The unofficial rules of the meetings were simple: there was no talking about babies, children or housework. “We didn’t want to know what washing machine somebody used,” says Pat Bowers. She joined her local National Women’s Register group in Hull in 1972 after feeling stifled by a new life in the suburbs with a baby.
“I was quite lonely,” she says. “We moved for my husband’s job and that was true for a lot of women back then – you would follow your husband round.” Joining the group was a way of meeting like-minded women who shared the same frustrations.
Bowers had given up her career as a teacher to bring up children, and was exasperated at the expectation that she would have an entire personality transplant. “Nearly all of us had had jobs and resigned from them to look after our children, because that is what we did in those days,” she says.
Margaret Chessell, also a former teacher, joined a Bromsgrove group in 1972 after having a baby. The other new mothers she had met “tended to talk about formula milk and nappies – pretty boring stuff. It was just nice to talk about anything and everything, just stimulating conversation.”
It was stimulating conversation that the Guardian writer Betty Jerman was after in February 1960, when she wrote the piece for this paper’s women’s page that led to the formation of the National Women’s Register. This week the organisation celebrates its 60th anniversary. Jerman herself had recently moved to the suburbs. While her new house had “full central heating” and a garage and was near fields, forests and houses that still had “sufficient land to lend for local fetes”, she was bored witless. It is a lovely place to live if you only had to see it at weekends and evenings, she wrote – in other words, if you were a man commuting to the City for work every day. “I have to stay here all day,” Jerman wrote, “and the whole thing falls down on two counts: food and thought.”
That the local shop did not stock the type of rice she was after was one thing; what was worse was the lack of interesting people to talk to. “Does no one read,” she asked. She blamed the women. “They stay here all day. They set the tone. Many of them look back with regret to the days when they worked in an office. Their work kept them alert. Home and childminding can have a blunting effect on a woman’s mind.” If only, Jerman pleaded, she could be invited to a likeminded (suburban) woman’s house for dinner: “Then I would think there was hope.”
She was not the only woman struggling with motherhood, isolation and the loss of any kind of intellectual life. A week later, the Guardian published letters from women responding to the piece. “Since having my first baby I have been constantly surprised how women seem to go into voluntary exile in the home once they leave their outside work,” wrote one Guardian reader, Maureen Nicol. “Perhaps housebound wives with liberal interests and a desire to remain individuals could form a national register,” she suggested. Her Wirral home was deluged with letters from women – in those days the paper published letter-writers’ addresses – and she set up the Housebound Wives’ Register. Before long, it had 2,000 members.
It changed its name to the marginally more progressive-sounding National Housewives’ Register in 1966, then to the National Women’s Register (NWR) in 1987. Membership peaked in the 80s, with 24,000 women signed up. It now has about 6,500 members, most of whom are retired. In the late 80s and early 90s, the demographic of the membership shifted, as “women were more expected to go back to work,” says Natalie Punter, national organiser for the NWR.
These days, for mothers on maternity leave – most of whom plan to return to work – there are numerous opportunities to meet other women. “But for women who are retiring, that’s a bit more difficult,” says Punter. “It’s always been about women who are isolated, and now those women tend to be a different group. That isolation and lack of intellectual stimulation hasn’t gone away; it’s just changed to a different time of life.”
The NWR differs from groups such as the Women’s Institute, says Punter. For a start, it is fairly loosely organised – there is a national organiser, but local groups are in charge of everything from how often they meet to the discussions they cover. “The NWR has been very much about your own opinions. The emphasis is on making your voice heard.”
In the 60s and 70s, this was radical. The NWR was, says Punter “part of that social movement, recognising that women did have valuable opinions on things that weren’t traditionally women’s subjects. I think it’s given that to a lot of women throughout the years and I think it still does – there is still a tendency in our society to think that older women, especially, don’t have valuable opinions to offer.” Members have told of how their groups gave them the confidence and skills, such as leading a debate, that women are not often encouraged to develop.
The organisation became a home for largely educated, liberal women – it was founded by Guardian readers, remember. “I was an avid reader, particularly of the women’s page,” says Catherine Watt, 71 and another former teacher, who joined a group in 1972. “I found a group in Romford. It was absolutely fantastic because, immediately, I met people who had similar interests to me and wanted to discuss non-baby things.”
Watt had moved from Scotland to the outskirts of London because of her husband’s job. She remembers early discussions in her group focusing on books and films. Sometimes the subject would be a colour and the members would go away and research anything connected to that colour and report back. There were 35 members – when many of them gathered in someone’s home, there would be breakaway discussion groups in other rooms. “Nobody had enough cups for the tea, so you had to take your own.” They also took it in turns to look after the children – with many members’ children already at school, it was not as chaotic as it could have been. “It was probably only about half a dozen to look after, maybe a new baby. I think it was OK.”
Watt has been a member since the day she joined. She is now in a group near her current home, back in Scotland. It adds a similar dimension to her life as it did when she was a young mother. “Going to NWR opened my horizons,” she says. “I think everybody would say that they get a lot of friendship and companionship. You’ll get a lot of sensible advice but, as well as that, we have interesting meetings. Our next meeting is going to be on looking at lesser-known other halves of partnerships, so you might take somebody like John Profumo’s wife. This week’s topic was about the rituals of birth, marriage and death in other cultures.”
Bowers has also remained friends with women from the groups she was part of decades ago. Now 78, she has been in her local group in the Lake District for 17 years. The group has about 30 members and she still enjoys the discussions – last week they talked about architecture – and there are spin-off walking and book groups. The group addresses the same issues of loneliness and isolation that it did in its founding years. The life stages might be different – instead of acclimatising to new motherhood, the members may well have gone through divorce, bereavement and ill health – but the atmosphere is similarly supportive. “You know quite a lot about them,” says Bowers. “Coming to this group of women, you support them. You might ring them up, meet them separately for coffee and so on.”
Not all women who joined the NWR were mothers – or mothers of young children. Catherine Roberts joined a group in Watford when she was in her 40s. Most of the women there were also in their 40s and 50s, with older children. When she moved to Suffolk three years ago, she joined the Beccles NWR group; with 80 members, who meet weekly, it is thought to be the largest in the country. Not knowing anyone in the town, she found out about it through a reading group at the local library. “I went along and I’ve been going ever since,” says Roberts, 75, who is retired from her job for a department store and is now one of the group’s organisers. She likes the different discussions – recent ones have been on LGBTQ issues and reducing plastics use. “It’s nice when new people come to the town; we welcome them in. I’ve got to know lots of people through it. It’s a way of meeting women away from the school gates, not discussing how your children are doing, or schools, or anything home and family-related. You can go there – your children or partner aren’t going to ask to come with you.” It is, she says, a space to be yourself.