Getting your bum pinched in the street, being talked down to, having to choose between career and marriage ...
wow, the 1950s must have been great. Actually they were – or so many nostalgic souls seem to think.
Take Sir Paul Coleridge, an English high court judge and founder of the Marriage Foundation, an organisation set up to tackle the "scourge" of divorce. Sir Paul is deeply dismayed by the flippancy of many divorces. Some people, he says, give up on their marriages "simply because their partner has not been attentive towards them or variants on that".
"Such justifications," he declared, "would never have been a basis for divorce in the 1950s when the stigma attached to marital breakdown was such that divorcees weren't allowed in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot."
Ah yes, what a golden age it was, when divorcees were shunned by polite society.
That's not the only way in which the postwar years are currently being subjected to dubious revisionism. A 1950s' revival is under way, and while some aspects are benign – the Mad Men-inspired fashions and make-do-and-mend culture – others are less so. The housewife, knocked off her pedestal by 1960s' radical feminists, has had her status lovingly restored, but in airbrushed form. And, from the jaded, frazzled perspective of 21st-century working mums, it is obvious why. In one 2010 survey by Netmums, 47% agreed that "too many mothers work because they have to, when they would rather be home with their children".
According to the Centre for Policy Studies, more women than ever aspire to marry someone who earns more than they do, giving them the option of staying at home. Internet chat rooms are full of wistful wannabe housewives. Typical is: "I want to wake up in the morning before my husband and make him breakfast and get our kids ready for school and take care of our home and garden. Am I crazy?"
Well, is she? No, but perhaps she is in need of a reality check about the housewife's lot. A new book by Jessica Mann – herself a housewife in the 1950s – provides one. The Fifties Mystique draws a parallel between married women of the 1950s and prisoners. Their lives were easier, she notes, only because the hard choices were made for them.
Is that what modern women really want? Some do. Some women derive deep fulfilment from spending time with young children and creating a warm, loving, welcoming home. They want for nothing else. Even women who quickly tire of domesticity occasionally wish they could have more time at home. How many of us, given the choice, wouldn't rather escape the physical and mental stress of a day's work and stay at home?
However, there's a world of difference between recalibrating the work-life balance, and having no choice but to be a housewife and no skills to get meaningful employment if you wanted it. Nostalgia is partial and dishonest. It casts the dainty clothes, quiet streets and well-behaved children of the 1950s in a golden glow, while leaving the backstreet abortions, frustrated wives and shamed single mothers deep in the shadows.
It was an era of crushing conformity when there was no such thing as paid maternity leave and most women relied on "housekeeping" from their husbands. It wasn't until the 1970s that sex discrimination was outlawed. Yet the more women benefit from the achievements of feminism, the more some mythologise the pre-feminist era.
We need to remember how lucky we are. Only a few hours away by plane are women who dream of the hard choices we enjoy. In strictly patriarchal Mali, West Africa, an attempt to give women basic rights has been hopelessly weakened after a backlash by conservative Muslims. Not only is a woman still legally obliged to obey her husband. Now, if he dies she is no longer automatically entitled to keep her children.
Feminism may not have achieved nirvana. It may even have made women's lives harder, but many are more fulfilled as a result.
We yearn for the days of cake-making in Dior dresses at our peril.
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