Contesting Expertise in the Late Twentieth Century: Miners, Mothers & Monogamy

Session Abstract: What did it mean when Michael Gove said – in the fractious run-up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’? As historians we should take care to investigate and historicise this claim. These three papers attempt to do just that, in diverse areas in the late twentieth century in Britain, showing how expertise has often been contested, re-appropriated, resisted or subverted.

Zoe Strimpel looks at the rise of expertise in dating and matchmaking, and how the single people who participated in ‘mediated dating’ were never simply subjects of expertise. Instead, they reacted to expertise in complex and sometimes subversive ways – inverting the experts’ frame of reference. They turned mediated dating from a positive, rational benefit of modern life, to being a symptom of the disconnected nature of contemporary existence.

Natalie Thomlinson approaches feminism itself as a particular form of expertise in the context of the miners’ strike. Instead of simply seeing feminism as a set of tools to critique expertise, Thomlinson argues that feminism functions as a particular form itself, privileging white, middle-class women at the expense of black and working class feminists. Again, this expertise is contested and modified by a range of practitioners who seek to expose and remake it to fit their political and personal needs.

Finally Chris Millard looks at ideals of motherhood through controversies over mothers in hospital. Millard examines the ways in which the right of mothers to remain in hospital with their sick children is contested: how psychological expertise around ‘maternal deprivation’, paediatricians’ ideas of ‘settled children’, and activist groups’ ideas of ‘natural motherhood’ all collide in the postwar period. This takes a dark turn in the 1970s when some mothers are suspected of using their position ‘living-in’ with their children to perpetrate long-term abuse on their offspring – keeping them ‘sick’ to maintain a façade of the perfect, self-sacrificing mother.

In all three cases, expertise is shown to be fluid, contested, and controversial. It is prone to being inverted, modified or otherwise (re-)appropriated.

Session Chair: Rhodri Hayward

Paper 1 Abstract : ‘It’s a matter of applying science to nature’: experts and the changing parameters of romantic relationships in 1970s Britain

Zoe Strimpel

The first decade with universal Pill and abortion provision and no-fault divorce, the 1970s saw the emergence of a newly unstable romantic landscape. The breach between traditional and newer, more fluid relational models was ripe for exploitation, and was filled by a new discourse that stressed the dangers but also the new possibilities of romantic and sexual relationships.

This paper focuses on how the expanding British dating industry, which had a commercial stake in changing relational attitudes, used a range of new expert discourses to sell itself to a ‘modern’ audience with ‘modern’ needs. In so doing it shaped a new paradigm of pre-marital intimacy that drew heavily on the insights of psychosexual relationships experts and the ‘unique power’ of science and technology. The search for love was portrayed as requiring a careful mixture of the pragmatic and the rational (the scientific approach of meeting lots of matches), and the self-aware (the emotionally educated and open).  In seeking authority in new languages of relationships, psychological and technological science, the dating industry in 1970s Britain was repositioning the quest for romance in terms of a new form of emotional pragmatism that would come to define dating in the digital age.

The claims of matchmakers and experts will be considered in tandem with a raft of first-person testimonies. I will suggest that while singles internalised some of the expert-led insistence on the benefits of pairing up, they rarely approached mediated dating in the way the matchmakers wanted them to: as a celebration of psychological and scientific modernity. Rather, taking control over romantic destiny by computer or agency dating was seen as a symptom, not a benefit, of modern life.

Paper 2 Abstract : The Activist as Expert: Feminism, the miners’ strike, and working class women

Natalie Thomlinson

This paper examines the idea of feminism as a form of expertise about gender as a way of exploring disidentification with feminism in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. Feminism did not just reflect and critically examine systems of understanding about gender, but also produced knowledge about gender itself. Despite feminism’s emancipatory claims, however, such knowledge could ironically also be experienced as a form of power and control – of white, middle-class women ‘experts’ telling black and working class women how to live. This paper will explore these tensions through examining encounters between working-class women and feminists during the miners’ strike. Whilst accounts of women’s supports groups during the strike have largely portrayed them as sympathetic to the feminist movement, there is plenty of evidence that significant tensions between the two existed. As one woman from a striking family in Nottinghamshire said, ‘My mum […] was a trade unionist, she was a strong woman, but she took pride in cooking our family meals.  But when these fucking feminists come from Oxford and Cambridge who was telling her that you know we shouldn’t be doing that, you know, I remember, I hated them.’  As Bev Skeggs has argued of working-class women, ‘resisting being an object of surveillance and judgement is one of their major daily struggles’, with feminism ‘operating as yet another standard that cannot be achieved.’ (Skeggs, 1997). I will suggest that it is imperative for historians to be alive to these sorts of contradictions and ironies within emancipatory politics if we are to understand better the popular reception of radical ideologies such as feminism. Such analysis is needed if we are to grapple with a conundrum particularly pertinent to our present political moment: namely, why it is that many people don’t identify with a politics that appears to be in their best interests.

Paper 3 Abstract : Motherhood and Expertise in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s: The Case of Peadiatric Medicine

Chris Millard

This paper explores ideas of motherhood in twentieth-century British hospitals, in particular the ways in which mothers were seen as threatening or helpful to various hospital professionals.

The role of mothers in hospitals was fiercely contested after the Second World War, in the context of concerns about the emotional trauma of separating children from their mothers. Brought into focus by the evacuation, and facilitated by the inauguration of the NHS, different kinds of expert knowledge were brought to bear on the advisability (or not) of relaxed visiting practices, and even facilities for ‘live-in’ mothers.

One particular government report (Welfare of Children in Hospital (1959)) recommended that the presence of mothers was vital to the child’s mental and emotional wellbeing whilst in hospitals. This was met with considerable resistance by some hospital staff, who saw this as unnecessary and an encroachment on their expertise. Some mothers formed a campaigning group ‘Mother Care for Children in Hospital’ (now ‘Action for Sick Children’) which initially existed to campaign for the implementation of relaxed visiting hours. It drew upon a concept of motherhood and maternal care as ‘natural’ and ‘instinctive’, and therefore the best available for the children.

This turns dark by the 1970s, as paediatric experts began to believe that some mothers were their extended access to their hospitalized children to induce their symptoms and prolong their illnesses, ironically in an attempt to perform the role of the selfless, caring mother for as long as possible. The controversial (and later discredited) diagnosis of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy obscures the intricate tensions and contests between different types of expertise: activist, professional, scientific, natural, experiential. This paper will chart the different foundations upon which ideals of mothers are based, and that emerge when motherhood is imagined and managed in hospital paediatrics.