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Press release


  • 14 February 2007

Book reveals secret passions of desperate housewives


Jenna Bailey with archive donor Rose Hacker

Jenna Bailey with archive donor Rose Hacker

In 1935, an isolated young housewife wrote in desperation to the magazine Nursery World, expressing her loneliness and boredom with life.

She was rewarded with a deluge of responses from like-minded women, which led to the formation of the Cooperative Correspondence Club - a magazine that explored intellectual ideas and debated issues of the day, including sex and anti-Semitism. The contents, kept secret by the devoted female members for more than 50 years, now offer a fascinating slice of life from between the wars to the 1990s in a new book - Can Any Mother Help Me?

Written by University of Sussex Life History MA graduate Jenna Bailey, 26, the book is based on the material she found in the Rose Hacker archive, part of the University's Special Collections catalogue.

""I was introduced to the archive by Dorothy Sheridan, head of Special Collections, and I thought it would make a good MA thesis subject. But the challenge was to trace the surviving family of the club's members. Because the magazine had been secret, I needed their permission to make their stories public."

Jenna's task was made more difficult by the way the magazine was produced. Only one copy of every fortnightly issue was made, stitched into linen covers. Each issue was then taken apart and recycled for future issues. Contributors submitted articles and also wrote comments on each other's efforts before passing on the issue to the next member. "It was like a paper blog or interactive text," says Jenna.

As a result, with the exception of a few copies, the archive does not contain complete magazines, only loose papers, which Jenna had to carefully study so she could piece together the story of the magazine and its producers.

Jenna's detective work led her to identify the remaining Cooperative Correspondence Club families and four surviving members - no mean task, as the women wrote under pseudonyms. The families helped by fact-checking Jenna's research and adding background material for the book, which features the biographies, letters and articles of 15 of the club's members.

Jenna's book, Can Any Mother Help?

Jenna's book, Can Any Mother Help?

The membership included some notable figures. Rose Hacker, who donated the archive to the University in 1997, was a marriage guidance counsellor and sex therapist who worked with Tom Harrisson, founder of Mass Observation, whose archive is also housed at University of Sussex. Rose, who turns 101 this March, is still a working journalist.

Another magazine member was Elaine Morgan, author of feminist bestseller The Descent of Woman, which challenged the accepted view of human evolution, without any previous scientific training in the subject.

Jenna, who will be a speaker at the Life Histories Women's Histories conference at the University of Sussex on Saturday, 17 February, says: "The stories of these women makes fascinating social history. Many were well-educated Oxbridge graduates who were intellectually starving and not happy just being in the home. They were drawn together because they were looking for some kind of stimulus. The magazine would not be about children, but rather about politics, religion, history. They also tried to recruit a diverse community. For example, they purposely recruited a Jewish member in 1939 because they wanted to understand the Jewish experience in a climate of anti-Semitism. They also recruited working-class women and openly discussed subjects such as the female orgasm."

Notes for editors

  • Can Any Mother Help Me? Is published on March 1 by Faber and Faber at £16.99 (hardback).
  •  Jenna will be speaking at the SPIT Lit Festival in London, contact Alternative Arts on 020 7375 0441 or email info@alternativearts.co.uk
  • We regret that there are no places left for Saturday's conference. For more information about life history research, see http://www.sussex.ac.uk/clhr/
University of Sussex Press office: Contact Press officers Maggie Clune or Jacqui Bealing on 01273 678 888 or email press@sussex.ac.uk.

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