The cow that inspired my novel-in-progress (plus a rant about women’s history)

It is a bit strange to think that two little words in an advertisement from 1919 would spark the idea for a whole novel, but it did.

I have a fondness for browsing small, local newspapers from the early twentieth century looking for evidence of women working and running businesses. I do this because it soothes my intense annoyance at the popular and WRONG historical statement that “women entered the workforce during and after WWII”. You could call my desire to correct this ridiculous suggestion an obsession, I guess. Even writing that statement makes me grind my teeth.

I could go on and on about this but suffice to say that this statement perpetuates the idea that for the whole of history before 1945 women sat around doing little more than birthing children and, I don’t know, embroidery, while being supported by their male relatives. The fact is, women have worked both inside and outside the home for longer than I would like to guess. They certainly worked and ran businesses in the early twentieth century (where my historical interest lies).

Back to the novel!

While browsing these fascinating advertisements, I found this one in the Nungarin Trayning Mail and Kununoppin Advertiser (what a fabulous name for a newspaper!) in 1919 (page 2):

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 3.15.18 pm

It was the “own cow” that did it, actually. There is a lot to love about this advertisement but the idea that Mrs Wilson will be able to provide you with fresh milk, cream and butter is the standout element. I also love the little design (is it a flower?) and, although she is far from the only one to use the term, I love ‘Proprietress’ too.

The phrase “own cow” wouldn’t leave me, turns out, and I began imagining who this woman was, what was going on for her at this time and how and why she ended up in Korrelocking. And thus, my character Ida arrived on the scene, her husband, her business and, of course, her cow. My other characters were also found in the advertisements of country newspapers. In fact I have more characters than I can use!

I can’t help but make a few more points about women’s history…

And just to illustrate that Mrs. Wilson wasn’t the lone ‘Proprietress in the area. The advertisement directly above hers is this one:

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 3.15.42 pm

Sounds like a good place for lunch, wouldn’t you think!?

I’ve found Manageresses and Proprietresses and Inspectresses (and other professions too) all through the small country papers of Western Australia. And while it is tempting to think of this as quaint, as these women as unusual or as outliers I don’t think that is quite right. The two examples above are married women and yet their names are on the door. Perhaps not the order of things we might assume of this time. In addition, I have no doubt these women worked damn hard on these businesses. There are some wonderful articles in another newspaper covering a court case between a Proprietress and a travel ‘reviewer’ (for want of a better term) in which she tries to have him pay damages after he published a scathing review of her establishment. I still don’t know if she was successful but I was convinced!

These advertisements and the hundreds of others like them are certain proof, surely, that women did and do and always have worked.

And, that you really can find story ideas anywhere!

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