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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Rebel women between the Wars by Sarah Lonsdale

Many of the ‘rebel’ women selected by Dr. Sarah Lonsdale for this original study of relatively unknown figures who conquered traditional male bastions of work were journalists.

In Britain the 1920s and 30s were decades when full electoral franchise equality was not achieved until 1928, and many professional women had to give up their jobs when they married.

The cover of ‘Rebel Women Between The Wars: Fearless writers and adventurers’ by Sarah Lonsdale and published in 2020 by Manchester University Press.

Women at Cambridge University still had to wait until 1948 before they could officially receive their full rather than ‘titular’ degree status.

Sarah Lonsdale is a longstanding journalist and writer, a former weekly columnist in the Sunday Telegraph between 2006-14, who took the career change of entering Higher Education.

She is now Senior Lecturer in Journalism at City, University of London.

Her previous book, the highly acclaimed The Journalist in British Fiction & Film: Guarding the Guardians from 1900 to the present published by Bloomsbury in 2016, was based on her brilliant PhD taken at Kent University.

Rebel Women Between The Wars is structured around multiple biography and focuses on individuals that most people, including journalists, would accept have been ‘lost to history.’

The names Shiela Grant Duff, Margaret Lane, Rose Macauley, Leah Manning, Stella Martin, Claudia Parsons, Dorothy Pilley, Naomi Royde-Smith, Alison Settle, Edith Shackleton, and Kylie Tennant do not stir the mainstream memory of cultural history.

Dr. Lonsdale’s research and writing in this valuable and significant book makes it very clear that they should.

She also includes the Jamaican poet and BBC producer Una Marson- perhaps the most famous of the group as result of the outstanding biography by Delia Jarrett-Macauley.

Una was, along with Rudolph Dunbar, the go-to black journalist in World War Two London for the Ministry of Information and British establishment.

However, as Sarah Lonsdale reminds us racial prejudice and the brutality of the BBC would contribute to Una’s mental exhaustion and illness.

Duff, Lane, Macauley, Martin, Parsons, Royde-Smith, Settle, Shackleton, Tennant and Marson deserve more than the status of mere footnotes to history.

Rebel Women Between The Wars gives them voice, dignity and a literary and scholarly tribute that is akin to a memorial at the National Arboretum to people who had given their lives in some forgotten campaign or battle.

They were all part of the nexus of journalism and showing fierce determination to make their mark in mountaineering, exploration, education, novel writing, politics, humanitarian aid work overseas, and other fields.

The biographies one by one explain how each woman confronted the strategy of defence and exclusion ranged against them by a patronymic and discriminating world.

The opportunities for a woman engineer such as Claudia Parsons were narrow and practically non-existent. The Editor of the Times told Shiela Grant Duff that although he admired women journalists her gender meant it would be impossible for her to write for the foreign pages.

Novelist Kylie Tennant’s father refused to fund her ambition to go to university even though he had the wealth to buy several universities and found a new College at Oxford or Cambridge.

Lonsdale identifies a combination of subterfuge, direct action, networks and safe havens as the way ahead: ‘Una Marson instinctively chose one of the most effective methods, that of joining organised networks, as she, facing the double obstacle of gender and colour, had the hardest battle to fight.’

In contrast Margaret Lane made use of her father’s contacts to make the move to Fleet Street- perhaps ‘the easiest and most obvious route available to her.’

There is a delightful and moving appendix explaining what happened to these remarkable and brilliant women during the Second World War and afterwards.

Shiela Grant Duff joined the BBC European Service and became the first editor of the Czech section. Her memoir The Parting of Ways would be published in 1982.

Margaret Lane continued to write novels and newspaper reviews and became an acclaimed biographer of Edgar Wallace, Beatrix Potter, Samuel Johnson and the Brontes.

Rose Macauley continued to write novels and reviews. She was made a Dame in the 1958 New Year’s Honours list.

Leah Manning would be elected a Labour MP in Clement Atlee’s post-war General Election. Her memoir A Life for Education would be published in 1970.

Una Marson would be recognised as one of the most significant Caribbean poets and her pioneering place in broadcasting history celebrated and marked in biography and academic scholarship.

Stella Martin would continue to write novels and plays. She would achieve fame and recognition for her diary of a 1950s housewife battling with poor food and a small budget. One Woman’s Year became ‘something of a classic’ and has recently been republished by Persephone Books.

Claudia Parsons became a factory inspector during WW2 and continued in the role for seven years. She travelled the world and wrote many more books. Her memoir Century Story was published in 1995.

Dorothy Pilley continued mountaineering and travelling the world- ‘Wherever she went, she wrote of her adventures.’

Naomi Royde-Smith continued writing novels- 26 in all and her last Love and a Birdcage was published in 1960 and had been written when she was 85 and practically blind.

Alison Settle edited the Observer‘s women’s page throughout the Second World War and worked also as a war correspondent in 1944 covering the military campaign and liberation of Holland. After retiring from the Observer in 1960 she continued writing for The Lady for sixteen more years.

Edith Shackleton continued writing book reviews for the Observer and The Lady. Kylie Tennant would continue writing acclaimed novels, plays, short stories and engage political activism against nuclear testing which attracted the interest of the intelligence services. She would accept the Order of Australia in 1980.

Francesca Wilson witnessed and reported on the plight of refugees from the German invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939 and 1940 and worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. She published post war memoirs Aftermath (1947) , Strange Island (1957) and They Came As Strangers (1959).

Lonsdale offers a heartfelt conclusion that during the research and writing she ‘fell, one by one, for each of the women studied here and wished I could possess even a small portion of their courage and spirit.’

For they were brave pioneers ‘both in their achievements and in their dauntless challenging of unfair authority. They and thousands like them helped forge a way forward, and we are still, whatever gender, walking in their footsteps.’

Rebel Women Between The Wars: Fearless writers and adventurers by Sarah Lonsdale is published by Manchester University Press October 2020 and the Hardback edition is priced at £20.