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Women of substance

Jude Kelly missed a trick when she set off in search of that very British creation, the battleaxe, for this week’s Archive on 4.

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

Jude Kelly missed a trick when she set off in search of that very British creation, the battleaxe, for this week’s Archive on 4.

Jude Kelly missed a trick when she set off in search of that very British creation, the battleaxe, for this week’s Archive on 4. The stage director and now head of the South Bank Centre in London gave us Ena Sharples and Hattie Jacques, Hyacinth Bucket and Thora Hird but no hair-rollered hyenas from the radio files. Maybe the typical battleaxe was just too loud, too mouthy to work as a caricature on air? Maybe Sharples needed her hairnet and hatchet face as visual props for her powerplay? On air, she would just have sounded like a screech owl, an accusation levelled at many a sharp-witted woman in ages past.

The battleaxe could be cruel with her too-rigid belief in her own rightness, and her determination to control everything within her very considerable orbit. But her moral certainty held things together. ‘I know plenty about you,’ threatens Ena Sharples in her classic confrontation with feckless Elsie Tanner. ‘I know plenty about you that you don’t think I know. I could’ve written a full-length book about you, but if I had written…it wouldn’t ’ave come anonymous, oh no.’ Sharples was never afraid to speak her mind or own up to what she believed.


Where did the battleaxe originate? inquired Kelly, suggesting that she’s a northern invention, emerging from Lancashire, where the cotton mills provided plenty of work for women. The generations often lived together, mothers, grandmothers and mothers-in-law providing free child care but also creating a claustrophobic keg of emotion. Women ruled the roost and in consequence the mother-in-law joke became a fixture in the music hall, a figure of fun not because she was weak-willed and silly but because she held such authority in the home.

Her genesis lies in the drag act and the pantomime dame, so she’s laughed at for looking like a man. But her braying voice and exaggerated mouth movements were all female, copied from the way women learnt to make themselves heard above the clacking noise of the mill machinery. She was a figure to laugh at, not with. Yet she did also say things that no one else would dare to think, let alone say out loud. So she was always a conflicted caricature, created often by male writers and comedians who were actually in awe of those women whose stoicism and steadfast sense of what’s right held their families and communities together.

They’ve disappeared in recent years, says Kelly, regretfully, missing those sexless and stern maiden aunts, the Idas, Hildas and Adas, left bereft by the first world war but who fought on to find a new social role as matriarchal advisers. They provided a lot of battleaxe material. Gone, too, are the hospital matrons, abolished in 1966. They were often mocked for their intimidating bossiness and lack of feminine wiles, but are much needed now for their organising ability, their self-discipline, their scrupulous attention to detail.

Victims of the second wave of feminism and the demands of political correctness, the battleaxes were too judgmental of other women and have mostly been killed off. Kelly, though, might have had a surprise if she’d been listening last week to The Archers and overheard Peggy, a late-flowering model of a matriarch, giving thirtysomething Kate such a telling off that even spiky, spoilt-child Kate was momentarily chastened.

On Sunday night’s Analysis (Radio 4), Jo Fidgen led us on a much murkier inquiry as she wondered what has happened to the sisterhood, that body of women who back in the late Sixties and Seventies argued for equal rights, equal pay, equal opportunities. They were real-life battleaxes, but of a different order, demanding sexual liberation as well as equality (and now glamorised in the new film about the women workers at the Ford plant in Dagenham who walked out on strike in 1968 demanding the same pay as their male counterparts). They, too, have now disappeared. Why? wonders Fidgen. Where are the feminists to protest about the fact that the cuts in government spending will hit women three-times harder than men, because it’s women who are more likely to be carers, part-time workers, teachers and nurses?

The new band of sisters, it seems, are too busy campaigning for the right to wear whatever they want, whenever they want, without fear of being groped in the dark on the way home from the party. No one wants to admit to being a feminist for fear of being caricatured as a crop-headed lesbian. It’s all gone topsy-turvy, with a lads’ magazine offering readers a competition for which the prize is breast enlargements for their girlfriends. We can only hope the battleaxes are girding their loins.


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