How Women's Lives have changed since Downton

Or have they?

Found on Pinterest
Found on Pinterest

Downton Abbey is a TV show set in rich rural estate in England in the early 1900s. The pomp and glamour of the upstairs Lords and Ladies compared and contrasted with the poorer, but no less proud maids' and butlers' lives downstairs is just too good to miss, and oh! the writing for the Dowager Countess. Priceless.

Seems a dream to be a lady in waiting, able to fill your days with reading, playing the piano, and doing some needlework. The odd entertaining of Gentlemen callers, dressing for dinner, sipping some sherry. Only if you were born into the ranks, mind, it's not like you could really "work your way up".

Then again, rich or poor, if you're not married off by your early 20s you're a spinster, and your man will likely leave if you don't bear him children. Sons at that. If you haven't watched the show yet, do, and see what the lives of all the Downton women teach us about women's struggles a mere 100 years ago. Amazing to think the resistance women had to overcome wanting to learn how to drive a car, vote, or seek fair employment.


Fast-forward ca 50 years, and there's another show called Call the Midwife, also BBC original, also available on Netflix and PBS. It's set in London's East End in the late 1950s and - based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth - follows the lives of midwives, nuns, and the women in their care.

It's an amazing history lesson, showing still-bombed out streets, foggy dockyards, and miles and miles of washing lines hung between the tenements. The midwives are riding their bicycles, down gallons of tea, and eat thick slices of buttered toast and sweet cakes. A luxury after the war. Pregnant women smoke during their exams, and countless babies are left in prams outside while their worn-out mothers give birth to yet another hungry mouth to feed. But, thanks to the National Health Service, everyone is better taken care of.

It's those washing lines that reminded me of another TED talk. Hans Rosling considers the washing machine the greatest invention of the 20th century. (The nuns and midwives would probably give that honor to the birth control pill, but anyway.) Rosling takes a short trip back in time to show his grandmother scrubbing every piece of garment, and he soon brings us back to today's reality. Out of 7 Billion people on the planet, only 2 Billion actually have access to a washing machine. The others are still having to heat the water and scrub. He continues to explain the impact washing machines (among other things) have on global energy consumption, and what they have done and can continue to do for women: give time to read books. Get an education themselves, or help educate their children.

There are still regions in the world where conditions described in Downton's and the Midwives' shows are true today. Women and men in Saudi Arabia are still fighting for women's right to drive. Women in countless developing nations don't have access to birthing clinics or medical care. I have written about Half the Sky before, and hope you take a moment to check out their website

So let me ask you: have women's lives really truly changed since Downton?

In some cases and in some places, yes. But not everywhere, and not for every woman.

How do you as an expat deal with being thrown 100 years into the past when moving to a developing country where the rights and amenities you took for granted no longer exist?

Image by Emerson Gibin, Flickr, Creative Commons License.