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I would have hated to have been an adult woman in the 1950s

December 2014

Picture the scene. A middle-class family home in a relatively rural village in England. It’s early evening and the year is 1950 something-or-other. A mother in her mid-thirties drags out her heavy ironing board, sets it up and plugs in the iron. Is she about to attack the mile high pile of ironing? Really? She’s ‘fragrantly’ dressed in a fresh dress, her waist nipped in courtesy of a very tight, boned-girdle worn beneath. Her husband is due home and, with her kitten heels on, a little dash of make-up discreetly applied, a spray of scent, hair immaculate, she is ready to welcome him. So is she about to do the ironing?

The casserole is in the oven, the potatoes are peeled, the vegetables prepared, the dessert chilling. But it’s not only the dessert that’s chilling about this scenario. Now look, she’s nipped through to the sitting room and is bringing the newspaper back with her. Good for her, she’s about to put her feet up. Let’s see what happens – but oh, it’s not that kind of ‘chilling’, she’s not sitting down, she’s not reading – she has flattened the newspaper on the ironing board and, after glancing at the door, she begins to iron it. Nobody is allowed to even peek at the paper before her husband and, hearing the car pull up in the drive, she has to get a move on. This woman has intelligent children, and they have already read it cover to cover.

I know this actually happened though this was not my mother. I also know if I’d been that woman, and if I had received a letter it would have been addressed to Mrs Richard Jefferies, as if I had no Christian name. Luckily I was just a child in the 1950s, and the 1960s were on their way which , from my point of view, was just in the nick of time. Hurrah! the sixties saved me from the 50s.

Me in the late 1960sIn the 60s my mother ironed my hair, not the newspaper, but that’s another story. Now back to the 1950s, and I’ve had enough of the current soft-focus and pretty dresses fantasy, and the illusion that women were happy. Many women lived lives of desperate tedium, living only through and for their husbands and children, housebound and virtually captive. No name of your own you see, and no chance to explore your own skills or abilities, unless it was something to do with housewifery. You were somebody’s wife and that was it. It hardly mattered whose. Woe betide if you ended up a spinster. Your job as a woman was to take care of your husband. There were exceptions but they were few.

How on earth did they put up with it? Exploring the answer to that is one of the reasons I enjoy writing female characters in the Twentieth-Century.

But it’s no good bringing our Twenty-First-Century world views to judge the women of the fifties. The social norms and even the laws in the 1950s were different. One of my two main characters in The Separation is a 1950s woman. A few readers have criticised her for not being independent enough, but I think she is far stronger and more resilient than most women of the 50s. She is dependent on men – women in the 50s usually were – but she copes with enormous challenges at a time of war. Hats off to her, I say.

And hats off to all the women who’ve stood up for women’s rights and raised their voices in the face of opposition. Without them, none of us would be doing the things we are doing today, but it doesn’t stop there. All over the world women are still discriminated against, and the least we can do is refuse to be hoodwinked by 1950s nostalgia. Misogyny is alive and kicking. Let’s learn from the past; let’s not glorify it. And let’s tell (some) men to put that mug of beer down and clean behind their own fridges. You know who I mean. Feminism wasn’t and isn’t anti-men, it’s about equal rights for both genders, like the basic right to do the same job for the same money. It’s not about throwing out your make-up and high heels. In fact I have red glittery nails as I type. Never judge a woman by the height of her heel, my daughter recently told me. And, funnily enough, it’s a line from my favourite book of the year, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.

The world has changed and I am glad of it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be a wife and mother, and making a good job of it, but I would never want to go back to when that was our only option. I would have hated to have been an adult woman in the 1950s and, despite the current yearning for the fashions, I suspect so might you. (The photos below are of me in the 1950s)