I read a few really excellent books right at the end of 2015, the most enjoyable of which was Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson. Nicholson writes social histories that focus on British women and in previous books she’s looked at surplus women following the First World War (Singled Out) and women’s lives during and immediately after the Second World War (Millions Like Us). Here, she has moved on to the 1950s.
For thousands of young women […] in the early 1950s, the dreams of education, career, achievement and fulfillment were within reach. The war had exploded the inequality myth. The doors were opening. But for too many, their own ignorance, fears, confining desires and expectations were bred-in-the-bone.
To tell her story, Nicholson draws on an amazing variety of first-hand accounts from:
- a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret
- a Jamaican immigrant
- a beauty queen
- a working class girl who studied at Cambridge
- an Irish nurse
- a miner’s wife
- a young policewoman
- a rock n’roll-loving Teddy girl
- several educated but desperately isolated suburban housewives
- and many more
Through these women and their experience, Nicholson marks the mood of the decade. She looks at the fields now open to women (all of them, basically, though women were only being paid 59% of what men received in the same roles) versus the conditioning in popular media that reminded them femininity was the most important thing. Graceful secretary, desirable air hostess, and glamorous model were presented as much more appropriate ambitions than a career as a lawyer, doctor, or politician. And, most important of all, work must come second to husband, home and children.
However, that wasn’t really the reality. “In the post-war world, there was little – except a residual belief in her own incapacity – to stop a young woman from training to become an architect, a biologist, or a lawyer. The opportunities were there.” In 1951, nearly 85% of women between the ages of 14 and 25 were working. By the end of the decade, it wasn’t just single women who were working: in 1961, 30% of married women under 30 and 36% of married women between the ages of 35 and 45 worked (up from 25% in 1951).
Nicholson chooses to focus on specific women’s experiences. This is very compelling from a story-telling perspective though I did miss having a historical or geographical context. And while Nicholson pays particular attention to women of the working class, we don’t hear much from the upper middle class – the women who followed their fathers and brothers into professions, becoming doctors and lawyers.
What she does do wonderfully is allow the women to tell their own stories. I particularly enjoyed the chapters which look at the pressure to be constantly attractive and appear pure, but also sexually alluring. A confusing enough mix which, when coupled with poor sexual education, lead to a predictable number of shotgun weddings or quiet adoptions.
We hear much about the two famous Margarets: Princess Margaret and Margaret Thatcher. Nicholson contrasts them throughout the book and it is an effective pairing: one the beautiful, feminine storybook princess whose purity and perfection, at least in the 1950s, was the pride of the nation, the other a brilliant, ambitious career woman, ready to take advantage of every opportunity available to her and brutally pilloried for it (though that would come later, once she achieved success).
Like most enjoyable reading experiences, I have my quibbles with Nicholson’s presentation of facts. Throughout the book, she treats certain topics as though they are relics of the past, specific to the 1950s, when if fact they persisted long past that decade. She treats the opposition to Princess Margaret’s relationship with Townsend as something specific to her time and gender. Given that her uncle and nephew faced similar pressure when they fell in love with unsuitable partners, there is a strong argument to be made that it is more a hazard of position than anything else. Also, bizarrely, she throws in an off-handed comment about how the women of the WI were “starting to look beyond poultry-keeping and meal preparation.” The WI started off in the 19th Century, enraged by high infant mortality rates and determined to educate and mobilize woman to combat issues such as poor hygiene, a lack of family planning, and alcohol abuse. If anything, it has become dulled and sanitized since then with its jam-making and hymn singing.
There are some disappointing anti-male comments scatted through the book (references to the walls built by men to keep women out of professions, etc). Apparently, it is natural for women to be conditioned to accept stereotypical gender roles but men have no such excuse. And they certainly do not get any credit when they did encourage women to enter the workforce and join professions, though Nicholson does acknowledge that the walls no longer existed in any meaningful way.
Overall, it is a very fascinating book and great fun to read. I added so many of Nicholson’s source books to my own to-be-read list and can’t wait to learn more about some of the fascinating women introduced to me here.