Public Engagement

Explorathon! WW1 and Women’s Lives

September 25 @ 6:00 pm7:30 pm

An evening looking at the effects of World War One on the lives, freedoms and welfare of women.

As part of European Researchers Night project members spoke to a lively audience at Glasgow Women’s Library.

The First World War saw women, in particular lone mothers, make significant gains through the welfare system of the period, which reflected changes in attitudes towards illegitimacy. The period also saw expanding employment opportunities for women, yet such changes also saw women fall under greater surveillance by the state, local parishes and charitable organisations. What we explored was how the apparent gains made by women were in fact short-lived and ultimately the war contributed to high levels of family breakdown and gendered and inter-generational poverty.

Explorathon! Interactive Project Stall

September 25 @  The Riverside Museum

As part of Explorathon 2015 team members were at the Riverside Museum with boards, interactive maps and information about our research. Many visitors stopped by the ‘pub’ to share stories and to find out more information about the Working-Class Marriage project.

What Women Talk About When They Talk About Sex: Marriage Discussion Group Special

September 10 @ 6:00 pm7:30 pm

Throughout Spring/Summer 2015 a group of brave and bold women used feminist consciousness raising approaches to discuss the wide terrain of sex and sexuality in the safe and supportive environment of GWL. The outcomes of these discussions are being shared in various forms including extracts included in the forthcoming GWL book Sex Between the Covers. In partnership with the History of Working-Class Marriage in Scotland project we hosted a one-off Marriage-themed special and invited women to share their experiences of marriage (whether they are, or have been, married or not, whatever their class, sexuality or ethnicity) in an affirming environment. The contributions of participants will, confidentially, help build the picture of marriage in Scotland through women’s experience.

Project Roadshow 2014

During the summer, the WCM project team visited five locations in Scotland to share information about our research and to encourage members of the Scottish public to share memories, photographs and ephemera.

PUSleaflet - Copy

‘Tell Us Your Story’ Project Tour, Cumberland Street Day Centre, Dumfries, 27 September 2014

‘Tell Us Your Story’ Project Tour, Aros Centre, Portree, 13 September 2014


‘Tell Us Your Story’ Project Tour, Aberdeen Maritime Museum, 30 August 2014

‘Tell Us Your Story’ Project Tour, Burns Monument Centre, Kilmarnock, 23 August 2014

‘Tell Us Your Story’ Project Tour, Blairgowrie Town Hall, 2 August 2014


Explorathon 2014

In September 2014 members of the @WCMScotland project team visited Explorathon Glasgow where they shared information about the project and encouraged visitors to use our interactive census map of Govan from 1881.

Explorathon 2014 Explorathon 2014

Interactive Census Map of Govan 1911, ‘Tell Us Your Story’ & Project Information,  Explorathon Glasgow 2014, Glasgow Science Centre,  26 September 2014

Workshops with Podcasts


Women's AidDialogues with Scotland’s History of Domestic Abuse

Further to the success of the public engagement workshop ‘Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future’ held in March 2012, a one-day symposium entitled ‘Dialogues with Scotland’s History of Domestic Abuse’ was held on Friday 20 June 2014 at the University of Glasgow. Speakers and delegates at this event examined the history of domestic abuse, the interrelationship between historians’ work and that of researchers working in other disciplines, and the implications of such academic work for contemporary practice and policy

‘Dialogues with Scotland’s History of Domestic Abuse: A one-day symposium’, University of Glasgow, June 2014. For details and podcasts from the day, please visit here.

Beyond Tradition?: Non-traditional marriages, partnerships and families in Scotland: Past and Present

‘Beyond Tradition?: Non-traditional marriages, partnerships and families in Scotland: Past and Present’, University of Glasgow, May 2014. For details and podcasts from the day, please visit here.


‘The men run the money, the women run the kids, that is the way it works’; at least, according to a conversation overheard on Byres Road on the morning of 12 May 2014. The social niceties of not obviously eavesdropping preclude any suggestion of context for this snippet. Nonetheless, it is this model of the male breadwinner who supports his family, whilst his wife cares for the children, which tends to be what people mean when they refer to the ‘traditional’ family. This is also the idealised family model which conservative policy-makers and press have long believed to be fragmenting under pressure from the post-1970s triumvirate of working mothers, rising numbers of lone parents, and high levels of divorce. In a speech at the Marriage Foundation in December 2013, Iain Duncan Smith laid out his vision for a strong cohesive society with marriage at the heart. The Westminster government’s Family Stability Review which his speech launched is aimed at increasing the number of children who remain living with both parents by the age of 16. Given the centrality of the traditional family and marriage to current social policy, our workshop looking at non-traditional families past and present was a timely event.

The plenary, by Professor Lynn Jamieson of the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, looked at continuity and change in family and intimate relationships in the modern period. In a full and wide-ranging paper, Professor Jamieson brought together diverse factors such as demographic change and the rise of internet dating to show the ways in which the context of personal lives had been radically transformed over the last two centuries. While Professor Jamieson chronicled new ways of forming and maintaining intimate relationships, she also questioned the extent to which external shifts actually changed gender dynamics and roles. Whilst more women may be in the workplace, the majority of mothers and wives work in part-time roles, particularly when there are small children, and still undertake many, if not most, of the caring and domestic responsibilities. The increasing commitment by men to fathering over recent years has not yet resulted in a concomitant commitment to gender-equal relationships.

Lynn Jamieson
Lynn Jamieson

One of the striking statistics which Jamieson highlighted, and which drives anxieties about the state of modern marriage, is the increasing number of children born to non-married parents – in 2009, this was just above half (50.3%) of all children born that year. The vast majority of these were born to co-habiting parents.

Our first panel session looked at irregular marriage and cohabitation in the past and today. Professor Eleanor Gordon provided an outline of different forms of informal union, known in Scotland as irregular marriage. Such unions were not preceded by any proclamation of banns or established by any formal religious or state ceremony, but simply by either the parties exchanging of consent; agreeing to marry then having sex; or living as husband and wife, thus being seen as married by habit and repute.  As Professor Gordon explained, the state gradually sought to regularise such marriages, until 1939, when irregular marriage was abolished and civil marriage introduced. In other words, the boundaries of what constituted a marriage were narrowed by the Second World War. It is perhaps no accident that the two decades thereafter, with men returning from the war and women returning from war work to the home, heralded the hey-day of ‘traditional’ families.

Eleanor Gordon
Eleanor Gordon

Following Professor Gordon, Dr Jane Mair of the School of Law, University of Glasgow, looked at the implications of recent legal changes in the law around cohabitation in the Family Law Act 2006, by comparing legal cases from the 1950s with cases from recent years. While there have been relatively few cases of cohabitation breakdown so far come to court, Dr Mair was nonetheless able to show that disputes hinge on many of the same issues as surrounded marriage by habit and repute. In the 1950s, marriage by habit and repute would be established by where someone lived and slept (Living Together at Bed and Board), and whether the man and women were accepted as a married couple. Today, much still turns on who does the cooking and laundry for whom, and where; when they last had sex; and whether people would have believed them married.  Then as now, evidence coming to court is detailed and intrusive. Further, the examples given by Dr Mair suggested that cohabitation is still viewed as a lesser union than marriage. This was evident in the examples of two of the cohabitees who sought to present themselves as married by wearing rings on their wedding finger, which were not marriage bands. It was also evident in one of the financial settlements, which was explicitly stated by the judge to be less than what would have been awarded had the couple been married.

Jane Mair
Jane Mair

Our second panel looked at the experiences of children growing up in different types of families. Policy discussion of marriage is almost always framed in terms of child well-being and the impact of family dissolution on children. Indeed, in his December speech, Iain Duncan Smith noted that ‘[n]egative experiences of family relationships are often linked to problems with mental health and wellbeing… alcohol use… lower educational attainment… and problems with children’s own relationships.. ‘. While Duncan Smith locates this sentence within a paragraph on ‘unstable families’ and family breakdown, he omits to mention that negative experiences of family life can also blight children in so-called traditional families. Drawing on oral histories and autobiographies, Felicity Cawley, University of Glasgow, explored a range of problems, such as parental alcoholism, socio-economic inequality, and lack of education which impacted on children’s lives across all family forms in the 20th century. She also noted the diversity of family experience in the earlier 20th century, as marriages would be cut short by parental death, and step-families formed by remarriage. Notably, fathers would be quicker to remarry than mothers; and children of lone mothers were, then as now, the most likely to suffer from economic disadvantage.

Marion Davies & Felicity Cawley
Marion Davis & Felicity Cawley

This last point was picked up by the fifth speaker, Marion  Davis, Policy and Research Officer from One Parent Families Scotland, who talked about the struggles and challenges faced by lone parents in society today. In a paper entitled ‘Exploding the Myths’, Marion took on the stereotype of the ‘scrounger’ teenager who gets pregnant to get a council house and live supported by the state. Only 2% of lone parents are teenagers (the average age of a lone parent is 37) and the majority of lone parents work. Lone parents are overwhelmingly women (92%), which mirrors the gendered nature of childcaring in society. Marion Davies discussed the difficulties of staying in work whilst having primary or sole responsibility for children, the problems of making ends meet and the situations faced by many lone parents as changes to the tax credit and benefit system mean less money to live on. In evidence reminiscent of the 19th century, Marion gave examples of women skipping meals themselves to be able to feed their children and relying on food banks for what food they had. While the focus was on lone parent families, it was also clear that things like the bedroom tax affected non-resident parents too, as they were unable to maintain a separate room for children on overnight residency visits. The relationship between lone parenthood and poverty is not axiomatic, though – Nordic countries have similar levels of single parent families as the UK, and lone parent families there do not experience such high levels of deprivation and inequality.

Whilst cohabitation, lone parenting and step-families have historical precedents, our afternoon session looked at a relatively new phenomenon, that is, formalised same sex unions. As same sex relationships, at least male same sex relationships, used to be criminalised, any such unions in the past were extremely discreet and little discussed. Dr Jeff Meek, University of Glasgow, presented evidence looking at gay and bisexual men’s experiences of partnership and family in 20th century Scotland, prior to the legalisation of consensual homosexual acts. His paper focused on five men who had married, despite knowing they were gay, testimony to the power of social norms and the value of marriage. In every case the men who married felt under intense pressure from family and wider society to marry and to conform to heteronormative assumptions that marriage was a natural part of the life cycle for both men and women.

Jeff Meek
Jeff Meek

In 4 of these cases these marriages had been monogamous, and 3 had lasted for over 25 years (with one still ongoing after 46 years). Whilst 2 of the men had left their marriages and formed new relationships, 3 had remained in their marriages: 1 until his wife’s death; 1 who still lives with his wife (although their relationship is an open one, and his wife is aware of her husband’s sexuality); and 1 whose wife is unaware that her husband is bisexual. Through the paper, it was difficult not to feel sympathy also for the wives, who, like their husbands, had lost the chance of meeting and marrying someone who could love them as a partner and not as a social expectation. Of course, in recent years, non-heterosexual people have been able to enter into civil partnerships and now, marriage.

Dr Anna Einarsdottir, University of Hull, spoke about her co-authored study of couples who had entered into civil partnerships and their experience and expectations of life thereafter. The study looked at couples across Britain, but for the purposes of her paper, Dr Einarsdottir extracted the experiences of those living in Scotland to explore their experience of family life and the role of tradition, in what was a novel and unprecedented formal partnership status. There were few differences between the Scottish couples and their counterparts in the rest of Britain; the most notable being the proximity of parents living locally to the couples. Perhaps because of this proximity, the testimony was striking for the ambiguity around which generation constituted the ‘family’. In Christmas arrangements, for example, it was not uncommon for couples to split and spend the day with their respective family of origin.This may simply mirror the experience of heterosexual couples, but there was a sense that the new couples occupied an undefined space between their family of origin and their own partnership, which was not quite afforded the status of a family.

Anna Einarsdottir
Anna Einarsdottir

Same sex couples in the study more obviously constructed themselves as a family when children came along, and modelled themselves quite consciously on their own parents’ marriages.  In addition, civil partnerships, for all they were a novel development, actually followed quite a traditional path in terms of expectations and experiences. And finally, Heather Walker, author of LGBT Pathways to Parenthood, talked about some personal experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Scotland who were seeking to become parents or who had become parents already. The words of individuals who were at the forefront of changing perceptions and social norms around parenting were both moving and compelling, and opened up many questions about how we understand becoming a parent and what it means to be a parent. These questions have relevance beyond same sex couples, who were shown to be pioneering three or four parent families and giving new meaning to the old saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. It was hard to know whether to feel sorry for the biological father of a child of two lesbian friends, whose on-going parental contribution was limited to one ‘Daddy Day’ a month, or to respect his on-going commitment to being Dad under those circumstances. It is not a huge leap to apply some of these questions to separated ‘traditional’ or re-constituted step-families.

Heather Walker
Heather Walker

The day as a whole provided plenty of material for reflection. Marriage and the family, whether intact or dissolved, and parenting, whether in partnership or alone, is something which touches us all. There was no one model discussed here which ‘works’ over and above all others, but rather ample evidence of people trying to negotiate and do their best with diverse situations, in broader social and economic circumstances over which they often had little direct control. Discussion and questions were wide-ranging: younger colleagues talked of consciously trying to establish new meanings for marriage and new ways of being within marriage, beyond the traditional gender set-ups; others questioned whether civil partnerships should have been an option for everyone, rather than making marriage the norm. While conservative policy discussion urges us to move back to a commitment to marriage, it is hard to see that this commitment has actually disappeared. The idea of marriage frames the way most other unions and family situations are understood. Nonetheless, the lessons of history show that unions were previously more varied in the way they were contracted; that families have long been around in multiple forms with child well-being impacted by multiple factors across these forms; and that supporting diversity in families does not exclude commitment and meaningful relationships between individuals within and across such families.

Learning From The Past, Looking To the Future: A workshop to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Scottish Women’s Aid

‘Learning From The Past, Looking To the Future: A workshop to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Scottish Women’s Aid’, Thursday 8th March (International Women’s Day) 2012. For details and podcasts from the day, please visit here.

Public Talks

Eleanor Gordon, ‘Married women’s work in Georgian Glasgow’, podcast linked to Glasgow Kelvingrove Art Gallery’s Georgian Glasgow exhibition. Funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the symposium was organised to create a permanent resource for the public, teachers and students.