In Look Back in Anger, housewife Alison Porter must choose between remaining in a difficult marriage or leaving her husband and returning to her parents’ home. Faced with the same situation today, many British women would consider a third option: become an independent, working woman. In the 1950s, however, it would have been both economically challenging and socially unconventional for Alison to build a life on her own.
As in much of the western world at the time, a woman’s primary role was seen as wife, mother, and homemaker. Prior to the industrialization of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, the country was agricultural; women worked in tandem with their husbands and families to grow crops, raise animals, and run small businesses. The advent of textile factories, steam engines, and the mining industry began the economic shift towards wage-earning men and homemaking wives. This would remain the ideal (unattainable by poor families) throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century.
Although British women won the right to vote in 1928 and many worked outside the home during the First and Second World Wars, a typical working class woman would have had much the same life as her mother. She left school at 15, took some career-training classes, worked in a low-paying profession dominated by young women, and quit the working world when she married in her late teens or early twenties. In the 1950s, women married so young that educators worried about having time to adequately educate them for the workforce.
Cartoon from The New Yorker during the original run of 'Look Back in Anger'
A woman from a wealthier home would stay in school longer, study more academic subjects, and forego working altogether. She would likely move straight from her parents’ house into her husband’s home. Married women—even well-off, educated women—were barred from employment in the civil service and teaching professions.
Many of the postwar social reforms were designed to encourage the traditional model of male breadwinner and female homemaker. Family allowances—weekly cash benefits to families with children—encouraged childbearing. Education continued to segregate students by gender: an official 1959 report by the Central Advisory Council on Education advised that girls be taught differently during their last two years in secondary school, with an emphasis on “her direct interest in dress, personal appearance and in problems of human relations.” Popular magazines such as Girl and Woman’s Own reinforced the image of women as wives, mothers, and homemakers, surrounded by domestic comforts.
Alison Porter, educated daughter of the middle class, finds herself in living in a dingy flat, in a troubled marriage—far from the ideal woman’s life.
More from this series:
- Look Back at Society: Social Structure of Britain in the 1950s
- Look Back at Mass Culture: Language and Culture of Britain in the 1950s
Look Back in Anger plays at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre January 13, 2012 through April 8, 2012. For more information, click here.
Related Categories: 2011-2012 Season
, Education @ Roundabout
, Look Back in Anger