Feminism in 1950s Britain

Feminism in 1950s Britain

1950s Britain has traditionally been regarded as a bleak period for feminism. In the aftermath of World War II, a new emphasis was placed on the nuclear family as a foundation of the new British welfare state. Although during the war most women worked outside the home and participated in the war effort, after its end they were encouraged to assume roles of wives and mothers, as the government aimed to “re-establish domesticity as women’s primary occupation (see Ward 2004: 50, Pugh 1990: 158).

In 1951, the proportion of adult women who were (or had been) married was 75%; more specifically, 84.8% of women between the ages of 45 and 49 were married (Lewis 1984: 3). At that time: “marriage was more popular than ever before” (Bruely 131). In 1953, a popular book of advice for women states: “A happy marriage may be seen, not as a holy state or something to which a few may luckily attain, but rather as the best course, the simplest, and the easiest way of life for us all” (Whiteman 67).

While at the end of the war, childcare facilities were closed and assistance for working women became limited, the social reforms implemented by the new welfare state included family allowances meant to subsidize families, that is, to support women in the “capacity as wife and mother” (Pugh 1990: 158). Sue Bruely argues that “the progressive vision of the New Britain of 1945 was flawed by a fundamentally conservative view of women” (118).

The encouragement to marry and was reinforced by popular media: films, radio and popular women's magazines. In the 1950s, women's magazines had considerable influence on forming opinion in all walks of life, including the attitude to women’s employment. Cynthia White maintains that their attitude to this issue was “regressive,” and that they used their great influence “positively to discourage women from trying to combine work and marriage” (135). Martin Pugh regards women’s magazines as prescriptive literature, and claims they “threw themselves back into the task of discouraging women from seeking careers” (1990: 162). Through fiction and real-life stories, women’s magazines promoted the ideal of women’s domesticity and dependence, encouraging the return of the female labor force to the kitchen and the nursery (Ferguson 1983: 21). Similarly, women’s programs on the radio and on the recently introduced television were just as dogmatic, and served to reinforce the image of the woman as a successful housewife.

In spite of this, 1950s Britain saw several strides towards the parity of women, such as equal pay for teachers (1952) and for men and women in the civil service (1954). Thanks to activists like Edith Summerskill, who fought for women’s causes both in parliament and in the traditional non-party pressure groups throughout the 1950s (See Pugh 284). Barbara Caine argues: “Ironically here, as with the vote, success was sometimes the worst enemy of organized feminism, as the achievement of each goal brought to an end the campaign which had been organized around it, leaving nothing in its place” (1997: 223).

Feminist writers of that period, such as Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein, started to allow for the possibility that women should be able to combine home with outside employment. 1950s’ form of feminism is often derogatorily termed “welfare feminism” (see Banks 1981:176). Indeed, many activists went to great length to stress that their position was that of ‘reasonable modern feminism,’ which accepted sexual diversity, and sought to establish what women’s social contribution was rather than emphasizing equality or the similarity of the sexes. Feminism in 1950s England was strongly connected to social responsibility and involved the well-being of society as a whole. This often came at the cost of the liberation and personal fulfillment of self-declared feminists. Even those women who regarded themselves as feminists strongly endorsed prevailing ideas about the primacy of children’s needs, as advocated, for example, by John Bowlby the head of the Children's Department at the Tavistock Clinic, who published extensively throughout the 1950s and by Donald Winnicott who promoted through radio broadcasts and in the press the idea of the home as a private emotional world in which mother and child are bound to each other and in which the mother has control and finds freedom to fulfill herself (see Finch and Summerfield 11).


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  • Finch, Janet and Penny Summerfield. “Social Reconstruction and the Emergence of Companionate Marriage, 1945–59.” In Marriage, Domestic Life and Social Change, ed. David Clark. London: Routledge, pp. 7–32.
  • Hubback, Judith. 1957. Wives Who Went to College. London: Heinemann.
  • Lewis, Jane ed. 1983. Women’s Welfare Women’s Rights. Beckenham: Croom Helm.
  • ———. 1984. Women in England 1870-1950. Sussex: Wheatsheaf Books.
  • ———. 1990. “Myrdal, Klein, Women’s Two Roles and Postwar Feminism 1945–1960.” In British Feminism in the Twentieth Century, ed. Harold L. Smith. Aldershot Hants: Edward Elgar, pp. 167–88.

Myrdal, Alva, and Viola Klein. 1956. Women’s Two Roles: Home and Work. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

  • Pierce, Rachel. M. 1963. “Marriage in the Fifties.” The Sociological Review 11/2: 215–41.
  • Pugh, Martin. 1990. “Domesticity and the Decline of Feminism 1930–1950.” In British Feminism in the Twentieth Century, ed. Harold L. Smith. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, pp. 144–62.
  • ———. 1992. Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain 1914–1959. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Raz, Orna. Social Dimensions in the Novels of Barbara Pym, 1949—1963. The Writer as Hidden Observer. Lewinston: Edwin Mellen. 2007.

  • Spencer, Stephanie, 2005. Gender, Work and Education in Britain of the 1950s,Basingstoke: Macmillan.
  • Whiteman,Phyllis, 1953. 'Speaking as a Woman', (London : Chapman & Hall)

See also