As women returned from their war duties in the late 1940s many once again subsumed the role of wives and mothers that they had prior to 1939. Others did not and went onto lead professional, independent lives fueled by their sense of ‘freedom’ that serving in various armed forces gave them. Indeed, women leaving the various Allied auxiliary services were even offered ‘Housewife Classes’ if they were to be married soon after been demobbed alongside such practical classes as typewriting, secretarial skills, and options for going to University. Read on to see how a return to domesticity, and in some cases women never left the domestic sphere, affected Irish women in the early 1950s.
The Woman’s Corner column (left) in The Derry Journal of 18th September 1950 features beautiful illustrations of fashions that would not look out of place in 1950s Paris. Here is the beautiful, sophisticated, and fashionable housewife who could afford beautifully made clothes. She also read columns like this for hints and tips for running her household either with the help or without the help of servants.
The write of such columns were nearly always women and by reading this particular column we can assume the reader was possibly a middle class housewife due to the beautifully illustrated clothes. However, this middle class housewife did not only want hints and tips on how to repair a plastic coat or cook a tasty soup she was interested in intellectual pursuits such as reading, the arts, theatre, music etc. and possibly had a good education and working life before marriage.
To assume that all intellectual life stopped for women after marriage in 1950s Ireland is to be ignorant of women’s individual histories and stories. Indeed, they were preoccupied with household activities and rearing children but they still had an inner-life that needed feeding with reading, art, music, and other such leisure pursuits. Domestic Duties aside the Irish housewife of the early 1950s if circumstances allowed it wanted and needed to have some leisure time if she was to function as a wife and mother.
However, what did make this happy housewife who had some leisure time in 1950s Ireland? Why access to domestic appliances and a ready supply of electricity! As George Gracie states the perfect Christmas gift for a busy housewife was a hoover, washing machine, and electric iron. Whilst we may take offence if someone bought us these items for Christmas unless we needed them; for a 1950s housewife with several children a washing machine ended the near all day drudgery of wash day. Similarly, items like a fridge enabled women to not shop daily and thus increase leisure time. An electric vacuum cleaner also meant women weren’t constantly sweeping and mopping floors daily!
A ready supply of electricity was needed for these applications to work if the housewife was to go through her domestic duties and have time for herself in between washing and cooking. The 1950s saw rural electrification being rolled out across the south and north of Ireland with farmers, priests, nuns, and housewives being pictured in newspapers switching on the village’s or towns new electric generator or source of electricity. To say that women’s lives literally changed at a flick of a switch is an understatement – they changed beyond all recognition. Gone where the long days of washing, cooking, and cleaning and in where the days where things could be washed and cooked at the flick of the electric switch.
The 1950s across the island of Ireland was the beginning of an electrical appliance boom with everything from kettles to toasters to washing machines to electric cookers being sold. In fact many housewives who used these items on a daily basis gave demonstrations to newly electrified areas or in show rooms across the country. In essence, these women were being paid to be housewives showing other housewives how to be housewives! My own maternal grandmother remembers her first electric washing machine; it was so popular she hired it out to her neighbours who didn’t have access to one yet!
Similarly, relatives of partner had an indoor bathroom with electric heating system that was such a novelty that their relatives used to get a bus to have a bath instead of using the tin bath in front of the fire! Additionally, the addition of an electric iron made the continuous washing and ironing of children’s clothes easier that one of my great-aunt’s took in ironing for neigbours who did not have an electric iron and charged by the clothing item!
Again this all might seem strange and startling to our 21st Century eyes but without the advent of these electrical items we would still be in the dark ages as women and we would not have the progress in the workplace that we now have for women in 2022. I personally couldn’t imagine having to handwash everything, including duvets, and wring it through a mangle every week – the thought is terrifying!
Whilst it is important to note the advances in technology that aided the full-time housewife it is also important to acknowledge how they helped women who did continue to work after marriage. Mary O’Malley who was active in the Lyric Theatre Belfast and produced plays and gave acting classes in her own home discusses how she fits her working life around her home life. To modern eyes calling Mary O’Malley a ‘Housewife’ before a ‘Theatre Producer’ is deragtory but we need to remember the times that these articles were written in; Mary O’Malley was somewhat of a novelty in early 1950s Ireland and certainly not the norm.
However, Mary O’Malley gave educated and intellectual women a hope that they could continue with their profession after marriage like Mary. Additionally, with the balance of Mary’s work and home life she is doing what countless millions of women across Ireland are now doing without batting an eyelid. Who would have thought that the invention of something so trivial as a washing machine and vacuum cleaner would be so important? You’ll never take for granted your fancy new washing machine, electric iron, or hoover again if you consider the old-fashioned grinding alternatives!