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Women didn't work in the 1950s, did they



I read a comment the other day … from a man … that women did not work in the 1950s. How wrong he was.

If he was a child then, then he obviously shared the male perspective that fathers ‘went to work’ to earn a wage, and thus became the ‘breadwinner’. Mothers, on the other hand, stayed at home, sat around all day, wasted time reading [a quote from my late mother-in-law], and gossiped with their friends, while drinking endless cups of tea.

I want to remind you of the truth. Women worked in and around the home, from daylight, often till after dark. They just did not get paid for it. Some things have not changed much during the last 70 years.

Let me tell you about my mother’s daily life in the 1950s.

We lived on a dairy farm. That meant that someone had to get out of bed before daylight, to catch a horse and bring the cows to the dairy. Usually Mum got up at the same time, as the alarm clock wakened the whole household. While the cows were gathered, she was lighting the wood stove in the kitchen, and preparing an early meal for the workers. Just a big enamel teapot of strong black tea, and slabs of toast dripping with melted butter. But the tea could not be made until the kettle boiled on the wood stove, and the toast was made over the open firebox. No electricity then.

When the meal was ready, she carried it to the dairy. Then she took her turn at milking the cows, while Dad and we children enjoyed our tea and toast. She too had learnt to milk cows as a child on her father’s dairy.

When milking finished, Dad cleaned the bails where the cows had dropped mud and manure. But Mum’s job was to collect boiling water from the tub on the fire outside the dairy shed. She carried buckets of it inside, and in a big tub, scoured and sterilized all the equipment used to collect the milk and cream. Buckets, pipes, tanks, funnels and separators, all were scoured and rinsed, ready for another milking in the evening. And she repeated the whole exercise, of milking and cleaning up afterwards, late in the afternoon.

When that was done, she went back to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for the family. Sometimes cereal, sometimes bacon and eggs, always with toast, and more strong black tea. All prepared on the fire in the wood stove she had lit earlier.

When breakfast was done, she washed up in a deep metal dish on the kitchen table. To get the water, she filled a bucket from the rainwater tank in the corner of the kitchen, and heated it in the same kettle on the stove. After the dishes had drained on a tray, either we children wiped them up and put them back in the cupboard, or she did it herself.

Now she had other chores. If it was washing day, she had boiled the whites in a copper set above a wood fire outside the laundry. Now she transferred them cautiously from the boiling water, to a basket in a trolley, wheeled them back into the laundry, and dumped them into one of the two concrete tubs, rinsed them, squeezed out the water by hand, dumped them into water coloured with a blue bag, squeezed out the water again, and dumped them back into the trolley. Then she wheeled the trolley out into the backyard, and pegged the clothes onto a long length of fence-wire strung between two poles. Then she could ‘rest’ until the clothes were dry, when she had to collect them to bring them back into the house.

If it was ironing day, then she placed several heavy ‘mrs potts’ irons on the top of the hot wood stove. While they heated, she spread out every item and sprinkled it with water drops from her fingers, then rolled it up tightly, so that it became evenly damp. Then each shirt or dress was spread on a clean cloth on the end of the table, and ironed flat with her iron. The iron cooled quickly, so had to be replaced with a hot one. She needed to keep the stove hot, and stand close to it to switch irons easily. So it was a long and very hot job, to iron for her whole family.

Every day, she cooked food, either for meals or for in-betweens. Meals were usually meat and vegetables. The meats were either corn beef, roast beef, or beef sausages, all cooked by the wood stove. The larger cuts were eaten hot on the first day, then served cold, or turned into fritters on following days. Vegetables were potatoes, pumpkins or tinned peas. In the hot weather, she sometimes served cold meat with salads, lettuce and tomatoes from the garden she cultivated herself. Always, she served puddings with the evening meal … milk puddings, steamed puddings or stewed fruit. Everything she cooked herself.

She cooked endless batches of biscuits and scones, as well as cakes, pies, and savories to serve as morning and afternoon teas. Dad and my brother did hard physical work on the farm, and seemed to be always hungry. They expected food to accompany their cups of tea … still made with water boiled on that wood-burning stove.

In her ‘spare’ time, she made clothes for herself and her daughters. She bought cotton materials and paper patterns, cut out the material, and sewed it together using a foot-operated sewing machine. As socks developed holes after heavy wear, she darned them, and also repaired other clothes. Nothing was wasted.

Each week, she prepared a shopping list, and spent half a day … between morning and afternoon milking … in the local town buying all the needs for the family. Then she brought it home, and stored it carefully until it was needed.

And in the meantime, of course, she cleaned the house. She swept through daily; washed floors whenever needed, but at least weekly; and polished lino floors regularly. In addition, she looked after her children’s needs, nursed them when they were sick, and loved them tenderly. She even taught them their school lessons when there was no school nearby.

But by many standards, my mother never ‘worked’. But how else would you describe her day to day activities?

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