Remembering how Ipswich women were in the Swinging Sixties
- Credit: Archant
In her latest book, Ipswich author Sheila Hardy looks back to the 1960s and asks whether the era really did ‘swing’ for Suffolk women.
Her conclusions may surprise you, as Sheena Grant discovered
It’s a decade that’s come to be known as the Swinging Sixties, defined by fashion, music and growing personal freedom.
But while style icon Twiggy, the ground-breaking pop of the Beatles and the advent of the contraception pill came to symbolise much of what the decade is remembered for, that’s not the whole story.
Fifty years on, says Ipswich-based author Sheila Hardy, the myths surrounding this pivotal decade are still being churned out.
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And she’s got news for us all: for millions of women outside trendy London, life did not centre around miniskirts, music and the easy availability of birth control.
Sheila’s newly-published book, Women of the 1960s, looks at the experiences of teenagers, young career women and young mothers, especially those based outside the capital city.
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Through a series of interviews with local women and those from further afield who were young in the ‘60s, Sheila paints a picture of what the decade was really like for many, with chapters on life after school, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, marriage, domestic life, women’s liberation, fashion and leisure.
And, she reveals, life was more ordinary and sometimes pretty tough, with overt sexism often rife.
It’s a subject she can speak about with some authority as she herself was a young woman in the 1960s, forging a career in teaching, marrying in 1965 and becoming a mother in 1968.
“To some extent, I was one of the ones who had it all,” she says.
“I had a career, a house and was married by the middle of the decade. I suppose in many ways I took what people gave me in the various interviews I did for the book and questionnaires I sent out and reinforced it with my own ideas.”
Women of the 1960s follows hot on the heels of Sheila’s well-received titles, A 1950s Mother and A 1950s Housewife. But whereas those books were nostalgic, looking at what it was like to be a mother and housewife in the post-war decade and how the baby-boom generation was made, with this latest book Sheila felt a need to set the record straight.
“I wanted to dispel this idea that the Swinging Sixties were absolutely wonderful for everybody,” she says. “It simply wasn’t the case. More girls went to university but many still left school at 15.
“And the start of the ‘60s was a very different time to the end of the decade.
“Even girls who appeared to be very liberated were all looking for boyfriends and marriage as much as a 16-year-old who had left school and was working.
“There was still a strong morality from home and interference of parents in the early 60s too.
“I wanted to give a more rounded view of what life was like. It wasn’t all ‘pop music and pills’.
“For people in London it may have been a hedonistic, liberating time but that wasn’t everyone’s experience.”
It certainly wasn’t fully Sheila’s experience either.
When she married, housing was in short supply and, in common with many young couples of the day, she and husband Michael had to “rent rooms”.
What’s more, when they came to apply for their first mortgage, her income wasn’t taken into consideration because she was a woman.
“When we married in ‘65 it was a case of finding two rooms in someone else’s house and sharing a kitchen and bathroom,” she says. “We were going to set up home in Dover and had set a date to get married. We had nowhere to live so advertised in the local paper and spent a Saturday looking at potential homes. When we arrived to look at a garden flat in a big house, we were interviewed by two older ladies who owned it and cross-questioned about our suitability for their flat.
We went down to the garden flat and the moment the door opened, you could smell damp running down the walls. After that we went to look at another house, where we could have two rooms upstairs and share a bathroom and kitchen, which were both downstairs.
“There wasn’t enough housing and there had been a population explosion. Councils were building as quickly as they could but it was only towards the end of the 1960s that private building started.”
Sheila, a former Northgate Grammar School for Girls pupil, and Michael were not in rented accommodation long before they bought their first home but she can still recall how little furniture they had and how few labour-saving machines.
“We had four chairs borrowed from my mother-in-law, my piano, a fridge and this table, which I bought for £3,10s,” she says, gesturing to a solid-looking drop-leaf gateleg table.
“When we came to apply for a mortgage they would only consider husband’s income.
“At that time he was mate on a ship and didn’t earn enough to get a mortgage so eventually I got one through the local council because I was a teacher. But the interest rate was 8.5%, whereas the normal rate was 5%. I had to pay more because I was a woman and I had to sign a declaration that I would go back to work as soon as possible if I had children.”
There were other challenges for women too, particularly when trying to find work.
“I remember applying for a job as an English teacher in what was then a secondary modern school in Dover and being called for interview,” she says. “I was asked questions you wouldn’t be allowed to ask nowadays - questions such as, are you married?
“I was truthful and said I wanted the job because I was getting married and moving to the area. At the end, I was called back in and the head master looked me in the eye and said: ‘I would love to offer you the job but as a married woman you will probably have children so I’m having to offer the job to a man, although he’s not as well qualified as you.”
Sheila is convinced modern women owe those trailblazers of the 1960s a debt for some of the freedoms we now take for granted.
“They wanted more than they had and although they may have been married, they decided they wanted to work too and have a life away from the home,” she says.
“Also there were many more things becoming available to buy and if you wanted a washing machine and you couldn’t afford it on your husband’s wages or you couldn’t have it on HP (hire purchase), you got a job.”
For Sheila herself having a career didn’t mean she could escape arduous domestic work.
“We didn’t have a washing machine at first,” she says. “I used to put all the washing in a sink on a Monday morning and wash it all by hand after a day working at school.”
The book tells of the struggles of other women too, including the female doctor who received a dinner invitation that stipulated ‘no lady guests’ and the graduate trainee computer programmer who received a smaller salary than her male colleagues.
Then there were the difficulties young women had breaking free of parental control, with some still seeing marriage as a way of escape. While the marriage rate peaked in the 1960s, the divorce rate continued to rise too, though divorce was still regarded by many as shameful.
“Even though women of the 1960s faced more struggles than often now acknowledged to make their way on equal terms in the world, it was undoubtedly a progressive decade, bringing many changes, especially for women,” says Sheila.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that legislation was introduced enshrining equality in law, leading to even greater change in women’s lives. But, says Sheila, if you ask any woman who was under 45 in the 1960s what was the one thing that made her feel liberated, you might be surprised by the answer.
“It was not the defining moment when she decided to forget all her mother’s dire warnings and cast aside her vest in winter,” writes Sheila in Women of the 1960s. “Nor was it the acquisition of a washing machine and tumble-drier. Neither was it the chest deep freezer...and neither, oddly enough, was it the availability of the contraceptive pill.
“No, it was the car!”
Throughout her conversations with women what came over time and time again was the difference learning to drive and having access to a car made to their independence as they were no longer beholden to the men in their lives to take them wherever they needed to go.
Women of the 1960s, published by Pen & Sword, is available now.