Friday 24 May 2019

Lovely girls... 1960s Ireland was still hostile for women

An Irish woman's place was still in the kitchen and the idea of a long-term career was only for those with grand notions. 1930s maybe? Think again... more like the Swinging Sixties

Entrants in the 'Darling Girls from Clare' at Dunnes Stores, Georges Street, Dublin. 25.07.1965
Entrants in the 'Darling Girls from Clare' at Dunnes Stores, Georges Street, Dublin. 25.07.1965
A letter exhibited at the Modern Wife, Modern Life exhibition in Dublin
Kay Johnson on the cover of Woman's Way magazine
A Housewife's Quiz at the Modern Wife, Modern Life exhibition
Modern Wife, Modern Life

Damian Corless

The Sixties might have been swinging everywhere from London to San Francisco, but Ireland was still a hostile place for women... a place where the Catholic church held powerful sway and men enjoyed complete power in both the home and the boardroom.

The Modern Wife, Modern Life exhibition, currently showing in Dublin, provides a hugely entertaining, and ultimately damning, reflection on the roles imposed on Irish women until far too recently.

The female of the species was very much a second-class citizen. One of the featured exhibits is a Woman's Way magazine cover from 1967 displaying the ideal wife laying out a lavish spread for a dinner party. The concept seems quaint now but The Housewife of the Year on RTÉ television was a ratings-topper into the era when Blur and Oasis fought for the Number One slot.

The biggest name in the land, Gay Byrne, hosted this annual Lovely Girls triathlon for the mature Irishwoman. The finalists' first task (of course) was to rustle up a meal. That done, they were given a dab of make-up and wheeled back out to tell how they had trapped their husband. Having established their desirability in the kitchen and the bedroom, they closed with a party piece that might be a jig, a song or perhaps some verse in Irish. There was no rival show for the menfolk.

In the mid-1990s the contest was dropped amid complaints that too many women working outside the home were taking part. The morning after what turned out to be the final show, a woman caller phoned RTÉ in earnest to protest that most of the finalists "would never get down on their knees to scrub the floor".

A popular image survives in folk memory of rural women in their headscarves gathered around the parish pump, exchanging gossip until it was time for their husbands to come in to have their tea placed on the table. Insofar as this cliché had any basis in truth, the women supposedly loitering at the pump were there because of their husbands. From the moment there was the remotest chance of getting water piped straight into their homes, the vast majority of Irish housewives were ready, willing and anxious to do away with their regular treks to the pump to fill back-breaking containers.

It was a daily toil. The ones standing in the way of such progress were the women's husbands. In the 1950s and 1960s, the members of the Irish Farmers' Association vigorously opposed the direct supply of household water, fearful that it would increase the rateable valuation of their properties.

In 1961, the Irish Countrywomen's Association organised a Turn on the Tap exhibition at Dublin's Mansion House to support their case that the parish pump had had its day. Their husbands stood their ground. It was a struggle that, in many cases, would go on another two decades and more.

And for those women who did work, the notion of a long-term career was not one that was ever allowed to take root.

A company letter from the Swinging Sixties congratulating a young lady for getting a job included the provision that the post would "be terminated automatically by your marriage although you may apply for an appointment to the Temporary Staff from the date of your marriage."

When Ireland entered the European Economic Community - EEC - at the start of the 1970s, the Europeans wanted all of these oppressive situations addressed, and ordered the government to start by putting equal pay on the statute books by the end of 1975.

The politicians complied by ­drafting the legislation, but then did nothing to enact it. The Federated Union of Employers raised furious objections to paying women the same as men, insisting it would banjax the economy.

The Reverend Brother Vivien Cassels spoke for many when he remarked: "There is still a high percentage of women working for no valid reason, though they realise that by doing so they are depriving many young people from starting their careers in the civil service, banking or teaching. These people are not willing to forego the perks that a second salary can bring, like a trip to the Costa Brava, that second car or that well-stocked cocktail cabinet."

Union protests against sexist recruitment adverts were conspicuous by their absence. One such ad, posted in a Grafton Street window read: "Receptionist/Typist: Christmas decorating? Why not start with your reception area and employ a girl like Joan. Joan is 25, very attractive. Altogether a lovely girl."

And even as Ireland entered the 1980s there was no let-up. One Yuletide, a leading recruitment agency in Dublin city centre advertised the merits of a young woman. It read: "Deck the halls with bows of holly! How about decking your office with this lovely dolly!" It went on to state that the woman was just 20 years old.

And if you thought that was about as low as things could go, the explicit sexism of the era of Are You Being Served could plumb deeper.

Sad to say, an excerpt from the property pages of this very newspaper some 40 years ago announced that "a sophisticated computer system will render it immaterial whether the modern secretary puts her shapely bottom on a chair in Stephen's Green, Sandyford or Santry".

At the beginning of the 1980s, a new magazine entitled Status attempted to give women a fresh voice to redress the imbalance. It got off to a flying start, with issue one selling out impressively. In that first issue, the reporters canvassed some high-profile males on their attitude to women. Very much down on that sort of thing, the Reverend Ian Paisley replied: "You can leave me out of all this."

But the arrival of a new voice for the women of Ireland proved a false dawn. Its feminist slant got short shrift from a fashion and cosmetics business that, of course, was almost entirely run by males. There was absolutely no way they were parting a penny to a feminist magazine that, of all things, didn't even run a horoscope.

The magazine was forced to the wall by a hostile male-run advertising industry.

One of the most senior journalists in Ireland today reported that at a national advertising conference, a bunch of male executives rounded off a night of carousing by ceremonially setting alight a copy of Status.

Currently running at The National Print Museum, Dublin, until the end of August.

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