The history of ‘Hysterical Women’ and Sexism in the Police Force: An Interview with Donna Moore
'The Unpicking' released today!
A very happy Friday, Scribblers. Today we are raising our glasses to the lovely Donna Moore, who has birthed the historical crime “The Unpicking” today! I had the pleasure of speaking to Donna about the research into Victorian Scotland’s dark past, and what elements made their way into the novel…
Isabelle: Donna Moore is author of the upcoming historical crime novel, "The Unpicking," a book which appeals to my search for strong female protagonists, and I’m excited to jump right into a discussion… Donna, your novel delves into the lives of three so-called "hysterical women" fighting against systemic corruption and injustice, in Victorian Scotland. Let's start by discussing the theme of sexism in the police force. How does your book shed light on this issue?
Donna Moore: The Unpicking is split into three parts. Each part is set in a different time period and each one focuses on the position of women during a period of great flux and upheaval which brought enormous changes in many aspects of women’s lives – economically, socially, politically and legally.
So in Part 1 – “The Birdcage”, set in 1877 – the protagonist is committed to an asylum by her husband, so that he can get his hands on her money.
In Part 2 – “The Lock”, set in 1894 – the focus is on the policing of women’s bodies both morally and medically, the vulnerability of working-class women and girls, and the essential criminalisation of women with syphilis.
In Part 3 – “The Turnkey”, set in 1919, the protagonist, Mabel, is one of the first women to join the police force in Glasgow. It’s set not only shortly after some women have been granted the vote but also soon after the end of World War I, a war which changed the whole of society and during which women proved themselves by doing men’s work. Some women experienced freedoms they previously only imagined and, as a result, Mabel can join a police force which would not have accepted her at all only a few years before, but she still has to cope with being extremely unwelcome.
I write about the misogyny Mabel has to put up with in a number of different ways, both large and small. She doesn’t have very many friends at the police station and her immediate boss is openly antagonistic – in fact, on her first day, her first duty is to make him a cup of tea! He makes it very clear to her that she’s not a real police officer and that her role is only to take statements from women and girls who’ve been subject to criminal assault.
Mabel discovers that such women, along with those who’ve been arrested, or even simply witnessed a crime, are treated very badly, and that the police don’t even make an effort to solve the crimes against them, and are more intent on punishing them. As for Mabel, she’s ignored, sneered at, talked about in derogatory terms and is left a present of dead mice, one of which is dressed in a doll’s apron and bonnet. She’s not allowed to sit in the open office with the other police officers – can’t have a woman sitting with all the men! Instead, she’d given her own office, which is just another thing that makes her unpopular, even though it was previously the cleaner’s cupboard. And, on one occasion, when she wants to accompany a very nervous young woman to Court, she’s told that she’s not allowed into the Courtroom as it wouldn’t be “seemly”, something I was really struck by when doing the research.
Isabelle: It's intriguing how ‘The Unpicking’ spans across different time periods. Can you elaborate on the portrayal of sexism in the police force from the 1880s to the present day? How have things evolved or perhaps remained unchanged?
Donna Moore: The history of policing as we know it in the UK is actually of pretty recent origin. National policing as we know it has only been in existence since about the 1850s. Needless to say, this new police force, as well as the whole court system, were very male-dominated, underlined by the double standards that existed. Adultery by a wife was grounds for divorce; adultery by a husband wasn’t, except where there was also cruelty. Women were arrested for soliciting; there was no such equivalent law for men.