Winifred Holtby (1898-1935) was a Yorkshire writer, journalist and activist who remains primarily remembered for her final, posthumous novel South Riding. She is also frequently linked to her closest friend, writer and journalist Vera Brittain, who penned the influential First World War memoir Testament of Youth. Holtby and Brittain studied together at Oxford’s all-female college, Somerville, and subsequently shared households for most of the remainder of Holtby’s life.
Although Brittain remains the better-known of the pair (arguably partially because her life was not cut short like Holtby’s), Winifred Holtby was more than a friend and companion to Brittain. She had her own strong political and feminist views, which were expressed in her journalism and activism. After a visit to South Africa in 1926, Holtby actively supported the Black South African community for the rest of her life.
Winifred Holtby was born in Rudston, a small Yorkshire village between Hull and Scarborough. She came of age during the First World War and briefly served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) before starting her studies at Somerville in 1919. Here she met Brittain, who was some five years older than her. After the war, Holtby lectured for the League of Nations, the ‘first worldwide intergovernmental organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace.’ She also became involved in the Six Point Group, a feminist collective set up by Lady Rhondda. The latter also co-founded Time and Tide, a feminist interwar publication to which both Holtby and Brittain became regular contributors. (E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady also started as a column in Time and Tide).
Committed feminist as Holtby was, her journalistic writings of the time are striking both because they address some issues that remain unresolved, and because they reveal a sharp sense of humour. The overall tone of Holtby’s writing in this area demonstrates optimism. After the expansion of the vote to all men and women in 1928, interwar feminists seemed to believe that equality between men and women on all fronts was just a matter of time. Nearly a hundred years on, such optimism seems naïve. However, it does mean that Holtby’s writing on inequality remains recognisable and accessible.
In ‘Should a Woman Pay?’, which appeared in the Manchester Guardian in October 1928, she tackles the social dilemma of who should pay the bill when a man and woman go out together. Introducing us to the fictional Jack and Jill, Holtby demonstrates how a clinging to the social custom of the man paying can lead to resentment between modern couples – Jack insists on paying for Jill’s lunch because ‘his masculine honour is affronted’ by the suggestion she pays, or they split the bill. When both return to their respective jobs for the afternoon, they are distracted, make mistakes, and ‘they both hate everything.’
Holtby links this very relatable scenario to ‘the industrial revolution, the introduction of factory labour, the divorce of women from domestic industry’ and the subsequent removal of women from any source of substantial income. A quick internet search reveals that the question ‘Should the woman pay?’ remains unresolved – Harvard Business Review devoted an article to it in April 2021 and a live WikiHow page talks readers through the ‘problem’ (which remains presented in heteronormative terms).
In ‘Counting the Cost’, also published in the Manchester Guardian in the same year, Holtby responds to a letter to the editor submitted by a man who is frustrated that his wife is undertaking too many activities in the community and does not have enough time to manage the household. ‘If I came home from work at six (which I don’t) and had to get my own tea [dinner], things would happen’ fumes the man. Holtby gently pokes fun at the man’s worked-up tone: ‘He really is very cross indeed. He makes you feel that the first of those things which would happen would be a very bad tea. Bad temper never fries good bacon.’ She ends the article by acknowledging that whilst some things may be lost when women go out of their home, both economy and society gain much by women actively participating in it.
Holtby herself was one such woman actively participating in public life during the interwar period. Although she never married, she did undertake caring responsibilities for Vera Brittain’s family, whom she lived with for large proportions of her life. Holtby repeatedly referred to herself as ‘50% a politician’ and she tirelessly raised funds to help unionise Black workers in South Africa. Despite only being ‘50% a writer’ in her own perception, Holtby produced seven novels, two volumes of poetry, two short story collections, a play, and four works of non-fiction including a memoir of Virginia Woolf. As a witty and gifted writer and commentator, her work deserves continued recognition.
 Testament of a Generation: The journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, edited by Paul Berry and Alan Bishop (London: Virago, 1985), pp. 21-23
 Marion Shaw, ‘Introduction’, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago, 2011), p. xi
 Winifred Holtby, ‘Should a Woman Pay?’, reproduced in Testament of a Generation, pp. 57-60.
 Winifred Holtby, ‘Counting the Cost’, reproduced in Testament of a Generation, pp. 54-57
 Shirley Williams, ‘Preface’, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago, 2011), p. ix
 Marion Shaw, ‘Introduction’, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago, 2011), p. xii; Testament of a Generation: The journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, edited by Paul Berry and Alan Bishop (London: Virago, 1985), pp. 22