Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s by Virginia Nicholson
In some ways it feels – and looks – like women have come a long way since the 1950s. Virginia Nicholson’s breathtakingly comprehensive and eminently readable book, Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s, certainly presents that nostalgia-tinged decade as worlds away from where we are now. It’s a snappy, page-turning, highly emotional read.
The fall-out from the Second World War facilitated much of the social convention that came to be pervasive in the 50s – Britain was seeking “the old, happy life, the life they had left behind”. But this only resulted in one of the most socially oppressive periods in our modern history.
This book takes a deep and personal look at what daily life was really like for women in the 50s. Far from the fantasy of the cheerful, pastel posters we’re so used to, women in the 50s struggled just as much, if not more, than their turn-of-the-century counterparts. Spiralling modernism and consumerism presented a whole new set of challenges, and placed a whole new set of stereotypes on women. The washing machine and the television set only served to re-emphasise women’s place as firmly within the home.
With the ascension of the new Queen, breakthroughs in home-focused technology and the post-war relief, life should have been optimistic. Yet millions of women spent their days in pain, servitude and worry. Women’s health and childbirth were not yet considered ‘proper’ medicine, women’s war-time jobs were suddenly swept from underneath them and handed back to inexperienced men, their social activities closely monitored.
Nicholson lends a sympathetic ear to these women, through archives, letters, diaries and interviews their voices ring out in regret and awe at the world that’s now moved on. There are candid revelations about prostitution, the lack of opportunity for higher education, first attempts at sex, not shying away from the squalor and shame so many experienced, regardless of social standing. Marriage and career didn’t go together – a fact not lost on any ambitious young woman who was unable, according to the conventions of the age, to fulfil her potential.
Between social laws governing sex and marriage to the supposed freedom women hold today, it seems another age was born sometime in the intervening 50 years. Witty, shocking and more than once a talking point, Nicholson’s book is a hugely significant and entertaining slice of social history that still exists in living memory.
Long hours of research have cast a wide-open window on a half-remembered time that now doesn’t look so rosy. In the words of the first woman Foreign Office diplomat Laura Arnold: “That always seems to me one of the things that is so terrible about history: that things that would be unspeakable, unimaginable, absolutely beyond all possible acceptance, can become seen as just normal.” For a modern generation, the history of Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes might seem just that.
Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s is published by Viking at the hardback price of £16.99, for further information visit here.