This post is really just me thinking out loud, as I try to work through one of the research questions with which I’m grappling at the moment: were Irish housewives in the 1960s content, or were the unconsciously oppressed? Thinking about it is leading me into the realms of philosophical debate.
A frustrated housewife wrote to Angela Macnamara’s advice column in Woman’s Way, March 1964:
I have five children and my next-door neighbour has four. With planning, organisation and a good deal of hard work, I am able to keep everything up to scratch. She is always untidy, tired and in a muddle, so she looks to me for help. I’m impatient and fed up with her lack of effort. How can I get rid of her?
Letters like these were expressions of traits that women valued, and they pointed to the pride that such women took in their work. They also show that not ever woman achieved such high standards, and they speak to societal expectations of housewives.
Betty Friedan in her influential 1963 book The Feminine Mystique called into question the ‘golden age’ of the 1950s American housewife. Famously, she wrote about ‘the problem that has no name’, that is, an underlying sense of dissatisfaction experienced, though perhaps not consciously acknowledged, by suburban housewives in the middle of the twentieth century. Her book, which frames and articulates that sense of dissatisfaction, caused women to critically reflect on their own lives and led to a questioning of their position in society. The Feminine Mystique is often credited with prompting the second wave feminist movement in America.
Pat Marindi, writing on ‘The Politics of Housework’ in an American publication, probably sometime in the 1970s, commented,
The psychology of oppressed peoples is not silly. Jews, immigrants, blacks and women have all employed the same psycholgical mechanisms to survive. Admiring the oppressor, wanting to glorify the oppressor, be like the oppressor, wanting the oppressor to like them. Remember that blacks and Jews at one time felt whites and Germans really were superior’.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in the archives at UCC looking at the Róisín Conroy papers, which include a vast collection of documents relating to the Irish women’s liberation movement. ‘Oppressed’, or a variation of that word, recurred throughout the literature. An undated document entitled ‘Notes on the need for structure’ asserted that,
In order to build up a Women’s Liberation Movement it must be realised that neither the oppression of women, nor our consciousness of this oppression, is uniform. What the movement must do is to see how the various experiences relate to one another and provide a centralising ideology and activity seeking the alternatives.
There are plenty of interviews, letters to women’s magazines and other first person testimony that indicate women were generally content in their everyday lives and that many housewives took pride in their work in the 1960s. But, clearly, the women’s movement that emerged in the 1970s saw exposing and educating about the oppression of woman as one of their tasks.
Were women content only because they didn’t know they were oppressed — like the housewives in suburbia who responded to Friedan — or is the latter being ascribed to them? Can this question really be answered? After all, a uniform experience cannot exist due to the very individuality of people’s lives. So, is it a question that even needs to be answered, or is acknowledging the dilemma simply enough?
It’s easy to get tied up in knots when trying to reconcile or make sense of these two competing narratives. I obviously need to read myself more deeply into the literature on unconscious oppression, because right now, it’s as clear as mud. Suggestions welcome!
 On the Job Oppression of Working Women: a Collection of Articles, (New England Free Press, Boston, n.d.).