The stereotypical view of the fifties woman is reflected in vintage postcards on sale at stalls in Portobello Market, featuring colourful ads for hoovers, OMO, ‘Empire’ baby pants, or Kenwood chef food processors alongside an immaculately dressed housewife with perfect hair and varnished nails beaming a pillarbox-red lipsticked smile as she does the chores.
Rachel Cooke’s book, Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, flies in the face of the clichéd view of the fifties housewife stuck at home ― an appendage to her husband. It may have been the case in American suburbia of the time, but in Britain women had got through the war without their husbands, brothers or fathers. Some had joined the ATS, or WAAF, or WRNS and drove ambulances, or worked in a government ministry. Others ended up at Bletchley Park. When Elisa Segrave came upon her late mother’s diaries, she discovered that her mother had excelled at her work as an indexer in Hut 3, then in Hut 3N, at Bletchley Park, from 1941-43; and was promoted to 4th Naval Duty Officer during Operation Torch, the Allied Invasion of North Africa. She had several jobs in Bomber Command and later saw its effects in the ruined towns of Germany where she had her last job in the WAAF. On her days off she travelled in a weapon carrier with her American boyfriend. The Girl From Station X is an illuminating read.
The war had a liberating effect: women were hardly about to exchange their newfound freedom in peacetime for baking cakes and a life cushioned by nappies. Cooke stressed how the old and the new were pulling against each other in fifties Britain, which was on the cusp of modernity ― heralding the sixties. Women were expected to settle down, marry and have kids, yet having had a taste of freedom, they wanted to do their own thing and be independent. The way women today juggle home and career and feel guilty about it was not the case then, when women just went for it and did not consider the consequences. The term ‘latchkey kid’ dates from the fifties. Continue reading #OnWilderShores @AuthorsClub lunch with @MsRachelCooke and the Fifties Woman