Book review: Women’s Voices in Ireland

Academic Catriona Clear uses women’s magazines to shine a light on Irish lives in the 1950s and 60s when the level of ignorance about sex and ‘worldly matters’ was disturbingly high. Colette Sheridan gains an insight.

Book review: Women’s Voices in Ireland

Catriona Clear


Academic, €86;

ebook, €44.95

"WE ARE three teenage friends who don’t know the facts of life, have no personality, and can’t make conversation.

"Life is an awful strain” — these plaintive words, written to an unspecified agony aunt at an Irish women’s magazine, most probably Woman’s Way, give an indication of the insularity of life for young women in 1960s’ Ireland.

Being interesting and meeting the ‘opposite sex’ with a view to matrimony was a minefield to be negotiated by ill-equipped young women who reveal worrying ignorance about worldly matters in their letters to problem solver Angela MacNamara who succeeded writer Maura Laverty as Woman’s Way’s best-known traditional agony aunt.

The magazine, still going strong, first appeared in April 1963 and was aimed at girls and women of all ages.

Its problem pages and editorial content are the main focus of academic Caitriona Clear’s study of women’s magazines in the 1950s and 1960s. Clear also looks at Woman’s Life, which lasted from 1936 to 1959.

She makes fleeting references to British women’s magazines from the 1950s and 1960s in this study of Irish women’s lives during a time of rapid social change.

Clear notes that feminis Betty Friedan’s dismissal of women’s magazines as propaganda and tranquilliser for ‘the happy housewife heroine’ has been laid to rest thanks to academic studies of magazines over the past half century.

Women’s magazines are a repository of information about society and the progress of women from chattels to independent people.

While this is an academic book, with statistics and footnotes, it doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive history of Irish women’s magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. It is primarily an examination of readers’ concerns from two magazines.

They range from the trivial, such as what might be called the bikini wars, to the right to contraception and the right to work outside the home.

MacNamara stated that bikinis were immoral, causing men to sin in their minds.

She got short shrift from a contributor who wrote: “As one of the ‘bikini set’ I hotly resent your implication that I am immoral and immodest.

"You should avoid sweeping generalisations. I am 20 and my sex life is beyond reproach. I never indulge in petting and prolonged kissing. Every man I have dated has respected me.”

But women were not respected enough to make their own decisions about reproduction. In the 1960s, most women had little or no access to contraception.

Certainly, the rules of Irish Catholicism “relaxed in accordance with Vatican II, but the church remained embedded in every aspect and every institution of Irish life, retaining its authority virtually unchallenged until at least the 1980s.”

The marriage bar against national school teachers had been lifted in 1958 but other public servants had to wait until 1972 “and even in factory, office and shop employment where no formal marriage bars operated, married women workers were scarce.”

It’s perhaps telling that the “most celebrated and coveted job of all was that of an air hostess”.

That’s going back to 1954 when Woman’s Life informed readers that Joan Cammon of Termonfeckin, Co Louth, a Trinity graduate who had been working as a doctor’s receptionist, was about to become an Aer Lingus air hostess.

The job, involving the wonder of foreign travel, would have seemed glamorous at a time when many women were stuck at home doing back-breaking work such as hand-washing the laundry in steamy kitchens.

Dispelling any notions of nostalgia for the past, a Mrs K, from Carlow, wrote a letter to Woman’s Way in praise of ‘plastics, cookers and heaters’ in 1963.

“I am almost 50 years of age and I remember no good days but the present ones. I remember cooking on an open fire, I remember wash-day, the house filled with

steam from the big pot boiling the whites. I remember the dark, dismal homes of the countryside, lit by candles and oil-lamps, the dark, drab paint chosen to hide the dirt.

I still have visions of heavy kitchen tables being carried out to the yard for the weekly scrubbing. I have no regrets for the days that are gone.”

But there were a lot more battles to be won, battles that are still being fought to this day.

Journalist Mary Leland, writing in Woman’s Way, drew attention to the fact that there were only five women TDs out of 144 in the Dáil in 1965, all of them widows or daughters of former TDs.

Woman’s Way urged its readers to take a greater interest in politics with editor Seán O’Sullivan pointing out that “the trouble is that females are still, after forty years of self-rule in this part of the country, not taken seriously.”

Caroline Mitchell took over as editor in 1965. She forcefully wrote: “Assuming that housekeeping is the be-all and the end-all of a woman’s existence (which manifestly isn’t so — thousands of perfectly ‘feminine’ women (are) keeping house competently and taking an interest in the world beyond the backyard) why then don’t those dedicated domestic types carry their obsessions a step further and see that the country is being run as they think fit? Politics, you see, is the national housekeeping.”

Clear notes that women who wrote to Woman’s Way on women’s status often disagreed strongly with the magazine and with each other. People in favour of change are, she notes, more likely to write letters to the press.

But the variety of views expressed to Woman’s Way, including ones in favour of the church’s rulings on family planning, “indicate an ownership of the magazine by a wide range of women, not just those who were committed to change.”

Mitchell, writes Clear, was, as a Protestant “probably super-conscious of reflecting the opinions of the faith of the majority, in the letters as well as in the editorial content.”

Nevertheless, neither Mitchell nor her correspondents, were shy about criticising Catholic Church teaching on certain issues.

“It is striking, therefore, that there were no letters at all in the 1960s about the lack of divorce legislation and few, if any, about marriage breakdown.”

Woman’s Way letter writers expressed themselves freely about contraception. Nobody advocated divorce. And not surprisingly, “abortion was beyond the pale”.

As we know all too well now, the scandal of mother-and-baby homes wasn’t even a topic for discussion back in the 1960s.

Clear asks: “Were negative letters about mother-and-baby homes written to Woman’s Way and not published, or would Irish unmarried mothers themselves have dared to challenge the authority of those who ‘helped’ them at this time?”

The lack of sex education was, according to a handful of letter writers, directly responsible for unmarried mothers.

But a mother of four from Rathgar, Dublin, did not believe that ‘any girl attending a city convent’ was ignorant of sex education.

Pregnancy, she wrote, is ‘the incidental penalty a girl must suffer when she deliberately flouts the teaching of the sixth commandment.’

The book is scattered with quotations from letters revealing almost laughable ignorance about things such as passionate kissing and whether it could take a girl’s virginity.

MacNamara often recommended books about sex and reproduction for the clueless, “usually written from a Catholic standpoint”.

Clear’s well-researched book gives an interesting snapshot of a relatively recent repressed time. Sex is no longer a sin but the Dáil is still unchartered territory for too many capable women.

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