Although the young women of the 1950s hovered on the cusp of change, many did not know it. Valerie Gisborn was the exuberant 15-year-old daughter of ‘a sharp-tempered, anti-social’ mother riddled with ‘neurotic restrictiveness’. But Valerie had fallen in love. She had met Brian in 1949 at the local ballroom in Leicester, her sole permissible social excursion of the week. Prevented from continuing her education by parents who insisted she earn her living at the city’s knitwear factory, Valerie’s early ambition to start her own business was crushed by the demotivating monotony of her job. Romance offered an emotional if not a physical escape. But the humiliating slap in the face that Mrs Gisborn gave Valerie when she spotted Brian kissing her in the street is as shocking to read about as it must have been to receive. The horrified Brian vanished for good.
Education, professional ambition, prejudice, sex, acceptance and rebellion, plus the inhibiting presence of a previous generation, are themes that run through Perfect Wives, an indefatigably researched, moving and perceptive book. Virginia Nicholson handles her wide-ranging material with sympathy, humour and a lightness of touch; her enviable gift for interpretation and storytelling is balanced by first-hand accounts of those women of the 1950s, their youth so relatively recent, who have trusted her with the intimate details of their lives.
The challenge for many of these women was to embrace the emerging opportunities for independence while resisting a ‘fantasy world’ in which ‘marriage and home were the twin pinnacles of aspiration’ and a well-scrubbed doorstep represented moral decency. Although men were assumed to be the chief barrier to emancipation, Nicholson emphasises that ‘women’s attitude to themselves’ was equally responsible; they inherited from their wartime mothers ‘a pathological fear of destitution’.
In 1953 two sisters embodied a choice. The elder, a young married woman with two children, had just been crowned queen. Mary Whitehouse, a Warwickshire housewife, explained in a pre-coronation broadcast of Woman’s Hour how a woman could demonstrate her patriotism by ensuring that her hardworking husband’s dinner was treated as ‘a sacrament, a feast’. But if Elizabeth II was the embodiment of elegant domesticity, her free-spirited younger sister provided a cautionary tale. Princess Margaret’s falling for a divorcé was seen as ‘the antithesis of her sister’s virtue and irreproachability’.
Sex dominated and restricted the freedom that many women yearned for. The naivety of a trainee nurse who assumed that lovemaking was as tricky as ‘pushing toothpaste back into the tube’ was not unusual. Sex before marriage risked society’s judgment, the possible termination of an unwanted pregnancy with ‘what looked like steel knitting needles’ or the male retort that wearing a condom was ‘like having a bath with your socks on’. The female body was employed, from prostitution to air-hostessing, as a commodity that could ensure financial independence. Leila Williams, a beauty queen ‘drunk on dazzle’, failed to win the Miss World crown after refusing the advances of Eric Morley, the pageant’s founder. Wives succumbed to the functional conjugal demands of a husband while counting the cracks on the bedroom ceiling above.
The marginalised suffered unmitigated prejudice. Vilma Owen, whose family had arrived from Jamaica when she was a young girl, was prevented from pursuing her nursing career by the colour of her skin. Lesbians sought out the ghetto-like protection of one another. One male establishment figure suggested that universities might ‘re-balance our topsy-turvy times’ by offering women students a course in ‘charm’. When Jean, a female undergraduate, was caught in bed with a boy she was sent down. The boy kept his place.
But the ‘fledgling women’s movement’ was steadily gathering momentum. Although only 1.2 per cent of female school-leavers went to university, divorce had increased fivefold in the preceding ten years. An investigating commission concluded that women now expected marriage to ‘be an equal partnership, and rightly so’. Some women became clerks; a few even joined the diplomatic service. And at the age of 22 Valerie Gisborn defied her mother and enrolled in the local police force, retiring over a quarter century later as the longest serving policewoman of the Leicestershire constabulary. One hopes her mother was proud.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £14.99 Tel: 08430 600033
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10