Blue Skies, Red Panic

Cherchez la femme

In the US as well as in Europe, the ‘nuclear family’ was championed as a counterweight to political destabilisation. Radio, television and print advertising campaigns conveyed this ideal with slogans like ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘Femininity Begins At Home’, stressing the woman’s role as a wife, mother and caregiver.

Today still, the fifties are often viewed as an age of conformity in which gender roles were clearly defined and uncritically adhered to. But beneath the surface, discontent with the status quo was growing.

Having been part of the workforce during the war, many women were not eager to return to being stay-at-home mothers. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, women started to juggle their household lives with jobs. 

While the West experienced a baby boom, in central and eastern Europe birth rates were on the decline as postwar Soviet occupation set in, causing sufficient concerns with governments to implement pronatalist policies. Childcare services and maternity leave were installed to help convince women to get married and have children as well as a professional career.

Seen below is Europe’s only female sweep, 53-year-old Olive Walker, portrayed by photojournalist George Douglas for Picture Post.

A lively biographical sketch sheds light on some of the (mis)conceptions regarding women at work. Labelled as ‘fully emancipated’, Walker is praised for her enterprising war time spirit, yet singled out because of her gender: ‘She is popular because, being a woman, she is expected to - and generally does - clean up and even scrub the floors after carrying out her main operation.’

Despite a steady shift from the home to the workforce, social repression would remain a daily reality for women all around Europe throughout the 1950s, being stereotypically cast as a chaste housewife or a blonde bombshell until the 1960s feminist movement set in motion a Copernican Revolution.