From the Letters Page: The Values of Ordinary Irish Women

Credit: Brand New Retro (Click for link to website)
Credit: Brand New Retro
(Click to read magazine in full on website)

In her Cottage to Creche, Finola Kennedy refers to a survey carried out between 1984-85 that found very few housewives had identified with the Women’s Movement of the 1970s.  Because women’s issues feature quite prominently in parts of my new book, when I was writing A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-87, I wanted to gauge the reaction of ordinary, non-politicised women towards some of the major themes in political life that would directly effect them.  To do so, I turned to women’s magazine, and, in particular, the letters pages.  This approach was very much influenced by the work of Dr Niamh Cullen, my friend and former colleague at UCD, who often talked in the office we shared about what such magazines can reveal about the thoughts and values of ordinary women. Her own work — details of which can be found here — looks at growing up and coming of age in 1950s Italy, and her research draws, in part, on a variety of magazines.

Due to the restrictions of a word-limit, I wasn’t able to explore the magazines in as much detail as I would have liked in the book, but the process did get me thinking about a new research topic that would examine social change in Ireland from the late 1950s. As I mentioned in the About section, one of the main aims of this blog is to test out new ideas. What follows are some thoughts as to what shape this project might take.

In his 2011 book Streetlife (Oxford University Press), Leif Jerram attempts to go beyond the familiar narrative of Europe’s twentieth century.  He argues that in order to understand the impact that great dramas and transformation had on the lives of ordinary citizens, it is necessary to examine the point of encounter between the two: the streets.  His book tells the story of change from the perspective of the ordinary people whose lives were lived out on them; a ‘scene of the crime’ approach, as he labels it.  Using a similar conceptual framework, this project takes women’s magazines at the space where the intersection between government policy and everyday life can be identified.  It is within the pages of those publications that the big histories of the powerful and the small histories of the ordinary, of which Jerram writes, came together to unknowingly offer a commentary on a period of transition in Ireland.  The magazines give us some insight into what ordinary women thought, the values they held and the challenges they faced during a period of transition.  They also allow us to compare and contrast these views with those of the politicised women’s organisations, and to establish the extent to which feminists such as Nuala Fennell or conservatives like Alice Glenn were more representative of ordinary Irish women.

Women’s magazines served an important function that went beyond beauty tips and advice on good housekeeping.  Lindy Willbraham in her 1996 article in Agenda outlined various readership strategies for those approaching sex advice columns, two of which have a relevance to this project.  People read the columns for information, which helps facilitate informed choices and actions.  They also share in and identify with the circumstances of others detailed in the letters, reassuring them that they are not alone in their experiences.  It could be argued, therefore, that women’s magazines acted as an alternative confessional in Ireland.  Though the changing family unit was recognised, at least financially, through such legislation as the unmarried mother’s allowance and deserted wives allowance, the debate that surrounded such policies pointed to a continuing conservatism.  The stigma of the single mother, for example, continued, while the debate on the legalisation of the sale of contraceptives revealed the persistence of a traditional attitude towards sex and sexuality.  The magazines thus provided a safe space in which women could unburden themselves, and where they were free to ask questions and raise topics that were not considered part of ‘proper’ everyday conversation.  Advice was sometimes given on moral issues that was often contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church, and magazines such as Woman’s Way often dealt with taboo issues.  This was crucial for women who needed advice, for example, on how to control the size of their families at a time when contraceptives were not readily available, or how to deal with domestic violence.

Ireland was a country in transition from the late 1950s onwards.  Social change had resulted from economic recovery towards the end of that decade, and the arrival of television and the impact of Vatican II in the sixties.  However, the conservative response to policies that were perceived to effect moral and social life revealed tension as both younger and older generations sought to define their place in this changing society.  Women’s issues were to the fore.  The recommendations of the Commission on the Status of Women and the activities of such groups as the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement (IWLM) and the Women’s Political Association (WPA) highlighted the gender gap in society.  Equal pay, the status of unmarried mothers and deserted wives, contraception, divorce and abortion were all areas of public policy under discussion that directly affected the lives of ordinary women.  Much of the change can be traced through the legislative agenda of the Oireachtas.  This was the approach largely taken in A Just Society for Ireland?, which examined socio-political issues from the point of view of the policymakers. In contrast, this new project is concerned with the role of women themselves, both as actors for change and as ordinary citizens.  What affect did change have on the lives of Irish women?  How did they react to and engage with a changing society?  How representative were the women’s groups, and how did their views compare with those of the ordinary, non-politicised woman? Women’s magazines will be particularly important in revealing both how women viewed themselves and how they were portrayed at the time.

As the letters are edited and the magazines themselves provide only part of the story, it is intended that research will be supplemented with reference to other sources that provide an insight into private lives.  These include diaries, memoirs, correspondence with public representatives, and other media publications such as the Irish Farmers Journal, which included an advice column specifically for women.  The magazines must also be seen within the context of the forces that were shaping Irish society, including literature and films, some of which were banned by the censor because they challenged traditional beliefs.  Furthermore, there is a rich collection of archival material available – including the papers of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, Hilda Tweedy, WPA, AIM and Cherish – that will provide an insight into the activities of the various women’s groups and organisations.

Any thoughts or feedback that readers might have on this project would be most welcome!

My next post will consider what the letters page of Woman’s Way reveals about attitudes towards single motherhood.


Update, 14/08, 9pm: I had an interesting conversation about this post over on twitter earlier this evening. Another historian observed that letters are often manufactured by the editor, which changes their value as a source. I absolutely agree, but I think even the choice of what letters to invent is interesting and a commentary on social trends in itself. I’m hoping to do interviews with former editors to get a better sense of letter selection, creation, etc.


My thanks to for permission to reproduce the image above from their website.

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire.

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