism, 'but the emphasis on the houseworker and mother came from feminism'.

Reading it now, one is assailed by the shock of the new and the shock of the familiar. Certainly, the comfort of everyone in Britain bar a tiny proportion has improved since then. Today, a family where the wage-earner was regularly in work and earning as good a salary as two- thirds of the workforce (then, about a pound a week), would not have to struggle for existence in such conditions. Typically, the family we meet in these pages is six- or eight-strong, living in one or two rooms and sharing two beds; with no running water, no cold storage for food, no water-heater except a kettle, not enough chairs for everyone to sit down at once or enough plates for everyone to eat at once.

And the mother does worst in these conditions: she is the one who has to do without boots, and go out in the dark to shop because her clothes are so bad, who looks 40 at the age of 25, and who eats bread and marge at almost every meal even when she is breastfeeding, because the 'relishes' - eggs, bacon, or sprats - must go to the labouring husband.

In the last chapter, Maud Pember Reeves quotes the recommendations of the workhouse diet, which includes a pint of milk, fresh fruit, and meat every day, and asks why it is that so many children out of care cannot keep such a diet. A report published by the National Children's Home charity last week used precisely the same 1913 diet to query the nutrition of poor children today, who, it claims, still cannot keep up to this standard.

The immensely accessible tone of this book is characterised by a mixture of empirical tabulation, evaluation, and the odd, touching collapse into anguish. And the impassioned thrust of the book is clear: the desire for a Welfare State. Some of the appalling injustices that dominate this book have now been softened or removed - the priority given to rent over food, especially during periods of unemployment, is reduced by the introduction of housing benefit, and statutory sick pay has relieved some of the fear of illness. But what are we to make of this story?

'A mother, the breadwinner for three young children, earned 12s. a week for work which took her from home in the early morning and again in the evening. During two daily absences, which cost her 2s. weekly in fares, she was obliged to leave her baby lying in its perambulator. The illness of an elder child brought an education officer to investigate his absence from school. The officer discovered the boy in bed with rheumatic fever, and the baby unattended. Meeting the hurrying mother as she came back from her morning's work, he indignantly informed her that it was against the law to leave a baby as hers had been left . . . She pleaded with him; in her ignorance of the ideals and methods of our English law, she explained her circumstances. He was, of course, sorry about it, but the upshot of their conversation was that by the direct action of the Public Authority the mother was forced to pay a neighbour to care for the baby, and the 10s. a week on which four persons were living was further diminished. Such a woman may be potentially a good parent had she any means by which she could make her good parenthood effective.'

The past is not always a foreign country; they often do things just the same there. How often does the state still find it easier to punish than to assist? Last December, a mother of four children under ten was sent to prison for seven months for DSS fraud to obtain food; another mother was given six weeks' imprisonment over Christmas for a similar offence. How often are 'home alone' cases reported as unique examples of negligence, with no comment on the daily routine of poverty which leads mothers into being bad parents? Research at Reading University suggests that 20 per cent of 5- to 10-year-olds were left alone after school or during holidays while parents worked. 'It was astonishingly common,' the researcher commented. 'The parents say they have no choice.'

Maud Pember Reeves speaks with heartfelt authority when she says: 'The nation needs the active and free co-operation of fathers and mothers in the upbringing of its children, and it must enable them to do their share of the work.' Our social crises 80 years on may stem from different social forces, but the results are the same - too many children whose 'growth is stunted, mental powers are cramped, and health is undermined' by poverty; too many mothers led into bad parenting by social injustice; too little love and the peace of love in families juggling endless demands. If feminists can't speak to and for those women, whom do they think they are fighting for?

(Photograph omitted)