Delving into the pages of women’s magazines

Being based in the UK limits my access to Irish archives and the National Library of Ireland. Thankfully, though, I’ve had the excellent assistance of David Kenny with collecting material for the exhibition. In this post, he reflects on the experience:

Delving into the pages of women’s magazines

by David Kenny

Historical Sources

Having an interest in history, and having studied the subject as an undergrad, I was aware of the importance, as historical sources, of various magazines, journals, and sundry periodicals. I have seen many lecturers and speakers, books and documentaries refer to information gleaned from magazines to illustrate or underline points when discussing major events, social changes, political affairs, etc — all detailed by (sometimes) contemporary observers and printed in magazines. I now note, however, that these were largely generalist magazines, perhaps covering or analysing news, or detailing a new trend. Used like that, magazines can illustrate a point, but do so in a sort of isolation which does not contribute to fleshing out the broader context.

I had never considered focusing on one specific publishing genre, such as women’s weeklies. It is possible that this is because I never engaged in a ‘specialisation’ in studying history, and if I had, it is likely that I would have used sources pertinent to the specific field.

Tracking Change

However, in collecting articles for the Modern Wife, Modern Life exhibition from issues of Woman’s Way printed in the 1960s, I was struck by the usefulness of a genre such as this for examining in much greater depth, changes in and developments of specific facets of life. I was struck, even in looking through a few years of material, at how Woman’s Way (and, I presumed, other magazines) can serve as a means of identifying, tracking and detailing change: social, economic, political, cultural….or in some cases, lack of change. This was 1960s Ireland after all- where (as any amateur historian will tell you) the morals, values and mores of the Church dominated many lives.

Looking at a publication over its life span can thus provide a timeline for change, contained in one source, and (to a certain extent, given design or editorial changes) with a consistent approach to delivering information.

Stereotypes

Reading Woman’s Way confirmed many of what I would consider to be stereotypical conceptions about life in the mid 20th century. It was geared very much toward the housewife. It underscored that her role was to provide for her husband and family in terms of cooking, cleaning, clothing et al. I was largely expecting this as I am fairly familiar with the sort of social dynamics extant at the time, and the changes we have experienced since.

Surprising Content

One thing which I was not expecting was that Ireland, and its housewives, were quite similar to those in the US or the UK in terms of how they were marketed. Perhaps it is that I had subscribed to notions of a backwards Ireland, or that much of the historiography focuses on aspects of ‘rural’ lives, which could often still be underdeveloped up to the late 20th century! I learned through the ads and articles in Woman’s Way though that Irish housewives were as concerned with the newest labour saving devices, in keeping bills low and running an efficient house, and, of course in making themselves look beautiful for men, by spending lots of money on clothes etc. (Some of the pieces on how to ‘win’ a man by being a simpering Norman Rockwell pastiche were terrifying!)

Society’s Expectations

The advice columns and letters pages illustrate an Ireland utterly alien to me, though. The expectations and rules which 1960s society imposed on women in terms of behaviour, morals, work, duty and every other aspect of their lives are staggering. Anything a woman did was scrutinised and expected to fall within certain norms of behaviour. Looking at the history of women in society from a contemporary perspective, these demanding expectations appear as what would today be considered ‘fringe’ behaviours. Women’s Way showed me though that these were mainstream societal rules, with Catholic social doctrine and standards being published in the leading weekly women’s magazine. One item that particularly stood out as an example of this was a feature run over several weeks on family planning. The first week, the feature ran with advice for women, which appeared to me to be relatively liberal for the time, and I thought I may have been seeing evidence of change. I was quickly corrected though. The end of the article informed the reader than the next instalment would be written by a priest. This was presumably so that the Church’s view was explicit and that the women writing the articles (including a nurse) would not be mistaken for experts on the subject of being a woman.

A Learning Experience

I only examined a few years of the magazine, but was able to see how a project like this is of use in monitoring change, or even in gathering data on items of particular interest to a project. Gathering these documents was a great learning experience, both in terms of the logistics and organisation of this type of research, and in learning more about social developments (or lack of) in 1960s Ireland, from a perspective of the role of women.

The big ‘take away’ lesson for me derives from the fact that vast tracts of the magazine every week were given over to knitting patterns. In the past, I therefore assume that nobody bought clothes and everything was knitted. Where the incredibly busy housewives whose lives were detailed in the magazine found the time to knit wardrobes for their family, my research did not reveal.