We are all familiar with the clichés that accompany contemporary debates about working mothers. Images abound of superwomen spinning plates, juggling balls and racing against the clock in the pursuit of Having It All. Whether a woman can – or should – aspire to achieve career success whilst enjoyinga fulfilling family life feels like a conversation that will run and run.
These are problems which have not been resolved for women in rich western societies, despite half a century of feminist activism. In the 1970s, the Women’s Liberation Movement brought a radical critique to bear on existing sexual divisions both inside and outside the home. In Britain, that decade brought important legislative milestones, including the Equal Pay Act (1970) and the Sex Discrimination Act (1975), which began to chip away at the edifice of male privilege in the workplace. Yet many mothers still feel torn between the demands of children and the pressures of paid work, a tension only exacerbated by the present Covid-19 crisis, which has seen a massive withdrawal of daycare provision as schools and nurseries close their doors.
If mothers are ever to find relief from this double burden, we need to understand where and when this way of talking about women’s bifurcated work and family lives began. The answer lies in the decades before Women’s Liberation. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, a wave of pioneering research by female sociologists, most of whose names are now forgotten, kick-started a new debate in Europe and north America about what women wanted from work, marriage and motherhood.
In 1953, Mirra Komarovsky, a professor at Barnard College in New York, published Women in the Modern World, in which she argued that a deep cultural contradiction ran through American women’s lives. Society granted them political rights, education and access to paid work yet worshipped matrimony and motherhood as the apotheosis of feminine success. The key to women’s full flourishing, she argued, was finding a way to reconcile these competing values – an insight undoubtedly shaped by Komarovsky’s own personal experience, her first marriage having broken down when she refused to swap her intellectual interests for full-time housewifery.
The authors of another book, Women’s Two Roles, published three years later, believed that many wives and mothers already had the answer. Alva Myrdal, a Swedish policy expert and mother-of-three, and the Austrian-born sociologist, Viola Klein, argued that nothing short of a ‘social revolution’ was unfolding across advanced industrialised nations. Women were reconfiguring the pattern of their lives and ‘starting afresh at forty’ by embracing paid work. Instead of resigning upon marriage or pregnancy never to return, as they had in earlier times, housewives could be seen pouring back into factories, offices and shops and demanding opportunities to re-train for careers. Smaller families, better diets, improved healthcare systems and a booming economy made the return to work in early middle age – what the authors dubbed the ‘dual role’ – a realistic aspiration. Women no longer had to choose between the irreconcilable alternatives of home versus job: ‘The best of both worlds has come within their grasp,’ Myrdal and Klein insisted, ‘if only they reach out for it.’
Judith Hubback, a young graduate wife living in north London, was similarly convinced that women could have-it-all in the 1950s. Having abandoned her teaching career shortly after marriage, Hubback knew first-hand of the frustrations endured by mothers with trained brains but no outlet for their use. She posted questionnaires to a thousand similarly-placed graduates and compiled her findings in a book, Wives Who Went to College, published in 1957. ‘To be as happy and useful as possible’, Hubback argued, ‘women as well as men should use all their capacities to the full. If one side of them is unused, it atrophies.’ Part-time jobs, a flexible attitude amongst employers and opportunities to re-train were urgently needed. Why, Hubback asked, should marriage and maternity bar the well-qualified woman in perpetuity from doing interesting work in line with her qualifications and talents?
South of the river in the working-class district of Bermondsey, yet another study revealed the mounting demand for paid employment amongst wives and mothers. None of the women studied by Pearl Jephcott, a former youth worker turned sociologist, had university degrees or grand professional ambitions, but they were clear in their own minds about the advantages of combining family and job. Even a regular part-time shift in the local biscuit factory could offer a slice of financial independence, self-esteem and ‘extras’ for the family, from seaside holidays and new clothes to washing machines and televisions. ‘You do feel nice when you get your bit of money on a Friday and know that you’ve earned it,’ was how one woman put it. Listening to these testimonies, Jephcott concluded that paid work ‘was meeting deep-seated needs which are now felt by women in general in our society.’
By the early 1960s, the idea that working motherhood offered women the best of both worlds had gone mainstream. Myrdal and Klein were in high demand, speaking at international conferences, business seminars and Rotary Club lunches. Hubback was interviewed in the press and invited on to radio and television shows, while Jephcott’s research was read carefully by civil servants in Whitehall. Then, as now, working mothers made excellent copy. A survey of dual-income couples conducted by Klein in 1959 generated widespread media coverage. Editors latched on quickly to her surprising discovery that the majority of men heartily approved of their wives going out to work. The Daily Mirror reported this under the headline, ‘The Wives Who Work: They are Happier. So Are Most Husbands,’ illustrated by an image of a fashionably-dressed young wife grinning from ear to ear.
When the second edition of Women’s Two Roles hit the bookshelves in 1968, Myrdal and Klein noted with satisfaction that the practice of returning to work had become so common that ‘those who fail to do so now almost have to give an explanation for staying at home.’ By this point, employment rates amongst wives in Britain hovered just below 50% and were higher still amongst women in their late thirties and forties with school-aged children. Part-time work was on the increase, not only in industry but in higher-level professions like teaching and medicine, enabling some married women to pick up interrupted careers, as Hubback had hoped they would. As distance learning, evening courses and part-time degree programmes expanded, so did the number of women acquiring qualifications in later life and using them as a springboard back in the labour market.
In short, the shape of women’s working lives had undergone a transformation and the ‘dual role’ stood at its heart. Myrdal and Klein, alongside Komarovsky, Hubback and Jephcott, were the first to identify these momentous changes and to make sense of them.
So why are their names rarely mentioned in today’s debates about women, family and work? One clue is found in the fact that these researchers pre-dated the era of Women’s Liberation, with its outspoken slogans, eye-catching protests and radical critiques of the family. The sexual politics of the 1970s made books like Women’s Two Roles appear narrowly conformist, with its message that women should fit work around their traditional domestic duties and only seek a job once their children were at school. Second-wave feminists, by contrast, called for the sweeping away of all sex-typing of jobs, both inside and outside the home. These ideas rejuvenated feminism and provided a powerful new lens for analyzing women’s oppression. Meanwhile, the sociological texts of the 1950s quickly slipped from view.
Yet the pioneering research of the post-war sociologists is worth recovering as we consider the working mother’s double life in the twenty-first century. Their optimistic prescriptions for a harmonious blend of women’s two roles came at a propitious time in western societies, when families were getting smaller, health and living standards were improving and the economy was hungry for married women’s labour. They did not push as hard against male privilege as later feminists would, and nor did they foresee how economic crisis and neoliberalism would entrench new forms of gender inequality by the century’s end. Nonetheless, these researchers helped to legitimize women’s desire for more than a binary choice between motherhood and paid work. Not only did they suggest that these options could be compatible, but they made women’s own feelings, frustrations, aspirations and ambitions central to the debate. This legacy is still felt today, as working mothers continue to spin plates and juggle balls in their ongoing quest for the best of both worlds.
Helen McCarthy teaches modern British history at the University of Cambridge and is author of Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (Bloomsbury, 2020)