On 22 September 1927 the Daily Mail printed the following article on page 9 of the London edition:
More Women Die Young
Especially When Single
Healthy Married Life
A remarkable fact revealed in a report by the
Government actuary, Sir Alfred W. Watson, on the
expectation of life as shown by statistics, is that the
death rate is increasing for single women between 18 and 27.[i]
The article goes on to note that life expectancy for both men and women has gone up; that both sexes between the ages of 30 and 60 are showing considerably increased levels of ‘vitality’; and that married women between the ages of 18 and 27 are ‘healthier than ever’.
Despite this apparent abundance of good news, the article’s main concern is that for the subset of single women between 18 and 27, a ‘deterioration’ in life expectancy is observed. The article does not only note this trend, but also presents an expert opinion as to what may be the cause of this.
The article’s final paragraph quotes Dr Ethel Browning, an accomplished scientist who was in the process of writing a book on common illnesses and how to prevent them.[ii] Browning is quoted in the Daily Mail as follows:
Probably the increased rates of mortality among
young unmarried women are due to the fact that
so many more of them are now doing really hard work
and closely confined in offices. At night, instead of getting
fresh air, they go to dances or spend their time in cinemas,
with a continuation of the same evil tendencies.[iii]
On the face of it, this article is unremarkable. The article was a one-off, not part of a special series or campaign. It was wedged in on the page between an article about a man who was wrongfully convicted of being drunk and disorderly; and a report on a deadly fire in a school in Winnipeg, Canada. Page 9 of the Daily Mail was reserved for general news items which were not the lead stories of the day. Yet the article is based on a number of tacit underlying assumptions which are highly political. A close reading of a seemingly throwaway article such as this, can demonstrate the agenda of national popular newspapers in the interwar period.
The article makes it clear that the part of the survey that readers should be most interested in is that young, unmarried women appear statistically more likely to die at a younger age, than in previous decades. This implies that the death of a young, unmarried woman deserves more attention and concern than the death of other members of society. The article’s headline explicitly ties marriage to health, underscoring the desirability for women to follow this conventional route.
The report does not actually specify by how much the life expectancy of young single women has declined; it merely states that this is the only group for which a decline has been identified. At the end of the article, Dr Browning is addressed by her title, but no additional information is given about her credentials or area of expertise.[iv] Her title provides her with sufficient authority that her subsequent argument about the detrimental effects of office work, dancing and cinema-going to women’s health are presented as fact. The choice to quote a female scientist sets up a dynamic between a (presumed) older, learned woman criticising the behaviour of younger, more frivolous women.
The Daily Mail editorial team could have chosen to highlight any of the positive aspects of the statistical survey, such as the increased life expectancy for boys and girls. Instead, the article taps into concerns about young women’s behaviour which were amplified regularly through the pages of the Mail and other newspapers in this period. During 1927 and 1928 concerns about ‘flappers’ were particularly fraught as the Representation of the People Act 1928 extended voting rights to women from the age of 21.[v] Articles such as the one under consideration here, helped to subtly reinforce the narrative that young women were irresponsible in their lifestyle choices.
Dr Browning’s comments about office work potentially contributing to earlier deaths for women can be interpreted as a rejection of women’s entrance into the workplace. One could reason that if women were not working in ‘closely confined’ offices but instead spent their time home-making (as they would do when they were married) then women would be healthier. The second part of the quote focuses on leisure activities which, it is implied, women participate in through choice – as they could instead choose to ‘get fresh air’. The supposed ill health of the women therefore becomes their own responsibility; if they chose to have healthier leisure pursuits when single, and endeavoured to get married as soon as possible, they would be healthier and live longer.
This short analysis demonstrates how, through day-to-day reporting, popular newspapers such as the Daily Mail promoted conservative values and stoked concerns that social change was having detrimental effects, in this case implying that fertile young women were dying. Although an article such as this may not seem political, its structure, its language and its cavalier approach providing evidence for statements all work together to reinforce ‘common-sense’ assumptions to its readers. When replicated across hundreds of articles in the daily popular press, these tacit assumptions went a long way to influence how newspaper readers thought about the world around them.
[i] ‘More Women Die Young’, Daily Mail, 22 September 1927, p. 9
[ii] Bartrip, P. W. J. “Browning [née Chadwick], Ethel (1891–1969), toxicologist and factory inspector.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 19 Dec. 2020. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-57854
[iii] ‘More Women Die Young’, Daily Mail, 22 September 1927, p. 9
[iv] Ether Browning is primarily remembered as an industrial toxicologist.
[v] Adrian Bingham, Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 16