Women’s magazines through the years show massive changes in Irish society

If you want to see how women’s lives have changed, just flick through a woman’s magazine from the 1960s. Back then says Barbara Scully they obsessed with housework whereas now Irish women are sold glamour, creative careers and charmed lifestyles.

THERE are some real gems of wisdom contained in the displays at ‘Modern Life Modern Wife’ exhibition which recently opened at the Print Museum, Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin 4.

The exhibition comprises largely of pages from Irish women’s magazines from the 1960s which offer advice on a range of subjects pertinent to the Irish woman of the day.

The real gems however include this brilliant piece from Woman’s Way in 1969 — “most housewives get plenty of exercise trotting down to the shops, making the beds and doing out the rooms — but never, never slop around the house without wearing a girdle and a good bra. Keeping up with yourself is good for the morale if nothing else.”

I am still pondering what exactly “keeping up with yourself” means and what it has to do with wearing a bra, unless of course one is in danger of leaving one’s breasts behind oneself as one trots along to the shops.

The advice comes not only from the writers in these magazines but also from readers.

Here is what Mr J McA from Dublin had to say in Women’s Way of June 1963. “I married a girl I saw for the first time while she was sewing buttons on an old shirt. Men get inspiration from seeing their future wives doing the necessary things of life”. I wonder did Mr J McA’s marriage last.

The curator of ‘Modern Life Modern Wife’ is Ciara Meehan, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Hertfordshire.

She explains the inspiration for this exhibition came from finding a copy of her grandmother’s ‘Marriage Manual’ from 1938 in her parent’s attic.

“It got me thinking about the representation and expectations of women and how this might have changed over time but particularly in the 1960s which was such a decade of change.”

The exhibition is divided into various sections looking at themes such as ‘Beauty and Presentation’, ‘New Technologies’ and ‘Women Who Work’.

I wondered if Ciara had made any surprising discoveries as she put the material together.

“Advice about sex and intimacy, while not explicit, was talking about the woman enjoying and finding pleasure in sex. And telling women that it wasn’t their duty to satisfy their husbands, but that they should be equal in the relationship”.

When placed in the context of the Ireland of the day where the concept of consent was not recognised within marriage, where sex education was non-existent, this was indeed radical advice.

Technologies played a huge role in changing the life of women in the 1960s and the exhibition is full of ads for electric cookers, strange looking hairdryers and of course the appliance that had the biggest impact on women’s lives — the fridge freezer which led to the weekly, as opposed to the daily, shop and supermarkets.

The pages of the magazines also illustrate the debate among women about whether their role was in the home or out in paid employment.

Letters to the publications show that some women even went as far as to suggest that if a woman worked her husband would not have the same level of home comforts and so could well wander. Other women felt it a waste of their skills to stay in the home.

One of the most compelling exhibits is a letter from the Guardian Assurance Company to a Miss Cunniffe offering her the post on the permanent clerical staff of the company. Setting out a salary of £420 per annum and a probationary period of six months, the letter also states rather starkly that the position will be “terminated automatically by your marriage”.

The exhibition however does confirm that Irish women’s magazines in the 1960s placed women firmly within the home, being a modern wife, leading a modern life with all her new gadgets.

Opening the exhibition Senator Jillian Van Turnhout told the audience how she decided to pay a visit to Eason’s to see what messages are carried in today’s Irish and international women’s magazines.

She recapped what she had found — “Fifty, fit and flirty”, “How to shift that stubborn baby weight”, “Science validates correlation between hair length and relationship length”, “Bikini ready in seven days” and reported that she found “enough instructive material that I could re-write the Karma Sutra”.

Senator Van Turnhout wondered had women really moved on or have we merely moved from the kitchen to the bedroom, asking “are Irish women destined to be subjected to some form or other of commercial pressure forever?”

As Nell McCafferty might say “goodnight sisters”.

‘Modern Life Modern Wife’ runs at the Print Gallery in Dublin until August 30. After that it is hoped it will move around the country before crossing to Irish centres in the UK.


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