Are Mothers Saints? The Role of the Matriarch in Welsh Society

matriarch (ma-tri-arch)  n.

1. A woman who rules a family, clan, or tribe.

2. A woman who dominates a group or an activity.

3. A highly respected woman who is a mother.

‘Women have a talent for listening. A damn sight more than men have. Women became part of the conversation, part of the system, part of the battle. We saw them growing, we saw them getting up and saying “I am from South Wales and times are hard and it’s costing”. Powerful, powerful speeches. And “we are not up here to beg for food but to fight for a cause”

– Tyrone O’Sullivan, NUM 84/85 strike co-ordinator, the Cynon Valley

When former Labour leader John Smith described the miners’ strike of 1984/85 as ‘a war without guns’, he did so not for dramatic effect or for political flourish but in the knowledge that this was a war like no other that had been waged before, or indeed since; a battle that pitted citizen against citizen, father against son, the hypothetical force of ‘law and order’ against the brittle bones and empty bank accounts of its hollow-bellied prey. Moreover, it was a war that demanded that you pick a side, assume a position, and define your enemy. Yet in common with all of the other 20th century conflicts that had preceded it, it was a fight given emotional and physical backbone, spirit, and voice, by women. An infantry of newly emancipated foot-soldiers underpinned by a steely seam of maternal and sororal defiance, and nowhere was this feisty trench of community resistance dug deeper than in the valleys and working men’s clubs of the South Wales valleys. As Alan Sandel, then a lodge official at Celynen North colliery, acknowledged in a retrospective interview with Wales Online in 2009: ‘Okay, maybe the men were hungry but their wives were left at home on their own with young children. We were the garment, but they were the sewing between the sleeves. They called Margaret Thatcher the Iron Lady, but our women, our women were gold’.

 MatriarchIt is all too easy to deify the role of women at times of battle, especially when history underlines the Welsh male’s habitual expectation that they revert to more traditional roles once periods of intermittent peace eventually break out. Yet without Welsh women, our wives, our daughters, and perhaps most importantly ‘our mams’, what are Welsh men, even at times of peace, other than a well-meaning rag-bag of compromised masculinity and bar-room boastfulness? – a chaotic maelstrom of clandestine insecurity perpetually constrained by the narrow codes and rituals so deeply engrained in us by our fathers and grandfathers. Is it any wonder therefore that we gravitate so effortlessly and eagerly towards the burly welcoming embrace of the social surroundings that guarantee us indiscriminating acceptance and unwavering recognition? The magnetic allure of the heaving human sea of an international rugby match, the sticky-carpeted bullshit exchange of the backstreet alehouse. Yet it remains forever the case that the typical Welsh male (whatever that means) will routinely portray his mother in both inspirational and idolatory terms; an immovable rock of love and defiance at the heart of family life, a borderline saint-like figure, the all-conquering slayer of austerity, vulnerability and fear. A battle waged with humour, resilience, and incontrovertible authority. The Welsh ‘mam‘ remains an archetypal image of (primarily) married women that emerged in 19th century industrial South Wales. Described as ‘hardworking, pious, and clean, a mother to her sons and responsible for the home’, this image was most famously depicted and popularised in Richard Llewellyn’s novel How Green Was My Valley. The prototypical Welsh mam being seen as the indisputable ruler of her household, a cruelly ironic supposition for the many Welsh women who remained economically dependent upon male wage-earners for decades, and suffered poverty and chronic ill health exacerbated by an almost industrial routine of perpetual childbearing.

In common with other ancient Celtic cultures, Wales is a nation steeped in the traditions of matriarchy. It is perhaps the reason why only its women have a national costume, though any small boy of the 70s and 80s who ever had reason to traipse along to a school Eisteddfod brandishing a Davy lamp and mascara-smeared ‘coal cheeks’ will no doubt beg to differ. Yet for all of this engrained hierarchical heritage, Welsh women have almost always had to secure their rightful position in society via an incremental strategy of stealth. It took decades of protest against the squandering of hard-earned family income, almost solely on the eternal allure of the ‘demon drink’, before the wives of Welsh miners secured the societal right to sequester their husband’s weekly wages through the collectively legitimised ritual of ‘tipping up’. Legitimised, though almost entirely resented, as the writer Evan Stark references in his treatise on domestic abuse, Coercive Control: ‘The wives or mothers waited outside the front door for their men to tip up their wages so that the transfer would be public and peaceful, minimising the possible use of violence to withhold the funds’, making the point that ‘political struggle is no less important in establishing informal than formal rights’. In her splendid and life-affirming 1993 autobiography, Moll – The Making of Molly Parkin, the irrepressible Pontycymmer auteur and hedonist – a woman once deliciously damned by the Garw Gazette as ‘a disgrace to the valleys’ – recalls the same weekly ritual being played out across 1930s Wales, one that perpetuated for decades to come: ‘When the wages arrive on the Friday, my mother insisted that she held the purse-strings. All money was to come in to her pocket, every penny, and she’d dole out pocket money to my father, like a child. That’s how much she trusted him. This wasn’t unusual for Welsh households. Every one I’d ever known in Pontycymmer was doing this anyway’, adding defiantly, ‘Welsh women understood the financial fecklessness of their men’, and then even more provocatively, ‘Welsh women made better mothers than their English counterparts. They put their children first and foremost, they saw to it that they never went hungry’.

‘Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring’
by Dame Laura Knight

Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring, an iconic painting depicting ‘outstanding factory worker’ Ruby Loftus at her lathe in the Royal Ordnance Factory in Newport, still hangs proudly in the Imperial War Museum. Voted 1943’s ‘Picture of the Year’, official war artist Dame Laura Knight spent four weeks in the factory sketching Loftus at work, expertly capturing the intense concentration and poise of her subject. By this point in time, the once incongruous dual-imagery of female and industrial setting was less jarring than it might previously have been, the intensity of the military challenge facing the nation having long since dispensed with many of society’s petty mores. Yet, many male members of the community, especially the mining communities, remained extremely unnerved by what were increasingly perceived to be the new employment prospects opening up for their wives, daughters, and even their mothers. One miner who, in 1943, was unemployed stated his feelings to the Western Mail: ‘I’m one of those “unemployables”, but I reckon they’re wrong. I could do some of these jobs the women are doing. You know, since my old woman has been working, my life has been just hell’. This attitude towards the munitions factories was not unusual in Wales, or indeed Britain. It was felt that ‘respectable’ women would begin to consort with other women who possessed low morals or unsavoury characters. Tellingly, one correspondent to the South Wales Echo voiced concerns that, ‘Although women in the factory now have a knowledge of cosmetics, films, stockings, boyfriends, dancing, beer, and the various brands of cigarettes the skill needed to manipulate the scrubbing brush or cook a decent meal is entirely absent’. Entirely predictably, Welsh women continued to be denied the opportunity to enter into professions that granted them high status and/or salaries, yet women – and in some case, most scandalously, mothers – continued to go out to work. Between 1931 and 1951 the number of females occupied in Glamorgan rose by 39% while during the same period the number of males in employment fell by 7%.

In a recent ‘tiger mother’-baiting satirical piece for The Onion, Joe Queenan regales us with stories from a hypothetical book by the fictitious ‘Addfwyn Griffiths’, titled ‘How the Welsh Invented Modern Motherhood’; one described as arguing that ‘Welsh mothers are far superior to the French, the Chinese and the Bolivians because the Welsh keep their mouths shut and don’t keep reminding their kids how special they are’. Irrespective of its fabricated source, it is nevertheless a view that will resonate strongly with anyone brought up within the bosom of a female-led Welsh working class family. A ‘don’t get ideas above your station’ mind-set rooted in practicality and purpose rather than bravado, one-upmanship and immodesty. Contemporary pop culture best embodies this spirited, narrow, stubbornness in the small-screen form of Stella; Ruth Jones’s forty-something Rhondda materfamilias, a single-mother of three, and a woman who refuses to throw in her hand regardless of the duff cards that society and circumstance have dealt her. Jones’s creation, despite being the embodiment of so many traditional Welsh matriarchal traits, is not positioned as either the conscience or the (yawn) moral compass of the series however; more a component player in a community underpinned by the timeworn triumph over societal and political adversity. A requiem for a valleys community, but one presented in an almost wholly apolitical way. ‘The characters in Stella wake up and they want to have a good day,’ Jones says. ‘They don’t set out to make someone’s life a misery. So although Stella’s ex-husband is a bit of an idiot, he’s not a bad person. He’s a caring dad. I enjoy it when characters love each other. It’s more interesting, actually – it’s less predictable.’  In a similarly empathetic manner, Jones speaks about the gradual blossoming of the character and the indefatigable nature of the spirit, and women, that she represents: ‘It sort of follows the seasons. It starts in the winter and you can see the landscape in the valleys changing as the series progresses. And Stella starts to come out of herself, as well.’ The devotion to their mother is routinely underlined in the behaviours of Stella’s two sons, a theme notably played out in an online poll conducted by Culturenet Cymru in 2004 to find the ‘100 greatest Welsh heroes’. A random appraisal of the online nominees and related comments that were submitted by way of response evidences not just a core constituency of male contributors but an almost wholly male candidate base. Yet in amongst the sporadic shouts for Cerys Matthews and Tanni Grey-Thompson, the prevailing female candidate – yet unaccounted for in the final reckoning – was simply, ‘mam’. A tiresomely predictable exemplification of the Welsh male’s lazy retreat into the realms of the archaic ‘Madonna/whore’ complex? Quite possibly. A laughable failure to see the achievements of women beyond the cossetted confines of the apron strings?  Maybe. Or possibly something more tangibly beguiling; a nation of men, of all ages, in eternal thrall to the beloved mother figure; a status ultimately afforded via decades of struggle, self-determination and ingenious guile; a steely and uncompromising core of love and affection, and the immovable foundation of family and community.

Or as the adult Huw famously recollects in the aforementioned How Green Was My Valley, ‘My mother was always on the run – always the last to start her dinner and the first to finish. For if my father was the head of the house, my mother was its heart’.

Illustration by Dean Lewis

Key historical research by Elizabeth Austin, a fine Welsh Mam.