The Fifties: a warning from history

Thursday, 3 May 2012

I purchased The Fifties Mystique, Jessica Mann's new memoir-cum-warning, at the weekend after reading her piece for the Guardian entitled "What do you mean, the good old days?" The article was an intriguing read, discussing how Mann feels that today's women are wrong to wish for a return to the supposedly simpler or happier times before the massive societal changes that the 1960s and 1970s brought, and the new opportunities and choices they afforded women. Mann remembers this so-called golden age, and doesn't remember much of it with affection. It's less "the golden age" and more "The Fifties: a warning from history".

As the country has struggled with recession and assorted economic woes in recent years, the newspaper or magazine feature about the women who simply long for the "good old days" has become a bit of a cliche. The unhappy career woman who's sick of slogging her guts out at the office in return for little in the way of fulfillment. The woman who's found she can't "have it all". The middle class stay-at-home mother who has found new joy in making cushion covers, baking and wearing floral dresses. The women who idolise the 1950s as a time when they could "just be women". We keep hearing about this fad called "the new domesticity" and it's possible to track down a plethora of articles discussing whether it's fun, empowering, or a step in the wrong direction for women.

I suspect that much of this "new domesticity" fad has a great deal to do with trends in "women's interest" journalism and selling products to affluent families rather than anything else. It's about marketing a lifestyle over encouraging a genuine interest in what it involves, and I think it's also possibly on its way out as a fad, as people grow tired of ditsy print cake tins and Kirstie's Homemade Home and circular debates about cupcakes and what is and what isn't "feminist"

But "new domesticity" aside, Mann says she is concerned that too many of today's women are wishing they lived in the past without realising what this truly would have meant for them, and for society in general. She quotes one woman as saying "I'd love to be a captive wife," one describing the post-war years as "prettier and nicer", and another, commenting on the unfairness of having to "bring home the bacon as well as cooking it". What she sets out to do through telling the story of her early life, is make people more aware of the limitations and frustrations of the era she describes in terms of its greyness, boredom, bigotry, hypocrisy and obsession with deference, while warning them not to be complacent about gender equality.

Several times, she refers to reading Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique as an important turning point for her, because it led her to realise that she was not alone. Mann had a happy marriage and loved her young children, but she was also bored and frustrated, and felt that there must be "something more" out there for her to get involved in and challenge herself. I've been reading The Feminine Mystique this year, and while I don't agree with all Friedan's assertions and see the limitations of the book, it's fascinating as a book that really hits you with just why the women's liberation movement was so angry. It's a bit fashionable these days to sneer and smirk at those ranting second wavers, and for the more conservative critics of feminism to disapprove of their unbecoming behaviour, their supposed desire to do away with "the family" and their imagined anti-children stance. Maybe fewer people would sneer if they read through some of the quotes I ended up highlighting as I read the book.

Mann is correct in saying that things today have changed to the extent that there are obviously a lot of things that many people take for granted, things that don't figure in their nostalgia for the post-war years. Ignorance and complete shame about sex and bodily functions would be one of them - from anatomical terminology to the female orgasm to contraception, Mann describes the weirdness of being totally in the dark about it all - from the antenatal classes that would start with a discussion on "How did baby get there?", to a problem page in a women's magazine that featured a letter from a mother of four asking how she could prevent having any more children. The printed answer was that she should send a stamped addressed envelope to the magazine to receive a personal response - the point being, of course, that it would have been beyond the pale for the magazine to print advice about contraception.

Another of these things that has changed beyond recognition is the position of women in public life and in the workplace. While it's obviously not ideal even now, we've moved beyond the "good old days" when women didn't have a place in public life, and a job was something you did to keep you occupied until you got married, and many jobs were simply out of bounds. Mann remembers applying for jobs and being told "Certainly not - we don't take women". She remembers never learning about the achievements of women in history at school, the uncomfortable attitudes that still faced women who went to university and took their studies seriously. The issue of women and education is something that Friedan looked at extensively in her book, and I don't think I'll forget how completely miserable I felt reading through the descriptions of accepted thinking on women and learning from the time.

Being "too bright" was supposedly a hindrance, as was wanting to "compete with men" in terms of having a job and being able to manage money. A girl who "got serious" about her studies would be "peculiar, unfeminine", while young women undergraduates told Friedan that it was most important to them to "graduate with a diamond ring on your finger" and to not be "too educated" because that wasn't what men wanted. Personal ambition for the middle class woman acceptably extended to a husband with a good job, a lovely house and a brood of beautiful children. There was little sense of sisterhood among most women because they were set up to be in constant competition for a man. It hadn't always been like this - both Friedan and Mann contrast the 1950s glorification of the housewife with the "new woman" heroines of magazines in the 1930s and 1940s, and focus on its relationship with consumerism and post-war backlash. The women of the 30s and 40s were described in terms of their dreams and ambitions. Romance was often a factor in their lives, but they were portrayed as being adventurous, being involved in a variety of jobs, being pioneers and standing up for their beliefs.

By the 1950s, dreams and ambitions were described in terms of the happiness brought by a new pair of curtains or a kitchen appliance; fulfillment was a compliment bestowed by a husband following the purchase of the latest shade of hair dye; feeling depressed was solved by deciding to have another baby. Ultimate joy was realising that you were best off in your role as the "little woman", who didn't tax herself by attempting to go back to college or understand the family finances. I think you'd be hard pressed to find many women today who could identify with any of that, despite the media's insistence on wheeling out panic pieces entitled "Do men REALLY want an intelligent woman?" or "Men: still threatened by successful women" every so often.

More alien to most women today (whether it's a feature of their own lives or not) would be the concept of having no personal ambition, no sense of self, no right to want time alone or time for personal development. Mann highlights the more open, confessional, talk-about-everything culture of the 21st century, and this is often particularly evident in the books, websites and self-help articles that encourage us to get the job we really want, achieve the goals we're really passionate about, take up new interests, have a career change, sort out our relationships, find ourselves. Mann remembers how talking about feelings, or expressing discontent with your lot in life was simply not done, particularly if that involved feeling miserable about being a housewife and mother. And gender equality was old hat, the preserve of terrifying yet slightly comical 1930s spinsters in tweed suits.

By the end of The Fifties Mystique, Mann has dealt engagingly with her own early years as an evacuee, schoolgirl, student, young wife, mother and finally, a woman looking for "more". She turns her efforts to encouraging today's women not to look at inequality and their dissatisfaction and see turning back the clock as the answer, but to look towards the problematic issues of the 21st century that are causing it instead. She mentions the stressful long hours culture of work today, the still-elusive dream of shared parenting and equality in relationships, the admonitions that we "can't have it all" that discourage women and fuel judgmental attitudes, the "old-fashioned sexism" of biological determinism (quoting Natasha Walter's excellent Living Dolls), the one-sided and exploitative approach to women's sexuality and appearance, and the fact that as during the 1950s, mothers are still to blame for everything.

"The history of women in the last one hundred and fifty years could be described as two steps forward, one step back, as when they took useful roles during the Second World War and were herded back to domesticity afterwards. Those who take hard-won rights for granted and have choices and chances once undreamed of, should recognise that the price of women's liberation is eternal vigilance," she writes.

In her article for the Guardian, Mann writes about her daughter's complaint that today, not working outside the home and enjoying motherhood is looked upon with scorn. What I see is the wider issue that most of our choices, as women, are looked upon with scorn. To work, or stay at home. Have a "career", or a "job". Have children when we're 20, or when we're 30. Send them to nursery while we work, or spend all our time with them. Pursue personal interests, or have none. Be open about enjoying sex, or be open about having issues with it. Society sets us up to judge the choices of others, creating "wars" and "catfights" rather than encouraging us to press for change. And it is this that often prevents us from seeing the bigger picture, so keen are we to assert the validity of whatever choices we've made.


Danielle said...

Great post, Hannah! I've thought about this a lot and have even been guilty of writing one of those "is this good for us?" posts about new domesticity/domestic arts/being nostalgic for the "good ol' days." Now I'll have to pick up Mann's book!

Hannah Mudge said...

Oh me too, Danielle! I think I have written about it a couple of times. I personally don't have much experience of it though, as although I enjoy cooking, I'm not really into any of the other stuff that's been revived as part of the 'new domesticity'! I am, however, about to have my first child, so it really interests me from that point of view :)

Danielle said...

I may have even posted something today entitled "learn how to sew." I'm with you -- aside from cooking and general creativity, I'm pretty inadequate when it comes to making crafts and some of the other DIY endeavors. I am trying to learn how to be greener/simpler with my consumption, so who knows? I may just be making my own deodorant (c/o of Suzannah Paul's recipe) in the near future!

Jessica Mann said...

Hannah, thank you for your sensible and perceptive comments - and thanks for buying the book too!I'm thrilled that you were interested enough to write at length about it. Would be fun to discuss the subject in person sometime. Meanwhile, you say you're about to have your first child. Good luck!


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