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27 Apr 2022

Historical gender and class inequalities at the Hill House

Written by Sophie Torrens, Visitor Services Assistant
A black and white photo of a man and a woman standing side by side on a narrow path in a rose garden. The woman is on the left - she wears a white dress, holds a very large pair of shears and is looking down at her feet. The man is on the right - he smiles directly at the camera and is holding his dark waistcoat over his white shirt. He also wears a flat cap.
Servants in the Hill House rose garden
When thinking about the Hill House, we often talk about the wealthy, upper-middle-class Blackie family, but women from all classes were involved in the history of this house.

Throughout history, women have faced numerous barriers and obstacles that have prevented them from achieving certain goals and improving their social situation. Class has always been a major factor in this, in addition to the gender inequalities experienced throughout women’s lives.

At the top of the social class ladder at the Hill House, we have Anna Blackie, the ‘lady of the house’. She was born into a wealthy brewing family and then married Walter Blackie, a businessman whose publishing company grew increasingly successful after Anna married him. Anna was in an extremely privileged social position, but we may also assume she was always under extreme scrutiny. The couple were known for hosting frequent dinner parties and events, where Anna would have been judged by her guests for the way she dressed, how clean and beautifully decorated her house was, the servants she employed and the food she served.

A black and white photo of an Edwardian woman sitting in an easy chair in the Hill House. Mackintosh furniture and wall  decoration surrounds her. She wears a hat, tweed jacket and skirt and has a loose tartan scarf around her neck.
Anna Blackie at the Hill House

While the life of upper-middle-class women was mostly one of leisure, this could prove a burden. Upper-middle-class women were given only a basic education; it was expected that their main ambitions in life were to marry a wealthy man and to have his children. However, the notion of motherhood may have been controversial for upper-middle-class women. Pregnancy and birth were viewed as almost ‘animalistic’ and didn’t fit the ideal of gentle femininity for upper-class women. Queen Victoria is recorded as being disgusted by pregnancy and she referred to breastfeeding as ‘being like a dairy cow’. This led some upper- and middle-class women to feel shame surrounding maternity, which may have resulted in a level of disconnect with their children. Anna may have experienced judgement over how affectionate (or not) she was with her children; being known as a heavily involved mother was thought to be improper, but those who showed little involvement were thought to be cold and cruel.

A black and white photograph portrait of Queen Victoria. She wears a white veil and a black dress. She is photographed from the side. She has a rather severe expression.
Queen Victoria was deeply influential for middle- and upper-class women. Her views about pregnancy and motherhood led many to feel shame about their bodies. | © Royal Collection Trust

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh was heavily involved in the design of the Hill House in collaboration with her husband, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. As an artist who was well respected across Europe and had her own income (often a source of contention for women at all class levels), she was fiercely independent and didn’t need to rely upon a man for financial stability. Margaret went against many of the established ‘rules’ and expectations for middle-class women, as her marriage to Charles was very much one of equals.

Margaret and Charles had no children. Whether this was a conscious choice or not will never be known – and we should not have to know. However, it was (and still remains) an aspect of their life that received much scrutiny. From art critics to members of the public, many questioned why they had no children, speculating about the reasons. This focus on Margaret’s (almost always rather than Charles’s) lack of children is one that many women can relate to. Even in the 21st century, women are still questioned on their parental status far more than men, and judgements are made. A recent example of this was during the election campaign for the Conservative leadership between Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom in 2016.

A black and white photograph of a young woman. She wears a headband with a heart at the front over her long voluminous hair. She also appears to be wearing a shawl over her dark top.
Margaret Macdonald was thoroughly modern and defied the rules and social conventions set out for middle-class Edwardian women. | © Mitchell Library

We now move on to the working-class women involved in the history of the Hill House. At the beginning of the 20th century, over 3 million women in the UK were employed in domestic service. It was a respectable job for working-class girls, particularly compared to work in mills or factories. However, life in service was incredibly demanding. Most servants worked from 5am until 10pm, 6 days a week, and were at the constant disposal of their employers. Many families were happy for their daughters to work in service, as the lack of leisure time meant they wouldn’t be socialising with young men. Although the work was difficult, servants would have formed close friendships with each other, chatting and joking as they worked.

A black and white photo of a group of Edwardian servants, formally posing outside by a stone wall.
A group of servants posing for a photograph. Photos like this of household servants were very popular for wealthy Victorian and Edwardian families. | © Vocal Media

However, this camaraderie would not have been enjoyed by the nanny of the house, as her closer association with the family meant she wasn’t to mix with the rest of the staff. Although she spent a lot of time with the family, she wasn’t considered part of them and was therefore left in a strange form of limbo. Modern nannies and au-pairs may recognise this feeling, particularly as many come from other countries to live and work in a stranger’s home, away from friends and family; they devote their time to a family but are never fully integrated.

Janet Stewart was employed as a nanny at the Hill House. She was a treasured member of staff who went on holiday with the Blackies and was visited by the children even after they had grown up. Yet we know very little about her life outside the family, a common issue we find when researching servants in general (particularly women), which means we cannot truly understand their experiences.

A black and white photo of an older woman sitting next to a young girl on a grassy bank. Trees and shrubs surround them. Both wear wide-brimmed hats to shield their faces from the sun. The woman is wearing a grey or brown dress; the little girl is wearing a bright white dress.
Nannies like Janet Stewart were entrusted with the care and upbringing of the children of middle- and upper-class families like the Blackies.

While the women at the beginning of the history of the Hill House were subject to an incredible amount of discrimination due not only to their gender but also to their social class, the next generation of women involved with the house really fought to challenge those societal norms. Walter and Anna Blackie instilled an industrious nature in all their children as well as a passion for education.

Jean Blackie studied medieval and modern languages at Cambridge, finishing in 1912, but she received a ‘certificate of completion’ as women weren’t awarded degrees at the time. Alison Blackie, the second daughter, was a talented artist who received a diploma from the Glasgow School of Art in 1924.

When the First World War broke out, and their brother went to fight, the Blackie girls had a taste of more responsibility and did things that middle-class girls had not experienced before. Alison trained as a VAD nurse and served in France. The Blackie daughters symbolised a new era for women. While gender and class discrimination remain an issue to this day, the First World War resulted in a raft of changes in the social, political and economic opportunities available for women in the 1920s, regardless of class.

To learn more about this fascinating history, visit us at the Hill House or take a look at our Women of the Hill House article.

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