Review: Lorna Sixsmith’s How to be a Perfect Farm Wife

As an historian and the curator of the Modern Wife, Modern Life exhibition, my research focusses on women’s magazines (Woman’s Way, Woman’s Choice and Woman’s View) published in 1960s Ireland. I’ve read them for what they reveal about expectations of women – particularly housewives – during a decade of transformation. The message for the housewife is clear: in addition to being a dutiful wife, caring mother, parsimonious with the household budget and well turned out in her appearance, the good wife was also expected to have all the latest mod cons.  These included a fridge, electric cooker, washing machine –– even a dishwasher! Essentially, ideal wife and modern wife became blended into the one ideal.

But on closer inspection, how representative or accurate was this image of the real 1960s housewife? What about the women living in those parts of rural Ireland that the electrification project had yet to reach? For these women, the absence of piped water or electricity meant that mod cons could be nothing more than aspirational items. Rural Ireland and farm wives rarely appeared in the magazines, with the notable exception of the praise that was heaped on them for the entrepreneurial spirit they showed in earning ‘pin money’ by selling eggs.

As I’m interested in getting a broader sense of how everyday life was experienced by women of different generations and of all backgrounds, I was really keen to read Lorna Sixsmith’s latest book, How to be a Perfect Farm Wife. I was delighted when Lorna invited me to make my blog one of the stops on her book tour.

I met Lorna earlier this year when I took my 1960s women road show to Portlaoise where she shared some really interesting insights into life on a farm, and we recently reflected on 1960s marriage during an ‘in conversation’ event at dlr LexIcon. Her book builds on the wonderful stories I’ve heard her share, and as I read it on a long train journey a few weekends ago, I found myself laughing out loud, getting a little teary eyed – the story about the Aberdeen Angus bull calf nearly broke me! – and reflecting on the position of women in rural society.

How to be a Perfect Farm Wife does not claim to be a rigorous historical analysis of Irish farmers’ wives, but Lorna clearly has a strong sense of the lines of continuity and change across the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. Drawing on her own experiences, she writes with authority. Her observations are given further legitimacy by the use of newspaper extracts – mostly personal advertisements – which are scattered throughout the book. They offer revealing glimpses into a system of values that often guided the forging of a relationship.

As I read the book I couldn’t help but think of the magazines I research and their urban outlook. If they were to be believed, farmwives did all the same things as urban housewives but also collected eggs from their hens. Lorna’s book reveals the truth and shows just how demanding the average working day was for the farmwife. I was particularly struck by a remark from one of her interviewees: ‘we didn’t have time to think about morning sickness; we just got on with it’ (p. 25). All of the challenges facing women in their daily lives were further complicated by the necessity of keeping the farm running.

One element of the book that really caused me to pause for reflection actually has very little to do with the farm wife herself. The writing of women’s history in Ireland has tended to focus largely on revolutionary or political women. More recent scholarship has begun to examine the experience of everyday life, but the spinster has been largely neglected. By offering guidance on negotiating the relationship not just with the mother-in-law but also spinster sisters, Lorna sheds light on these overlooked women who existed in a greater quantity than women’s magazines would have us believe. (Magazines were filled with advice on attracting a husband and being a good wife, and left little space to address the lifestyle of those who could not or would not marry). Lorna’s book, though not tackling the subject of spinsterhood in depth, thus makes an important contribution to our knowledge of the position of women in society.

'The Young Wife' (1938) marriage manual
The Young Wife marriage manual (3rd edition, 1938).

Filled with such tips as ‘how to prepare a chicken for the table’ and ‘how to use traditional cleaning materials’, as well as a wonderful collection of classic recipes, How to be a Perfect Farm Wife reminded me a lot of the marriage manuals that newlyweds either bought for themselves or received as presents in the first half of the twentieth-century. They fell out of fashion by the middle of the century, but a cursory glance at Amazon suggests that more humorous takes on the traditional manual are making a come-back. I would suggest, however, that Lorna Sixsmith’s book has an advantage over many of its rivals. How to be a Perfect Farm Wife is not simply a delightful page-turner, nor is it only for those from a farming background. Despite the tongue-in-cheek title and chapter headings that suggest a light-hearted read, the book is eminently informative and revealing about the position of women in Irish society. As such, it should appeal to anyone with an interest in social history.

~ Ciara Meehan

htbapfm_cover

 

For details of earlier stops on the How to be a Perfect Farm Wife blog tour and for details of upcoming reviews, visit Lorna’s website here. The next review will be posted on 19 November by Catherina Cunnane of That’s Farming.

Female Editors, Advice Columns and Downton Abbey

As the final series of Downton Abbey draws to a close, I’ve found myself following one of the minor storylines with great interest. The office of Lady Edith’s magazine – inherited from her deceased love interest, Michael Gregson – has increasingly provided a space this season for the Crawley’s middle daughter to develop more substantially as a leading character. The appointment of a female editor and the addition of an agony aunt to the staff have reminded me of questions I am commonly asked about my own research into women’s magazines. The conversation about the identity of the agony aunt, in particular, has been very familiar to me.

Women at the Helm

With the ‘passage of time’ being the (sometimes over-laboured) theme interwoven through this season’s episodes, it is hardly surprising that Edith’s office has become a key location in which the shift into a ‘new world’ can be identified. When her tumultuous working relationship with Mr Skinner, the magazine’s chief editor, comes to an abrupt end in episode three, viewers are subsequently privy to Edith’s search for his replacement, which comes in the form of Laura Edmunds. We’re reminded again of the socio-cultural shift that is occurring when Edmunds’ reflection that 1892 – her year of birth – is ‘another time, another age’, prompts Edith to suggest a piece on ‘Victorian babies grown into modern women’ (episode 5).

While this season of Downton is set in the 1920s, I am regularly asked about the gender of those who produced and wrote for the 1960s magazines that feature in the Modern Wife exhibition. While Woman’s Way began life with a male editor, it wasn’t long before a woman was at the helm, while women also penned the majority of the content. The same was true of Woman’s Choice and Woman’s View. Monica Sheridan, Maura Laverty, Angela Macnamara, Eithne Brady and Philomena Groake would have been household names. Visitors who came on my guided tours of the exhibition when it was at the National Print Museum were often surprised to learn this, having assumed that men would have held at least the key positions.

Fabricating Letters

In episode seven of Downton, Miss Cassandra Jones offers her services as an advice columnist to the magazine. It is suggested by Edmunds,

We’ll invent some problems. She’ll write the answers, and we’ll see how the public likes it.

In the following episode, Miss Jones is revealed to be Spratt, the Dowager Countess’ male butler. The plotline across these two episodes points to the quasi-fictitious nature of agony aunts in magazines and newspapers.

Screenshot of Spratt being revealed as Miss Jones. Downton Abbey, Season 6, Episode 8.
ScreenScreengrabgrab of Spratt being revealed as Miss Jones. Downton Abbey, Season 6, Episode 8.

If we cannot be sure of the true identity of advice columnists or of the authenticity of the letters, are these elements of women’s magazines therefore useless to the researcher? Some of the replies clearly indicate that the published letter had first been condensed (usually due to constraints on space). People don’t typically write conveniently short letters that fit comfortably side-by-side with that week’s chosen bunch. Are we thus missing out on vital information, or even details that seem incidental at the time but later would help a researcher build a profile of the readership? And the problem is almost invariably well expressed – one might even say eloquently so, at times. Given the consistently well-structured style of writing, should we assume that the letters are also heavily edited? Therefore, are we really getting an insight into the everyday lives of the magazine’s readers and the problems that they face?

Despite all of these legitimate concerns, I’ve chosen to include advice from both Angela Macnamara (Woman’s Way) and Sheila Collins (Woman’s Choice) in the Modern Wife exhibition, and not just because their columns were regular features in their respective magazines. I believe that both the letters and the answers reveal much about societal norms and values. We know from Macnamara’s memoir Yours Sincerely that she received bags of correspondence on a weekly basis, so people were definitely writing to her. But if the published letters are fabricated or an amalgamation of dozens that raised similar issues, they are still useful, even if we can’t separate the real from the fictitious. That the magazine has chosen to create letters on a certain topic – perhaps on the issue of contraception or domestic violence – implies an importance attached to that topic. Perhaps the magazine is attempting to raise a controversial topic under the guise of an innocent reader’s query. And if the letter that actually appears in the magazine is actually an amalgam of multiple letters, that only points to the frequency with which certain issues were experienced. Like most primary sources used by historians, the advice columns are not without their problems. But to ignore them would be to cast aside useful documents of social history.

Advertisement in Woman's Way magazine, 1964

A Washing Machine in the House

Jennifer Meehan recalls the transformative effect that a washing machine had on her mother’s daily routine:

“She had washing for nine people, and she did it on a Monday. In those days everybody washed on a Monday. She did the washing in a tin bath, put on two chairs in the kitchen, with a washboard. She would rub the clothes up and down the washboard, which had glass waves across it.

All day washing

Advertisement from The Irish Housewife annual.
Washing machines were regularly advertised as ‘must-have’ modern technologies in women’s magazines in the 1960s.

She’d be exhausted by the end of it, but she accepted it because that’s the way life was in those days.

A washing machine came into the house in the late ’60s. It was marvellous. It cut her washing by half a day. She didn’t have to get water brought to the house. On a Sunday night two of the family would have to go to the pump to collect buckets of water. And then on Monday morning she’d put it into big pots to be boiled and then poured into the bath to do the washing. She didn’t have to boil up the water. The machine did all that for her”.

Contributed by Jennifer Meehan.

Jennifer & Patrick Meehan on their wedding day, 18 July 1978. Pictured with Jennifer's parents, Kevin & Kathleen Byrne.
Jennifer & Patrick Meehan on their wedding day, 18 July 1978. Pictured with Jennifer’s parents, Kevin & Kathleen Byrne.

Have a memory of the 1960s that you’d like to share? Found out more here.

When Kay Johnson won Housewife of the Year, 1967

Michael Keyes shares his memories of when local woman Kay Johnson won the Housewife of the Year competition in 1967:

“It is funny how one reacts when something pops up in your Twitter feed that actually resonates and connects with you. Someone trying to trace the winner of the 1967 Housewife of the Year competition. Wow! I remember that.

The winner was Kay Johnson.

She was a friend of my mother and she lived just across the square from us. The fact that I remember her winning gives some idea of how big a deal it was because I was only seven at the time.

But then in West-Limerick in the 1960s it took very little to create a stir. A win for the local hurling team would be cause for loud celebration. If Limerick beat Cork a cavalcade of flag waving, beeping cars went forth into the enemy held territory of Milford, a mile inside the Cork border. Television was only just penetrating our lives — we got ours in 1967 — but with television we felt we had a dog in other fights. Watching Eurovision became a matter of national pride and it made celebrities of showband singers such as Butch Moore and Sean Dunphy.

My mother drew her attention

The idea that anyone local would appear on television let alone as winner of a national competition was too much to hope for, but then Kay Johnson did it.

It was my mother who drew her attention to the Housewife of the Year competition. She took the view that Kay was an exemplary housewife (in the 1960s sense). She was attractive, she was married to a professional man, she had seven children who were a credit to her, and she was a marvellous cook and an entertaining hostess.

It was if we had won the All-Ireland

When she won, Dromcollogher was en-fete. Kay appeared on The Late Late Show and I remember being allowed stay up late to watch. It was like watching a neighbour win an Oscar. When she returned home from Dublin there was a gala night of celebration in the Green Bar on the square. Normal licencing laws were ignored and the party went on into the early hours; it was as if we had won the All-Ireland.

Those were very different times when the idea of perfect womanhood involved raising children, keeping house and supporting a husband in his profession. Kay certainly seemed to manage all that and much more besides. She played badminton, she organised Tupperware parties and she put our town on the TV. The tragedy was that cancer cut her life short in the 1970s before she could enjoy all that it promised”.

Contributed by Michael Keyes.

Have a memory of the 1960s that you’d like to share? Found out more here.

 

 

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.