Married at 21, mothers at 22 and fantastically unconcerned with waxing – life for women in 1952, when Elizabeth became Queen, was very different.
When the Queen ascended to the throne 60 years ago, rationing was still in force, Winston Churchill was at the helm of the good ship Blighty and, if you were lucky enough to have a television, chances are you’d be watching the test card. The women who had worked so hard for the war effort had been unceremoniously booted out of their jobs and back into the kitchen: the men had come home. Feminism was only just entering its toddler phase: Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex (published 1949), was kicking and screaming, but the women’s movement would not hit puberty until the Sixties. Despite this, it’s often looked back on with rose-tinted varifocals by baby boomers. But was it really the decade of ‘we’ve never had it so good’?
A woman's place...
In 1952, 75% of women were married, with the average age for marriage 21 years old. Their place was firmly regarded as in the home – something of a shock to those who had worked during and after the war. “It wasn’t easy,” says Patricia Staley, 90. In 1950, she had given up an office job at the National Coal Board to marry. “I was a wife and full-time mother to three boys under four. I wanted to be at work.” Access to contraception was extremely limited. “Men took care of that side of things,” she says, “that’s why I got pregnant so often.”
“I remember distinctly the talk that went around about the potential [for contraception],” says Elizabeth Smith, also 90, “but that came after. I opted for ‘periodic abstinence’ where you had to time it just right. The implant, now that would have been handy in my day.” It’s not surprising that only 3% of women who started having sex in the Fifties had 10 or more sexual partners. Nowadays, 13% of women have had 10 or more. In the Fifties, the average age for a woman to have her first child was 22.
Elizabeth, married at 21, had her first child when she was 31 which was very unusual in her day. “I was the oldest of my friends to fall pregnant and it came as a shock. A customer [she was a waitress at a restaurant in St Albans] noticed before I did. That was my last day at work for the rest of the decade.” She vividly remembers the coronation: “We were having a party and I heard the Queen say, ‘Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.’ I was wondering whether I could really cut it as a mother and those words really resonated with me.”
“Sixty years ago the average woman had 2.2 children and didn’t work – if she did, average weekly pay was under £5”
Sixty years ago the average woman had 2.2 children and didn’t work. If they did, the average weekly pay was under £5. While unemployment stood at a low 2%, this did not include the majority of women, who were charmingly labelled ‘economically inactive.’ Some bucked the trend. In 1952, Marjorie McNicol was married to a farmer and working as a teacher: “I'd get up at 6am to milk the cows, teach, come home and make dinner, help with the animals till 10pm and then go to bed.” Lillian Brocklebank, then 30, was the manager of a toy shop, but workers’ rights were practically non-existent. “You had to work the day before and the day after the bank holiday, or you didn’t get paid,” she says. “Employers were always looking to get out of paying you your entitlement.
It’s no surprise that there wasn’t much time for leisure. Lillian, now 90, says: “We would go to the pictures but not with women after they got married.” While Patricia says going out, “would have meant that my husband would have had to stay in on his own.” There’s a sense that men were hapless creatures who should not be allowed to fend for themselves. As Marjorie says, “[my role was] looking after my husband. And he didn’t half need looking after.” When women did go out, they favoured outdoor pursuits such as walking or, in Marjorie’s case, hockey. They rarely went to pubs or bars. “I sometimes had a snowball when my husband and I went to dinner,” says Lillian, “but I could never do it as a single lady.”
Popular culture was just getting started. The pop charts were launched in late 1952 and women read magazines such as Good Housekeeping and My Home. Designer clothes seemed a million miles away. “I never had the money to follow fashion,” says Lillian. “I bought my clothes from C&A until I was humiliated at a dance when a woman was wearing the same dress.” Elizabeth’s mother would make her clothes using Vogue patterns. “The few pieces I bought were a luxury. I remember a yellow beach coat my husband gave to me for our honeymoon. It was in a Harrods box and I was sure I’d keep it forever.”
So how far do these women think we’ve come? “It’s much freer now,” says Patricia. “Girls can all go out together. I would never have dreamed of doing that.” But the Fifties did have its advantages. There was none of this pesky waxing business for a start. “We liked having hair on our arms and legs,” says Marjorie. Women are now deemed able to ‘have it all’, but perhaps it’s the strain of managing all this which leads us to yearn for a simpler time. Elizabeth describes modern life as exhausting, “We’re petrified that something – our career or our self image – might slip and the entire pyramid will come down.”
The pressure can seem overwhelming but it’s only the nature of that pressure that’s changed – women have always had unreasonable expectations foisted upon them. Would you rather play pregnancy roulette with the first man you ever had sex with, too scared to leave him alone lest he break the kitchen, or have your own career, money and freedom, and an indoor toilet?
How we live now is by no means perfect and we have a long way to go to achieve equality, but at least we can have a snowball or six on a Saturday night (and be the one who pays). Hurrah for feminism, I say.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is co-founder and editor of the Vagenda