Only a Mad Woman would call the 50s a golden age: No career. No mortgage. No bank account. A husband who wouldn't lift a finger. A new book says forget the nostalgia
23:59 GMT, 30 April 2012
Glamorous image: Christina Hendricks in TV's Mad Men
Long red fingernails, fur coats, high heels and clouds of Chanel No 5. The women who swept into my mother’s flower shop in the Fifties seemed impossibly glamorous to me when I was a child.
With their tales of swanning into Harrods for their Ascot and Henley outfits, their lives seemed enviable indeed. It wasn’t until much later that I realised the opposite was, in fact, true.
These women had no careers, no money of their own and only looked so groomed because they had nothing else to occupy them.
As for their expensive outfits, they came courtesy of their rich husbands, who gave them a dress allowance — much as a parent might give a teenager pocket money today.
And yet, lately, we’ve taken to thinking of that era as a super- glamorous time when life was simpler and people were nicer.
This attitude is thanks largely to the popular TV series Mad Men — set as that supposedly golden age came to a close — with its sexy secretaries wiggling in their tight dresses, lantern- jawed men and Martinis galore.
So much so that fashion and interiors magazines are full of the Fifties look. Those billowing dresses and waspish waists have become the ultimate in retro chic.
And so far-reaching is the era’s influence that TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp is urging women to go back to those times by learning how to sew, knit, mend and hang wallpaper.
Even my son Tom has been affected — eagerly embracing the era by growing vegetables and keeping chickens. While he tends his vegetable patch, his partner, Victoria, is in their farmhouse kitchen in a pretty pinny making bread.
But for those of us who lived through those times, the grim reality is quite different from the airbrushed, Photoshopped, cocktail-sipping version presented to us today — particularly if you’re a woman.
For while it can be fun having a go at hand-knitting your own jumpers and turning worn-out collars on shirts, it’s quite a another matter when these tasks are an absolute necessity, as they were for many women in the Fifties.
And I’m certainly not the only one to pick up on the disparity between the rosy nostalgia and the harsh reality. A new book, The Fifties Mystique, focuses on this theme.
Author Jessica Mann analyses the
decade with forensic precision — stripping away the rose-coloured specs
for good. And I tell you, Kirstie, you wouldn’t have liked it one bit!
the clothes were glamorous (if you could afford Paris couture) and
women looked feminine and pretty with their nipped-in waists and printed
But we mustn’t
forget it was also the era of the captive wife, when most women were, or
aspired to be, housebound housewives kept by a man.
Fiction: The version of the 1950s as portrayed in the hit TV series Mad Men was very different to the reality experienced by many women
I was six years old when the Fifties
started, living with my parents and younger brother, Richard, in a
Twenties suburban house in the little town of St Neots, near Huntingdon,
first rented and then bought.
were a tight little nuclear family, though not quite traditional —
unlike most women in those days, my mother, Caroline, had a job.
was 34 when I was born and my father, George, who was a lorry driver,
was the same age. Therefore, they were old parents for the times; most
of my friends’ parents were at least ten years younger.
to put too fine a point on it, life was boring. There was nothing to do
on Sundays except go to church. In the evenings, we might play games
such as Monopoly or cards, but they always ended in quarrels.
around me, I saw women who were completely under the thumb of their
husbands, whatever their class, but the worst thing was that there was
'Grim reality': The 50s were quite different from the airbrushed, Photoshopped, cocktail-sipping version presented to us today, says Liz Hodgkinson
Men would go to the pub, to cricket and football matches, but women — never. You were not a person in your own right, but the doctor’s wife, the butcher’s wife, the farmer’s wife or the baker’s wife.
Very few women were qualified for any profession and those who were tended to be shunned and belittled for trying to ape men.
My mother, who opened her flower shop in the early Fifties, was not admired for this. Instead, people would wonder why her husband could not keep her.
My Aunt Edna, in particular, was totally against women working, as she said every time I saw her.
‘A woman’s job is to look after her husband,’ she would say. ‘If a married woman works, she’s taking a job away from a man.’
So restricted was Aunt Edna’s life that she had to be home every day when her husband came home for lunch. In the Fifties, this was not an unusual set-up and was yet another way men kept women in their place.
It was taken for granted that girls would grow up to be housewives and, as such, there was not much point in spending good money on their education.
They might be allowed to train as secretaries — but that was only so they might trap a rich boss or, if they became nurses, a nice doctor.
Jessica Mann, who went to Newnham College, Cambridge, in the late Fifties, was one of a tiny, highly privileged minority of girls to be given the gift of higher education.
But even she soon got married — just one week after her Finals — and became a non-earning housewife.
In the event, she was in her 50s before she had her first ‘proper’ paid job outside the home.
Though women had proved themselves by doing men’s jobs during World War II, the minute peace was declared, they were shunted back into the home and denied any autonomy.
Lone women were not allowed into many restaurants or hotels, and those who ventured into pubs by themselves were considered ‘fast’ and not quite respectable. Men-only pubs were not uncommon.
And as for all those Martinis we were supposed to be glugging . . . hardly any women drank alcohol.
Men would go to the pub for a beer or whisky before lunch (never women —they were at home cooking) and my mother’s greatest alcoholic pleasure was that my father would bring her a bottle of Mackeson stout on Sunday lunchtimes.
It was not just custom, but laws which meant most women had no power or money of their own.
Though a husband’s earnings could be kept secret, and often were, a working wife had to declare all her income and assets on the joint income tax form, which was filled in by her husband.
Grey reality: Liz with her mother and brother Richard on holiday in Skegness in 1954
Her income was effectively his, and if she was not earning, she was reliant on the ‘housekeeping’ he would dole out as he saw fit.
A married woman was not allowed to
have a mortgage or to sign a hire purchase agreement in her own name,
and virtually no woman had her own bank account. Joint accounts did not
Even for women who
did have full-time jobs, as did my mother and Jessica Mann’s, there
would be the second shift to be tackled on arriving home.
man in those days would ever shop, cook, wash up, make beds, lay the
table or clear away plates. I never once saw my father clear the table,
wash a single dish or get out the vacuum cleaner. It would not have been
expected and would have been considered unmanly.
Similarly, you would never catch a man changing or washing nappies, or even pushing a pram.
have no recollection of the merest trace of childcare being carried out
by my father. Instead, my maiden aunt took over the role when my mother
was at work.
As for the
toil of housework, washing machines had not been invented so it had to
be done by hand. And yes, women baked cakes — not in a smiley Nigella
way, but because it was an essential way to fill up the family
relatively cheaply. Every housewife had a baking day once a week.
and fish were scarce and had to be eked out. There were no ready meals.
Quite honestly, Fifties food was horrible and almost always off.
Virtually no one had a fridge or freezer, so sour milk, smelly fish,
rancid butter and bad eggs were a daily fact of life.
Man's world: Where as Mad Men depicts women having some force in the workplace, most women were not a person in your own right, but the doctor's wife, the butcher's wife, the farmer's wife or the baker's wife
for clothes, most girls just dressed like their mothers. Like most of
my friends, I looked forward to the day when I would be old enough to
wear nylons and a smart suit or ‘costume’, just like Mum’s.
designs for teenagers did not come in until the mid-Sixties, with kooky
designers such as Mary Quant and Biba revolutionising young fashion.
How we loved their clothes — and how the older generation tut-tutted!
We also poured ourselves into old-lady
underwear. Elastic roll-ons, or girdles, were worn even by the thinnest
girls. Tights had not been invented and we wore ever-laddering nylons
held up by metal suspenders that dug into your thighs and left marks.
marriages were the norm, usually to your first and only boyfriend. I
was more interested in an education and fought my parents to allow me to
stay on in the sixth form and go to university.
was a hard-fought battle and I won only because the headmaster of my
grammar school intervened, saying I was ‘university material’ — an alien
concept to my parents. Many of my friends were forced to leave school
Marriage was a rite
of passage hard to understand today, when couples have often been living
together for years before deciding to tie the knot and, in any case,
have probably both had many previous partners.
then, a high proportion of young men and women were virgins on their
wedding night, with no real idea of what to expect from sex or from
Many had never before seen a person of the opposite sex naked.
Forget the nostalgia: The glamour celebrated in Mad Men was a far cry from the austerity and servitude endured by millions of women who were beholden to their husbands
Even so, unplanned pregnancies were not uncommon and several of my friends left school rather quickly at 16, only to be seen pushing a pram down the high street not long afterwards, their lives effectively over.
Usually, though, they would have what was called a shotgun wedding just in time.
Abortion was illegal and unmarried mothers were a disgrace. No such shame was attached to unmarried fathers, of course.
Polite society would also shun a divorced woman, though a divorced man was considered to be rather rakish.
No one ever talked about domestic violence or child abuse; it was as if it never happened, and only years later, did stories come out.
The Fifties were not such a bad time for men, who were kings of their own little hill.
They were waited on, looked up to, and excused all childcare and domestic duties. Homes in those days were not child-centred, but they were very definitely daddy-centred.
For women however, the decade was pure disaster.
n The Fifties Mystique by Jessica Mann (Quartet, 9.99).