INTRODUCTION: LOOKING BACK TO THE 1940S AND 1950S
One of the great pleasures of being a feminist scholar writing about women’s postwar lives in contemporary Britain is the freedom it allows to investigate a range of issues that have personal resonance. It is noticeable that as the generation of second wave feminist theorists who have been so influential in changing the nature of social science in the last three decades has aged so too has their empirical focus shifted from an interest in childbirth, housework and employment to an emphasis on ageing (see, for example, Greer 1985, 1992; Oakley 1974a, 1974b; Rowbotham 1989). A related feature of this shifting focus has been the recent interest among feminist scholars and others in their childhood memories of the early post-war period. One of the most vivid of the memoirs that has appeared in the last few years is Lorna Sage’s (2000) moving story of her upbringing in rural Wales in the 1950s – Bad Blood – in which she explored some of the implications of her own spatial and social mobility as she moved to the north of England as a first generation university student and then into the middle classes as a university lecturer after a strange and lonely childhood. I too was a child in the 1950s and these various memoirs and reflections awoke only half-hidden memories. Alison Pressley’s (1999) foreword to her book of personal reflections The Best of Times: Growing up in Britain in the 1950s took me straight back to those years:
I was born at the tail end of the 1940s and started school in 1954, growing up as post-war severity was gradually transformed into a more affluent society. I had already read with interest a whole series of recollections on the era, including Elizabeth Wilson’s (1980) Half way to Paradise, Sara Maitland’s (1988) Very Heaven and Liz Heron’s (1985) Truth, Dare or Promise about girls growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. However, as well as my growing interest in the lives of women of my own age – the baby boomers – I found I was becoming increasingly curious about the lives of an earlier generation: those women, including my own mother, who were young adults in the late 1940s and 1950s, having their sons and daughters as part of the post-war baby boom and often perhaps moving into a life of domesticity after more active working lives during the war. I had long suspected that the stories about domesticity in the 1950s and women’s supposed lack of political activity concealed more differences between women than they captured
similarities. What about the women who remained in the labour market, combining domesticity, motherhood and employment in the immediately postwar era? How did they feel? Did their identity as workers conflict with their ideal of motherhood? And how were their home and working lives altered by new technology and growing affluence during the golden years of Fordist production, new consumer goods and more comfortable homes?