Exercise Three - Oral History Interviews


The following are extracts from oral history interviews with two working-class women, Jean and Margaret. They were born in the 1930s and 1940s and in the extracts, they are talking about their experiences of returning to paid employment in the 1960s and 1970s after raising their families. Laura Paterson interviewed Jean and Margaret, and around 40 more women, in 2011-12 as part of her PhD research. The full interviews were between one and two hours long. The interviews were recorded and transcribed into the written form you can read below. Jean and Margaret are not their real names.


Jean was born in 1935 in a working-class area in Dundee. Her father died in combat in the Second World War and her mother was a weaver in the jute industry. When Jean left school at 15, she had an apprenticeship and worked in a foundry’s draughting office, where designs were made for metal objects to manufacture. She left work soon after she got married in the mid-1950s because her husband didn’t want her to work. They had one child. In the mid-1960s, she started to train as a primary school teacher.

Laura: You said your husband didn’t like you working, what do you think changed his mind when you wanted to be a teacher?

Jean: I think just society changed. When I started working, as long as my mother was still there to look after my daughter, we only have one daughter, and…the sun just shone off her, and he just didn’t want ‘anybody’ looking after his daughter…but once he saw that everything was okay, he was quite happy with that.

Laura: In what way do you think society changed?

Jean: Well, more women began to…more things were coming into…washing machines were coming in, people wanted more goods, as they call white goods, I was fortunate, even though I wasn’t working I had all the things that I needed, everybody wanted more so more women went out to work to get all the things that they couldn’t afford on one salary. There was plenty of work around, people were needed, they were needed in teaching. Married women then could work, because you used to have to leave when you were married, but you could carry on when you were married and…it was society that changed all sorts of things, it became freer I suppose, with the swingin’ sixties! [Jean laughs]

Laura: Is that how you saw your work, did you see that your wages were going towards buying these things?

Jean: No I didn’t go back to work because of that, because my husband had a good job and I had all the things that I needed. I had television, washing machine, fridge, ‘phone. I had all the things like that, I went back to work because I was bored. I was sick looking at the four walls. I think that maybe encouraged him to let me go out to work, because he was fed up hearing me say “I’ve nothing but these four walls to look at”, and all my friends had gone back to work so I didn’t have anybody to go out and spend the afternoon with. My daughter was at school, I really was bored at home.

Laura: You say that all your friends had gone back to work, were you lonely at home as well?

Jean: A type of loneliness I suppose, as I say just boredom. I did a lot of craftwork but it wasn’t satisfying, I felt I had to have something to do. I was a Guider, and I was  Sunday School teacher, and Youth Club Leader and things like that, but I don’t know what it was…it was just during the day, when everybody else was out and you would just, I floated around in the garden, but I just felt there was nothing fulfilling enough, I just felt I had to get something to do…I just felt I needed something for “me”, you know to sort of extend myself I think more than anything really.


Margaret was born in 1946 in an impoverished area of Glasgow. Her parents were both manual workers. She worked in a drapers’ shop, where fabric was sold, and a department store until she became pregnant with her first child in the 1960s. She returned part-time to shop work at various points. Once all her five children were in secondary school, she went back to work in shops, but took advantage of a training opportunity to become a home-help and care worker.

Margaret: I fell pregnant and I stopped work. I hadn’t gone back to work until they were all in school. And then I went back to part-time work, just the days that suited the kids or school. I probably had a good while off work before I went back to work

Laura: Why did you decide to go back to work, after you’d had children, when they were a bit older?

Margaret: To give myself a bit more money, pocket money. Because everything that my husband brought in, was more or less spent on the house. And it was just a wee bit extra money to buy, kind of, luxury things that I wouldn’t be able to get. But it went on bills as usual. Never did see me get that extra wee bit you know, that I worked on bringing.

Laura: How did your husband feel about you working?

Margaret: He didn’t think I should be working. He thought I should be in the house. He didn’t like that working gave me that wee bit of independence. He said that he didn’t like me working, but it was my choice, I felt. And I did it, even though I was going against him. It was just something I had to do. I just felt I wanted to do it.

[Later in the interview]

Margaret: I felt as if I was put on this world to clean up and work for the rest of them. I didn’t feel like my own person. I just felt as if I was put on this world to look after my husband because he was, you know, he didn’t clean up. He just felt he could sit back and I would run after him… I felt like a mother or a wife, I just didn’t feel like I had my own identity, you know, who I was and what I could have become.

After you have read through the extract, click below to find some questions to start analysing what we can learn from this text:


Using only the information provided in the extract above, try to answer the following questions:


1. Why did married women and mothers want to work in the 1960s and 1970s? What factors do the interviews suggest shaped Jean and Margaret’s different reasons for working?

2. How did motherhood affect women’s working lives? Do the interviews suggest that it was difficult to combine work, marriage and motherhood?

3. What did these working-class women want to buy with their wages and what did they actually buy? What do the testimonies tell us about working-class living standards in the 1960s and 1970s?

4. What did Jean and Margaret’s husbands think about them having jobs? Do the interviews allow us to understand how Jean and Margaret felt about this?

5. Was work important to Jean and Margaret? Why?

6. What issues should historians be aware of when using oral history testimonies or other spoken sources? Do we have to treat transcriptions differently from other written or oral sources?

When you have had a go at finding precise evidence to answer these questions, click here to move on to the next stage of interpreting the source:


You are now ready to draw together all of these ideas to answer this final, larger question:

What do these extracts tell us about Scottish working-class women’s lives in the 1960s and 1970s?

To find out more about these primary sources, click here to learn about the research of Laura Paterson, a post-doctoral researcher in Oxford’s History Faculty.


I discover something new and exciting in these interviews every time I read or listen to them. I enjoyed speaking to these women and learning about their lives. The personal aspect of oral history interviews is one of this methodology’s strengths. Oral history developed as a methodology for professional history in the late 1960s. Social historians, labour historians, and women’s historians believed that this was a good source to do ‘history from below’ and to understand people’s experiences that were not available in written records. Historians use oral history in different ways. We extract information about the past from interviews that can’t always be found in an archive or library, we find out how people felt about historical events and how their views on those events changed through their life, and we think about what people don’t say and why. Oral historians also think about theory. They think about how factors such as who interviewed the person, and when (in historical time) the interview was done might have a bearing on why and how the interviewee speaks about various topics, and how they tell stories about their lives. The latter is important to me as I believe women use oral history interviews to say something about who they are as a person, what is important to them, how they see themselves and want others to see them.

When I started my research, I wanted to learn more about working-class women and write history that amplified their voices. I interviewed over 40 women born in the 1930s and 1940s about their lives, including Margaret and Jean. I use these interviews as my primary source material for writing about working-class women’s lives between 1945 and 1980. I want to find out how women talk about their employment at different stages in their life, from leaving school and going into their first job, to getting married and having children, and, as in these extracts, going back to work when their children were older.

At the time, groups like politicians, employers, trade unions, and the media believed that women did not value their jobs and were only interested in earning ‘pin money’. This justified keeping women workers out of the workforce (to protect men’s jobs), and only letting women do unskilled and low-paid jobs in industry and in service. Women born in the 1930s and 1940s however, had more education than their mother sand grandmothers and they wanted better occupations. Economic changes meant that there were more jobs for them in shops, in the service industry, in offices, and in some professions; but the types of jobs they tended to do continued to be very stereotyped. Working-class women frequently had to find the job that paid the best as soon as they left school, which limited their opportunities. By the time women like Margaret and Jean were re-entering work, they had more training and education opportunities, such as in care work and teaching. A cultural change took place during these women’s lives that allowed them to talk about their wants, including in oral history interviews. Wider social and economic changes (such as the availability of more university places, more jobs in offices, in the NHS and in teaching) enabled more women to realise their desires. However, not all occupations were open to women, because of prevailing ideas about what was suitable work for women, that women themselves accepted.

I use oral history to understand why more women – especially married women and mothers – were in paid work from the late 1950s. Every woman had her own reasons for working; because she and her family needed the money, she was bored being a housewife, and lonely at home when her husband was out at work and her children at school. I argue that working helped women feel valued and valuable. Oral history allows us to centre women’s agency and reveals their part in making social changes happen in the second half of the twentieth century, even while they remained marginalized in society because of their sex and their class status.

Many of the History Faculty’s courses use testimonies recorded by people who are normally ‘hidden from history’. By exploring individual subjectivity, students are encouraged to think in new ways about the processes, meanings, and significance of historical change. Some of these courses use oral history transcripts, like the ones you have studied above. For instance, in the first-year, students can study an option paper on ‘Radicalism in Britain 1965-1975’ which examines the revolutions of 1968 through the testimonies of activists involved in this global movement. Or, in the second- and third-years, several option papers use autobiographies and memoirs as primary sources. ‘Culture, politics and identity in Cold War Europe, 1945-68’ uses memoirs, as well as novels and films, to think about the individual experience of the Cold War, both east and west of the ‘Iron Curtain’. ‘Britain from the Bomb to the Beatles: gender, class and social change, 1945-67’ explores similar themes to the oral history testimonies provided above, through autobiographies, as well as films, novels and plays. Many undergraduate students are inspired by these courses to conduct their own oral history interviews as part of their third-year 12,000-word dissertation or thesis or as part of graduate study.

Here are some ideas for places you could explore to find out more about women’s history and working-class lives.


Many national museums include women’s, labour and working-class history in their exhibitions, such as the British Museum in London, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and St Fagan’s National Museum of Wales/ Sain Ffagan: Amgueddfa Werin Cymru in St Fagan’s near Cardiff. There are two dedicated women’s libraries in Britain that hold extensive collections about women’s lives; the Women’s Library in London and Glasgow Women’s Library. In museums which focus on particular industries you will find lots of information about working-class people and their work, and local museums often include ‘history from below’. Think about the industries and occupations in your local area in the past and try to find out what jobs women did; why not visit your closest museum and see what you can find in their collections about women and employment? How do these museums use oral history?

To find out more about oral history, including how you can do your own oral history research and about the ethics of oral history, you can visit the Oral History Society’s website. The British Library in London holds a large collection of oral history archives, and some of the recordings are available for free online. One particularly useful collection is the Sisterhood and After collection which has video and audio of women talking about the women’s liberation movement. Local history groups often do oral history projects with volunteers, and you might like to join a project and do some interviews of your own. Alternatively, you might like to ask women you know – with their permission, of course - about their work and about their lives.