The Myth of the 1950s Housewife: Voluntary women's organisations and the challenge to idealised domesticity in post war Britain
The changing role of women in post war British society has been well-documented by historians, for example Jane Lewis (1992), Sue Bruley (1999) and Martin Pugh (2000). These studies examine in detail the ways in which many women’s lives were transformed following the Second World War by expanding educational opportunities, greater access to health care, reliable birth control, improved living standards and paid employment.
Yet in spite of such changes in women’s lives and their experiences, the enduring image of the 1950s housewife, both in the popular imagination and orthodox historiographies is that of the ‘perfect’ wife devoted exclusively to her home and family having acquiesced to the prevailing ideology of domesticity.
This paper will suggest that the ‘real’ 1950s housewife was instead a complex construction of wife, mother, employee, consumer, active citizen and campaigner for women’s rights. These multiple identities of the housewife are best represented by the hundreds of thousands of women who joined popular voluntary women’s organisations such as the Mothers’ Union, the Townswomen’s Guilds and the Women’s Institutes during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Through an exploration of the aims and activities of these conventional women’s organisations it becomes clear that during the post war years significant numbers of so-called ‘typical housewives’ were actively engaged in local and national campaigns to enhance the lives of women and to ensure that women, as equal citizens, had access to the rights and privileges of democratic citizenship in post war British society.
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