Thursday 8 December 2016

Books: Knitting patterns, poultry-incubators and agony aunts

Culture: Women's Voices in Ireland: Women's Magazines in the 1950s and 1960s, Catriona Clear, Bloomsbury, Academic Press, hdbk, 208 pages, €97

Tanya Sweeney

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

Cover girl: Woman's Way from 1969.
Cover girl: Woman's Way from 1969.

This record of Irish women's magazines unearths some startling snapshots of a society in transition.

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It's a truth already long acknowledged that Ireland was undergoing several changes in the Sixties and Seventies. Among the small but significant acquisitions in the Irish household were the humble tap and toilet, putting paid to the Irish housewife's drudgery of doing without piped water or electricity. Yet other changes were afoot, too: a growing economy meant that mammy's little dears weren't emigrating, but staying on to work or continue in school. Indoor toilets aside, it often meant heavier household burdens for the average encumbered Irish mammy. For many of them, summer wasn't a time for holidays or fun; it simply meant "more light to mend children's clothes by".

Research reveals, too, that while marriage rates started to rise in the 1960s, the bachelors and spinsters born in the post-war decade were vibrant, active members of society. By 1961, there were over 31,000 more female, white-collar, industrial, professional and commercial workers in Ireland than in 1946. Added to which a number of legal improvements in women's status in the Fifties and Sixties (among them, the Married Woman's Status Act in 1956) made it a capricious and compelling time indeed for Mná na hÉireann.

Caitriona Clear, a senior lecturer in NUI Galway, has turned her attentions to Irish-produced magazines and where they fit in. What she has unearthed is a startling Aladdin's cave of memories and snapshots.

In Women's Voices in Ireland, Clear revisits Woman's Life (1951-1959) and Woman's Way (1963-1969) and, to a lesser extent, Woman's Mirror, Model Housekeeping, Miss and Young Woman.

Clear combines a genuine affection for the medium - she devoured Bunty, Judy, Nikki, Petticoat, Jackie and Look Now with relish in her youth - with the deft acumen of the scholar. This isn't a humorous, cuddly 'Tips for Fifties' Housewives' style tome. Rather, it's a neat (and thorough) record of women's magazines at a time when their roles were becoming ever more complex. Clear's account recalls the staples of women's magazines from times of yore; bonnie babies, 'personality girl' competitions, cookery articles, sewing patterns and even poultry-incubator classifieds.

Where Woman's Life housed all of the above, there was also room for a diary page, showbiz reports (on luminaries as diverse as Maureen Potter, Ruby Murray, Lelia Doolin and Maureen Cusack), and coverage of the vogueish dancing schools and modelling agencies of the time. Unlike other publications throughout the world, Woman's Life always managed to keep an eye on its rural readership, reaching out regularly to farm women with coverage from the Ploughing Championships and the like.

One of the opening letters of an early issue welcomed it as a way to receive "advice, patterns, etc..." Intriguingly, readers provided the advice and tips to other readers in Woman's Way, making it a safe space for Irish women to explore themselves and exchange ideas. Betty Freidan famously described women's magazines as both propaganda and tranquilizer for the "happy housewife heroine", but it seems as though Woman's Way's readers made up a vibrant hive-mind - a de facto social network, if you will.

Yet within the problem pages, it really was here that the agony aunt - Woman's Life's Mrs Wyse, and Angela Macnamara of Woman's Way - reigned supreme. Macnamara has been described by Clear as "sympathetic but equally tough on the self-deluding and the self-righteous". And the letters published in these magazines provide as succinct a snapshot of the Irish woman's experience as any.

The breakdown of letters published in Woman's Life is telling: 41.6pc pertained to courtship, 18.7pc were classified as miscellaneous (likely gynaecological problems that were answered privately), 12.8pc had to do with extended family, while only 10.5pc were written about marital problems. Clear observes that uncommunicative, undemonstrative husbands were a normal part of life. Mrs Wyse's response to one such problem? "Personally, I think you'll just have to be thankful for a good man's love."

Advice on the workplace appears, in retrospect, somewhat misplaced: a typist was advised that she should always have sharpened pencils, dress in unobtrusive clothes and avoid "jangling bracelets".

To her credit, Mrs Wyse always had the backs of the single woman; an anomaly in today's culture, but a downright curiosity in yesteryear. Still, those who worried about not wanting to settle down were often assured that they were just fine as they were. 27-year-olds who panicked about being left on the shelf and had difficulty finding potential suitors were told to hold their proverbial horses.

Child rearing didn't feature prominently; not because the Irish mammy didn't suffer in silence, but because she laid down the law.

By all accounts, the 'long courtship' - a woman waiting patiently for a proposal - was a common concern for Irish women at the time.

"In Ireland, the woman who was a bad dancer, and whose fiancé therefore danced with other women all the time when they were out, was told not to tolerate it," writes Clear. "There were (also) some insoluble problems, like the city woman, in love with a farmer, who didn't want to go and live in the country."

By the Sixties, the times were very much a-changing, and Woman's Way was at the coalface of it all. Certainly, domestic and family life, as well as showbiz, beauty, etiquette and the ubiquitous knitting patterns were all present and correct, but its readers were also encouraged to take an interest in current affairs and political life.

The Woman's Way mailbag was full to exploding; its founding editor Sean O'Sullivan commented in 1964 that the magazine could only publish one-fiftieth of all the letters received. Given that published letters earned their writers a guinea, they became a small sort of lesser-spotted cottage industry; a way for housewives to make some money by writing household hints, as well as observing the minutiae of daily Irish life in the regular column 'Things They Say'.

The generational gap soon started to make its presence felt in the Women's Way letters pages: one Noel Collins wrote in 1964 of "this Beatlemania and stupid carry-on (of) children". Another wrote of being "utterly disgusted… at the current trend of broadmindedness in Ireland".

But nothing seemed to quite as polarizing as the issue of family planning, which started to show up on the readers' pages of Woman's Way in 1966. The (protestant) editor at the time, Caroline Mitchell, was pro-contraception, even if her star agony aunt, Macnamara, wasn't. At the time, the country was anxiously awaiting the Pope's take on family planning, but in the pages of women's magazines, the unease at disobeying the church was palpable.

"For Monica McEnroy to imply that women of Ireland only have to stand together and have a little moral courage to change one of the oldest rules in the Church is, I think, going too far," wrote Elizabeth Dalton, a mother of five.

As the Sixties progressed, family size did get smaller, implying that family planning - 'artificial ' or natural - to some degree was being practised by Irish women.

Fast forward to the present day, and women's magazines are a rather different beast.

Last August, Glamour magazine in the US issued a cut-out-and-keep guide of rules that women should abide by to "lock him down": become a sex robot who laughs at his jokes, make grilled cheese sandwiches after nookie and allow him to solve "your petty work problem".

These days, it could feasibly be argued that women's magazines run on a curious, odourless but noxious fuel - that of female insecurity.

High-end advertisers need to create a low-level anxiety in their readers, so they will pay out money they don't have for things they don't need.

We may occasionally laugh at the parochial bent of yesteryear's magazines, with its soda bread recipes, problems about emotionally unresponsive husbands and sewing machine advertisements.

But as Clear's affectionate and astute ramble down memory lane attests, perhaps those women really were onto something.

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