Sex, rebellion, ambition, prejudice: the story of 1950s women has it all

A review of Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson reveals that it wasn’t just men blocking female emancipation: women themselves were equally to blame

14 March 2015

9:00 AM

14 March 2015

9:00 AM

Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s Virginia Nicholson

Penguin Viking, pp.526, £16.99, ISBN: 9780670921317

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.

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Show comments
  • stephengreen

    Both the chosen focus and the examples read as typical progressive clichés. No, thanks.

  • Ed  

    Bah. Silly crap.

    My mother was one of those women, and wasn’t at all stuck in any of this stuff. In 1944 she went into the Fleet Air Arm, repairing aircraft radios.

    Then, because WWII wasn’t enough adventure, in the 1950s she moved from Chiswick to Sept-Iles. Where’s that? Backwoods Quebec.

    Life is what you choose to make of it. What are you doing?

  • Maria

    What a load of garbage!

  • Maria

    Are you trying to imply that somehow women are better off now? Well a few at the top of the financial tree of ambition might be…being perhaps endowed with brains, family stability and substance and even good looks. But the truth of the matter is that poor women have not been helped by the abandonment of marriage. All that has happened is that the nanny state has replaced a husband. Men have become disenfranchised in this respect too.

    Perhaps inheriting a fear of impoverishment had more to do with the fear of the workhouses which haunted the lives of those without and certainly in my grandmothers mind. Such is the care of the state.

    Better to be the queen in one’s own home than drooling at the few who have apparently ‘made it’ from the comfort of one’s state encrusted life of welfare.

    Not to mention the absolute benefit for children to have their parents married and with them.

  • Callipygian

    ‘a pathological fear of destitution’
    Was it? Is it? I don’t think so. How far away do you think that wolf is? A mile? Half a mile? Twenty feet?

    By the way, lots of names annoy me. Valerie and Val are annoying. As is Barbara, and that oddly favoured name of the 70s and 80s: Lisa (in America: why?). Also I have never liked Catherine, C or K, aristocratic as it may be. A harsh unromantic name, like a cross between ‘catheter’ and ‘saccharine’. When it comes to men I don’t like the coarsening and profoundly unsexy short forms: Bill, Bob, Ed, Chuck, Woody. Yuck. On the other hand, Jim is fine and Chris is lovely — whether for Christopher or the even nicer Christian (my husband’s name).

    • Lsd

      You’re entitled to your myopic and narrow view but others are clearly entitled to theirs. Maybe if you increase your dosage you’ll feel better, maybe even expand your horizons and wise up a little. In addition perhaps your future posts will be relevant to the article and you can share your views with people who care.

      • Callipygian

        Are you kidding? O/T is one of the things I do best!

      • Violin Sonata

        I wonder what insight someone whose named themselves after a
        phychedelic substance would give to the topic.

        • Lsd

          A presumtuous retort indeed. Why would you assume, without thinking or questioning, that Lsd equates to a psychedelic (spelling corrected for your edification) substance, or is even a name, as you put it? It has a connotation of two other tangibles. Think about it carefully and you might come up with at least one of them.