Book Review: Ann Oakley’s Father and Daughter – Patriarchy, Gender and Social Science

By Gwen Redmond


Father and Daughter: Patriarchy, Gender and Social Science by Ann Oakley (Policy Press, 2014)

I am not sure how an academic like Oakley would respond to my referring to her book as ‘unputdownable’, but there you have it. Impossible to categorise, Father and Daughter is part autobiography, part biography of her father, part reflections on family life, class and gendered societal structures and also a dense social history on the evolution of professional social work training and social policy in Britain. It’s also about politics and power and about men and women separated and defined by gender roles. Any research on her father, Richard Titmuss, will reveal his passion for social justice and welfare through policy formation and his position at LSE (London School of Economics) as founding chair of Social Administration. That is just one story. Oakley aims to tell another, a story about her father, the man rather than the ‘saint’ and the people (often women) and the structures (always patriarchal) surrounding him.

All stories are told through a lens, and of course Oakley’s is gender. Her archival research, alongside her memories of the men and women who worked with her father, reveals the work and research of the women prior to and during the establishment of the Department. In particular, she recounts the groundbreaking work of Eileen Younghusband who, with other women, had been working in ‘settlements’ (a way of doing social research and work by immersing oneself in the community) in a largely voluntary capacity. Younghusband aspired to founding a social work education course, attached to universities and professionally recognised. Due to her reputation, she secured funding from the Carnegie UK Trust for a survey which led to the establishment of the ‘Carnegie Experiment’, a generic course on social work training, established at the LSE in 1954. Oakley’s assertion that this course was the ‘material realisation’ of all Younghusband’s work, and the acceptance that the Department in essence ‘belonged’ to her prior to Titmuss taking over, is a generous acknowledgment of the power of patriarchy to not only steal the prize from women but also, write them and their achievements out of the annals of history. She recounts how during the early years at the Department, her father brought home stories of ‘difficult women’ such as Younghusband, Lewis, McDougall and Towle. Retrospectively, of course that’s just gendered language at play. Had they been men, they may have been described as assertive or powerful. The real difficulty was Titmuss’s problem seeing women as equals. After a successful internationally recognised career and twenty-five years work at LSE, Younghusband applied for promotion as a Reader. Titmuss vetoed the application writing on it ‘not now’. Younghusband’s personal and professional story is just one of the many told in this book.

An important sociological account is given of these women on another level. Oakley postulates networks, specifically class networks, are a means to success. Her father is hailed retrospectively as an anomaly, in that his lack of formal third level education and establishment links did nothing to deter his success in a world usually defined by these connections. (Oakley’s research goes someway to unravelling the myth of his background however). The interesting networking story though belongs to the ‘settlement’ women. These women were networking, even transatlantically, decades prior to the establishment of the Department. They networked not for ‘self-aggrandisement’ but for, as Oakley understands her work to be also, the public good. Often these women were unmarried, financially independent, well travelled and had lasting, loving and intimate relationships with one another. Their private and public lives are obviously a result of first wave feminism and Oakley’s own immersion in the second wave was no doubt influenced by these women. These women were part of her private life also, they were the ‘difficult’ women her father spoke of around the dinner table. Her reflections on these women’s lives are in marked contrast to the recollections of her mother’s seemingly sterile existence.

There is something incredibly generous in revealing the private world, especially by the British middle class. Oakley believes the personal and public are inseparable, that our private problems are more often a reflection or an effect of social problems. Indeed, an obsession with class in Britain defined her parents’ relationship with her. She recounts a distanced and cold childhood, certainly a mother more interested in her father’s career than herself or her child. She occasionally discloses what could be considered family secrets; her mother’s revelation that her father dressed in women’s clothes, sexual tensions between the ‘titmice’ (the close male colleagues of her father) and memories revealed to her under hypnosis. I pondered the relevance of these exposures, as Oakley states but doesn’t go so far as to examine them. But then they are part of her memories, her story, and not all stories reach conclusions. She could have easily left them untold, but maybe they go some way for her in dismantling the ‘God’ Richard Titmuss and revealing the fallible man.

The structures Titmuss operated within were classist and gendered. What surprised me reading this book was how little has changed. Oakley writes of her own journey through the academic quagmire. Her part in the women’s liberation movement, her fight to give weight to her theories on gender, her battle for promotions over the years, watching less qualified men being promoted before her, her relegations to the attics of universities and relentless struggles for funding. She recounts sitting at board meetings with a majority of men using gendered metaphors and her not understanding them, stories of women who can’t get their opinions heard unless it is repeated by a man and then given credence. Depressingly, not much has changed. It certainly is a long revolution.

To assign this book neatly to a particular genre is futile, as too in trying to define its audience. The book will appeal to anyone interested in social policy, sociology, the emergence of the profession of social work, university life, gender studies, the family and the fifties. Most of all it will appeal to those readers who love a good story, well told.

Gwen Redmond is studying for a Master of Education degree in The Department of Adult and Community Education at Maynooth University, Kildare, Ireland. Working in the field of Adult Literacy education for ten years, her studies and practice are informed by Critical Theorists.

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