70 years on the throne-how has life changed for women?

As the Queen prepares to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee, three women look back on the decade when washing machines were described as every woman’s dream.  But how much has life really changed for women since the 1950s?

In some ways, women living in 2022 have never had it better, as there are plenty of career options available and flexible working is on the rise. But where there is choice there are decisions to be made and young women of today face some pretty tough ones.  Should they take on the financial burden of a three-year degree course or the responsibility of that first mortgage?  Should they take a break from a fledgling career to have children and, when children are born, should they send them to nursery or accept a lower standard of living and stay at home?

The choices were very different for good friends Olive Bell and June Hayward, who were in their early twenties when the Queen was crowned in 1953.  Olive describes the ambitions of the average young woman.

“We just wanted to meet a nice young fellow, get married and have a family.  It was as simple as that.  When you married back then, if you had a job, you were expected to give it up.  That was that.  You stayed at home and looked after your children and husband.”

The rules of life may have been simpler in the 50s, but the way of life was often extremely hard.  With washing machines a luxury, rationing still in force and no reliable public transport, June’s daily routine involved several trips to and from the local nursery, which didn’t provide meals for its young pupils.

“There was always so much to do,” says June.  “For a start, we washed everything by hand, and I mean everything!  Then you’d have to wring the clothes out with a mangle.  Because we still had rationing, we only had so much of things like meat, butter and milk.  I remember the bakers down the road used to bake cakes just once a week and there’d be lines of people queuing up for them!”

But Olive and June both managed to find ways of coping.  “You could make cakes without eggs by substituting oil,” says June.  “Or we used dried egg powder.  And we never gave things away to charity shops because by the time we were ready to give them away they were unusable!”

I am curious to know whether women ever felt dissatisfied with the routines of a life spent caring for a family.

“Well, you see the whole way that we thought was different then,” replies Olive.  I ask her whether the traditional image of the dutiful wife greeting her husband with slippers and a hot dinner is accurate.  “Our husbands worked such long hours and often six-day weeks,” she replies, “so it seemed only fair to have a meal waiting for them when they got home. They were the breadwinners.”

This is surely a key difference between 1950s society and the present day.  Today, women are encouraged to achieve their potential, both academically and in the workplace, so that often their qualifications and earning potential equal or surpass that of their partner.

“When I was young,” June remembers, “my family couldn’t afford for me to go to the local grammar school, as the uniform and books were expensive.  I did do some work typing accounts, but that was at home so I could do it when the children were asleep.  That was the thing you see, you fitted things in around your children.”

Talking to Olive and June, it seems clear that life in a 1950s household revolved around the family.  It is striking that both women remember their years as young married women to have been extremely happy and June believes that this was largely due to being part of a thriving local community. 

“There was always something on at church,” she says enthusiastically. “There wasn’t a single night of the week when there was nothing happening.  And we knew our neighbours better.  Our house had the only telephone in the whole street, and I remember that neighbours were always popping in to ask if they could use our phone”. 

“We felt safer in those days as well,” comments Olive.  “You could send your children off to the park for a whole day and know that they’d be alright.”

Olive and June both remember the Queen’s coronation in 1953 as being an extremely special event that brought neighbours, friends and family together around a small television set.

“We didn’t have a lot, but we were happy,” says June.  “And I think that had a lot to do with the relationships we had.

Helen Ashworth agrees that a sense of community was a real strength of life in the 1950s.  As a busy young teacher, she often wishes that she could spend more time chatting with her neighbours.

  “I love my job,” says Helen, “but when I get home, I’m often exhausted and feel as if I haven’t got anything left to give.” 

Helen appreciates the opportunities that modern life has given her.  She has a blossoming career and enjoys frequent trips away from home, including a recent visit to New Zealand.  However, when I ask Helen if anything about 1950s life attracts her, she replies, “its simplicity.  There is something about Olive and June’s life of baking, chatting over garden fences and walking to the nursery that flies in the face of our modern tendency to grab everything on the go.  Sometimes, it would be nice to enjoy what I’m doing now, instead of being constantly pushed towards the next peak of achievement.” 

For women like Olive and June, the 1950s were a time of community spirit, simple living and a slow pace of life.  When you contrast these with the expectations, financial pressures and isolation experienced by many modern women, you can’t help wondering just how much better our lives really are.

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