The 1950s: Joan Bakewell and Me

My recent TLS piece about 1956 has given rise to some critical letters in the subsequent issue, two of which homed in on my suggestion that it was mainly men who benefitted from the period, while women – not yet inspired by feminism – were left behind. Here they are.

(No. 1)  Sir,

Your reviewer is mistaken when he says that ‘women [were] essentially unliberated in 1956. We had the vote, married women could own and dispose of their property as spinsters and widows had long been able to do, we were educated as boys were in the state system, we could get degrees at Oxford and Cambridge, all the professions, except the Church, were open to us, we could sit in Parliament and work in executive positions in business and commerce. I was twenty-two at the time, an assistant buyer in United Africa Company, part of Unilever, doing the same job as many male contemporaries – admittedly paid less than they were but not paying for myself when we went to the cinema. We had vacuum cleaners, electric irons and refrigerators. Our marriages were, on average, no less happy or unhappy than marriages and partnerships to-day, as far as I can see.

If this sounds class-orientated I can confirm from observation how much was added to family incomes in the 1950s by wives who took in washing, minded children and worked in the fields. The Second World War, as many have written,  proved  that women could work and that they might and should. There were many men in menial jobs at that time.

Twenty-first century feminists are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, not always grateful enough to the  giants who strove and campaigned in the nineteenth and early twentieth century for changes in law and society which I have listed  (I am sure that my list is not exhaustive) and for the inventors who applied their talents to developing  domestic machinery. Bachelors have benefited from the latter also.

Antonia Southern,

Yew Trees House,


Westbury, Wiltshire  BA13 4RQ.

(No. 2)  Sir,

I write to comment on the review by Bernard Porter of the book : “1956 The year that changed Britain” by Francis Beckett and Tony Russell. He says he found the 1950s rather exciting, but adds a caveat: “of course I’m only one person and a pretty lucky one at that. I’m not a woman for a start”

Well, I am a woman and I remember the 1950s with the same enthusiasm. In many ways our lives and that of our mothers was getting better: rationing finally ended in the early ‘50s: new foods arrived: avocados, aubergines, together with a swathe of books by Elizabeth David. Dior’s New Look brought glamour into our lives. We had a new monarch, young and a woman.   Home-making became progressively easier with the arrival of washing machines, fridges, spin dryers, promising freedom from drudgery that would liberate women to work outside the home.

I, like Bernard Porter, was lucky. I was one of a generation of young women who, the first in their families’ history, went to university at the state’s expense. We graduated into a world with plenty of jobs and steady full time employment. In my first months at the BBC at the age of 22, we discussed my pension arrangements. Of course women earned less than men…..but that hasn’t changed!.

The cultural scene was beginning its great post-war flourishing: The Arts Council founded in 1948, the Edinburgh Festival in 1947, the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948.   In BBC radio, where I worked with producers such as Louis MacNeice, there was a golden age of new drama: Pinter, Beckett, Wesker, Mortimer, This reflected the theatre scene: John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was merely the most famous of what was called ‘kitchen sink drama:”   Delaney, Wesker, Barstow. The talented working class moved in on stage and films: David Mercer, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, Edward Bond.   The air was thick with hopes and ideas.   And women enjoyed it as much as men.

Joan Bakewell

House of Lords

Gosh, the great Joan Bakewell! I’m flattered. I also take all the points in her letter, and some of those in Antonia Southern’s, which indeed strengthen the main theme of my article, which was that the 1950s were a far more exciting and (mainly) hopeful time than they have been painted in post-Thatcherian retrospect; while still however maintaining that this was a weak time for feminism, and that the material advances made by or on behalf of women still left an awful lot more for their successors to do. It’s not a very serious point, perhaps: but I wonder if the common soubriquet attached to Dame Joan at the time – she must remember it – of ‘the thinking man’s bit of crumpet’, doesn’t illustrate the advances that needed to be made after then, and have been. Only a Nigel Farage could come out with such an essentially sexist comment today. And she was almost the only intelligent woman allowed on the telly then.

I made these points about women in the original article firstly because I realised that, as a man, my situation in the 1950s was a privileged one; and secondly, because I wanted to preclude letters to the TLS that would have pointed that out. I’ve little doubt that they would have flooded in. ‘It was all right for him, but – like most men – he neglects the other half of humanity.’ On the whole I prefer Dame Joan’s gentle chiding.

So I won’t be responding in the TLS; only here.

PS. I’ve just remembered I posted another piece about 1956 on this blog, which you can access if you can’t get into the TLS article. I was originally commissioned to write the latter a year ago by the LRB, which said they liked it but in the end couldn’t find room for it – it was probably all the Brexit pieces coming in – but still paid me for it, generously, and allowed me to pass it on to the good old TLS. Here’s the blog version, which elaborates on the TLS piece:

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to The 1950s: Joan Bakewell and Me

  1. John Field says:

    Over here, the Fifties (when I was a kid growing up) are bracketed in an established typology of off-the-beam nostalgia. Across my adolescence, I turned into a blissful leftie of sorts. I was smitten with JFK in ’60, to my dad’s wry amusement. Having pumped gas into Joseph’s son’s convertibles at grampa’s Hyannis Shell station, he had no truck with such well-born heirs to fortune. Anyway, a warped kind of American Exceptionalism applies to this mythic take on that decade, as to so much else, in my view.


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