Prostitutes and Prime Ministers at the WI
Thursday 20th July 2017
Lerryn WI has a business meeting once a month for its members, but everybody in the village is free to attend the talk that follows.This month, everyone present awaited with interest the story behind Margaret Parker’s interesting choice of title.
In fact her fascinating talk contained more than one story. The prostitute in question was one of the people who filled in a questionnaire when Margaret was working in market research. As with all such surveys, it was essential to gather material from both genders and a wide range of ages, occupations, educational attainment and social backgrounds. To make this easier, different kinds of employment were put into categories and people completing the forms were required to tick the category that most nearly resembled their job. A woman who worked as a prostitute, having completed the rest of the survey, had to seek Margaret’s guidance on the appropriate category for her employment. Margaret, equally puzzled, had to refer to her employers. (The answer, it turned out, was C1: skilled manual.) Meanwhile, Margaret had also established in conversation that this particular prostitute was also a sociology graduate who had calculated that by the time she reached the age of 30 she should have saved up enough to be able to do her post-graduate research.
The other story relating to the title concerned Mrs Thatcher. Margaret, having returned to work part-time after having her children, was sent one weekend to meet the then Prime Minister, who had granted an interview to the Press Association. Margaret made clear to us that her own political views and priorities were not at all those of Mrs Thatcher, but she still had to warm to a woman who apologised very promptly when she found she had dragged out a working mother on a Saturday. Had she realised, Mrs Thatcher said, she would have scheduled the interview for a weekday.
Such anecdotes were not the only story Margaret had to tell. The history of her own career told its own tale, raising many issues about gender equality and many illustrations of the changes in society over one working lifetime.
Her first and lasting interest was in the law, but she left school and trained as a journalist because girls at that point didn’t usually go to university. She followed up her interest in law in the only way open to her at the time, by becoming a court reporter employed by the Press Association. Because Press Association journalists covered more than just local/national papers, they always had a seat at the end of the row in court because they always had a deadline somewhere, and the means of getting urgent information back to the office was the telephones outside the room.
Access to such phones was crucial and journalists would always be pointed towards the bank of dedicated phone lines kept for them. This turned out to be a mixed blessing when Margaret was sent late one night to the Egyptian Embassy to investigate rumours about the death of President Nasser. There was the usual row of phones available for journalists – in the gents’ lavatory. Margaret used them.
This was not just a talk about the undoubted difficulties of women at work, because it pointed up the ways in which gender-based assumptions limit people of both sexes. Margaret’s listeners greatly enjoyed hearing about the respectable judge thrown out of a branch of a women’s clothing chain when he tried to buy himself a pair of the black stockings needed for a formal occasion calling for knee breeches.
It was satisfying to hear that later in Margaret’s professional life she finally topped up her matriculation qualifications and applied to read law. She was accepted for a university place at the same time as she received an invitation to take up the relatively new field of radio journalism. She could clearly have succeeded in either field, but elected at last to get her law degree. After that, rather than becoming a barrister, she taught law part-time and for two days a week brought together her legal expertise and a lifetime of experience with people, offering legal advice on a voluntary basis to those in need.
It was a pleasure to hear the talk and a great pleasure, however briefly, to meet such a person.