Sunday 17 December 2017

So, was life really easy for a housewife like Maura in the 50s?

The idealised image of domestic life in Ireland back in the day needs a reality check, writes Liz Kearney

Ah, the 1950s housewife. Keeper of a wonderful home, baker of delicious cakes, glamorous wearer of kitten heels and twinsets, and perennially smiling happy-go-lucky wife and mother.

Today's frazzled working mums, with toothpaste in their hair and babysick in their briefcases, could be forgiven for occasionally daydreaming about swapping their busy lives for a simpler time, when their only goal was to keep home, kids and hubby in check.

Well, they should stop daydreaming, says writer Sheila Hardy, because the reality of life in the 1950s was a million miles away from the fantasy.

Hardy's latest book, A 1950s Housewife: Marriage and Homemaking in the 1950s, makes one thing very clear: that idealised image of domestic bliss, so familiar to us from American magazines and TV ads of the time, bears hardly any resemblance to what life here was actually like.

Our American sisters might have been living in a post-war land of plenty, liberated by their newly-invented washing machines and Hoovers, but here, life was still filled with drudgery for most women.

"Most women in the 1950s were simply jogging along,' says Hardy. "Life was still very hard, but we just got on with it."

So what it was really like to be a 1950s housewife?

"If you hadn't married by 23, you were on the shelf," says Hardy, who herself ought to have been a 1950s housewife, having left school in Britain in 1952, but didn't marry until her 30s – ancient, by the standards of the time – because she became a teacher.

Her mother had to patiently explain to bemused family and friends that Sheila wasn't married because she was 'a career woman' – a very new concept at the time.

"When I had my first child at the age of 35, the midwife asked me what I'd been doing all these years," she recalls.

Living together before marriage was, of course, completely out of bounds, so the wedding was one of the most important days of a young woman's life.

And in Ireland, it often meant the end of a woman's work outside the home: the marriage bar, which banned married women from the civil service and limited their employment options in other industries, was in place until we joined the EEC in 1973.

Setting up home brought its own challenges.

There was a shortage of housing in the 1950s and it was common for newly married couples to rent a room or two in someone else's house. It wasn't ideal, but that was often the only option.

"I think that was the hardest thing for women," says Hardy. "To be living in a couple of rooms in someone else's house, with a shared bathroom – I know nowadays it's hard to get on the property ladder, but at least now people can rent. In those days, that wasn't even really an option."

Once you had your own home, furnishing it took a little ingenuity. Newfangled household appliances like washing machines and Hoovers were still many years off for most ordinary women. "You didn't get a washing machine until baby number one or two, usually," says Hardy.

Personal hygiene was another challenge. Many houses didn't have running water. "Baths were once a week," says Hardy, "and you just had a good strip wash apart from that."

When children came along, things changed again. While they enjoyed more freedom to run around outside and play, 1950s mums ensured that the little ones knew their place.

"Children were seen and not heard, and spent more time sitting around politely listening to the adults' conversations," explains Hardy.

"They were expected to behave properly and to sit still and be quiet and disciplined. They knew where the boundaries were.

"And of course they played outside more – parents weren't as fearful."

Simpler times, maybe, but difficult too, in their own way. So why have we idealised the 1950s' housewife so much?

Hardy thinks it's because the economic downturn has reminded us that our mums and our grannies could teach us a thing or two about doing more with less.

"As we've gone through this recession, people have looked back to see how women managed in the 1950s. We've looked at how women could make do and mend in those days and I think we've learnt from them. And I suppose on TV, the glamorous housewife makes for good drama!"

Irish Independent

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