Tessa Dunlop | 'Turns out it can be pretty tough being a woman whatever decade you are born in'

Tessa Dunlop | 'Turns out it can be pretty tough being a woman whatever decade you are born in'

Following the 100-year anniversary of the Representation of the People Act this February – which granted women over the age of 30 the right to vote – we spoke to broadcaster, writer and historian Tessa Dunlop, whose latest offering is a captivating celebration of this milestone and many more. 

In The Century Girls (Simon & Schuster), Dunlop looks at the intervening 10 decades since the Act was passed, speaking to six women who experienced it firsthand: Olive (102 years old), Joyce (99), Ann (103), Edna (102), Helena (101) and Phyllis (100). 

It was a time of drastic change, with society’s rulebook constantly evolving. Covering, among other things, identity, sexuality, politics, work and loss, The Century Girls is a deeply personal and moving account of the last 100 years of British history. 

Phyllis and Ann

What inspired the book? 
When I wrote The Bletchley Girls (Hodder, 2014), which focused on the women still alive who’d worked at the code-breaking park, I found the wartime parameters of the book restrictive. I wanted to be free to follow where their stories led, especially in a century of unprecedented change. So I promised myself that the next time I wrote about women I would make sure that it was their narratives that dictated the structure and purpose of the book, not the other way around. Of course, it helped that the centenary of partial female enfranchisement was this year. That gave the book a contemporary relevance. 
What kind of research did you do prior to writing? 
I had to find suitable women to write about; the only stipulation from the get-go was that they had to be born in 1918 or before, and obviously they needed to be willing to share their life stories and, as Ann (103) puts it, "be fully compos mentis!"

How did you come across Edna, Joyce, Phyllis, Olive, Ann and Helena, and why did you decide to tell their stories? 
I realised early on that to tell the story of Britain in the past 100 years through the stories of women, I needed individuals who had very different backgrounds, from countries within both Britain and Britain’s empire. Only then could I explore issues and themes thrown up by imperialism, social hierarchy, education, national and gender identity, etc. I cast my net wide—the women came from all sorts of sources: a vicar, a television documentary, an Oxford women’s college, a friend who runs a craft shop on a remote island, the Women's Institute... you get the picture! 
What was the interviewing process like?
Easy. I restricted the number of women to six, as any more would have made it hard to follow their stories, and difficult for the reader to become emotionally invested in the characters. Working with just six women meant we quickly became friends—our discussions weren’t so much interviews as conversations. It wasn’t a one-way narrative. It was, I think for both sides, a learning process. 

What are the recurring themes that you explore?
Loss, opportunity, ambition, disappointment, love, family, commitment, tenacity, ignorance and education. 

Edna and Helena

What was the most challenging part of the project?
I gave birth to a stillborn baby midway through writing the book and I found it very difficult to get back on track emotionally. I couldn’t face the library, so I spent much time sitting on the living-room floors of the six women and they helped me get better, through talking and sharing. In fact, this experience made writing the book more emotional and intimate, led by oral history. Turns out it can be pretty tough being a woman whatever decade you are born in. 

Did you discover anything particularly surprising or unexpected along the way?
Many aspects of women’s lives were strikingly different, e.g. the sheer physicality of their lives from an early age, especially the women from poorer backgrounds. But I was particularly shocked by how little they understood their own bodies. Most didn’t understand what was happening to them when they got their first period. They were disempowered through a lack of basic knowledge. The generation of women before them opted to maintain a dignified silence rather than empower their daughters with basic facts.
Who or what are your main inspirations and influences?
I found the women themselves extraordinary. Joyce (the youngest, at 99) is still working at Cambridge University. She has inspired, helped and tutored (and terrified!) numerous girls, transforming their life choices and empowering them to go above and beyond. It was Joyce who tapped me on the shoulder in December 2016 and said, "Have you started writing the book yet?" That festive season I knocked out the first 15,000 words—it would have been too appalling to tell Joyce otherwise in January. Then there is Ann, equally extraordinary in her own way—she smashed the pain of widowhood by writing a historical fiction book, Medieval Woman: Village Life in the Middle Ages, which gained a plaudit in Philippa Gregory. Alone, at 103, she remains a tower of strength, a fine example of tact, intelligence and compassion. And Edna, all her life bone-poor, trapped in domestic service, no options, no chance to have a family of her own until it was too late, always finds the positives in life. She taught me to live in the moment, look at what I have, and not worry about what I don’t have. 
What are you hoping your readers will take away from the book? 
Inspiration, love and a respect for the women who paved the way for what came next: more choice, more hope and sometimes an easier path. 

Joyce and Olive

How instrumental was your publisher in your publishing journey?  
He gave me the space to write the book in the way I wanted to. 
Do you think the book is particularly relevant, given the current social and political climate?
Yes, we have Trump in the White House for goodness sake! Nothing can be taken for granted. As Joyce says, "Progress is not guaranteed". We have to be so careful with what the previous generation of women gifted us. In 1918, a door was kicked down but few knew how to walk through it. We are still on that path, working out the next step. The Century Girls is the story of an important journey, but it’s also a reminder that there is so much to do and learn and better understand.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
Finishing a neglected PhD!! 
Female-led narratives are tipped to be a publishing trend in 2018 (following the success of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, The Power and The Handmaid's Tale TV adaptation, to name but a few). Why do you think this is?  
I think there is a sense that society is at a tipping point; that the old norms, the halfway house for women’s liberation, suddenly isn’t good enough. We will not put up with second best or shoddy treatment. We want to be heard and understood and valued, and that means women talking to women. What better way than through the written word? 
Finally, what advice would The Century Girls give to women today? 
Ann: "Get on with it" 
Joyce: "Check your references"
Edna: "Don’t worry about what you don’t have"
Helena: "Make sure you do a job that interests you, you only have one life" 
Olive: "Trust in the Lord" 
Phyllis: ‘Get out, meet people, do something!’ 
The Century Girls by Tessa Dunlop is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £20