A CENTURY OF WOMEN - 1950s
The decade following the Second World War was one of reconstruction and readjustment; while the rebuilding of town centres and social housing were major priorities, fluctuations in traditional industries heralded structural changes in the economy. Rationing remained a challenge to the family purse until 1954 and further longer-term consequences of both international events and social legislation were increasingly evident in everyday life.
The position of women in mainstream politics in Northern Ireland remained fairly stagnant, with four women taking their seats at Stormont following the 1949 election. Only one, Independent Irene Calvert (first elected 1945, resigned 1953), former Chair of the Standing Conference of Women’s Originations for Northern Ireland, was noted for ‘putting the women’s point of view’. Calvert had been a wartime Chief Welfare Officer and her experiences were the motivation for her support for progressive social welfare. Dr. Mary Hickey also stood as an Independent, with Dame Dehra Parker and Dinah McNabb (1949-65) continuing to represent Unionism. The latter were joined by Elizabeth Maconachie in the 1953 General Election (until 1969). Female representation of Northern Ireland at Westminster was also extremely limited; the first to gain a seat was Unionist Patricia Ford who succeeded her father in a 1953 by-election. Retiring two years later, her place was taken by fellow Unionist Florence McLaughlin in the 1955 General Election (until 1964). With the region’s politics dominated by the Unionist government’s sense of defensiveness against both the Irish Republic’s claim to the territory of the island of Ireland (particularly during the IRA’s border campaign, which lasted until the early 1960s), both women’s issues, and their role in the decision-making process, attracted limited attention.
The post-war industrial boom came to an end early in the decade, with a sharp decline in many of the most traditional industries. This decade, for example, saw the building of the Canberra, launched in 1960, which despite its revolutionary design, proved to be the last of the large passenger cruise liners to emerge from Harland and Wolff. Over 10,000 jobs were lost in the linen industry between 1956 and 1961, with the closure of numerous mills and a sharp reduction in the production of others. This brought an end to the time-honoured occupation of many women and girls, though continuing shift work ensured that those openings that did remain continued to be popular with married women. The 1951 census records the changing trends, also noting a significant decrease in women working in agriculture (14.3% of all occupations compared to 44% in 1926), though it too remained important, if unacknowledged, way of life for married women. On the other hand, one consequence of the introduction of the welfare state was an increase in female employment opportunities in administrative and other positions in the growing education and health sectors. Despite the fact that the years between 1950 and 1960 saw an increase of 18,500 jobs in the service industries, particularly amongst those under 25, women’s employment rates were about 5% lower in Northern Ireland than those in other regions of the UK. A 1957 survey of the Northern Ireland economy lamented the region’s failure to adapt to structural changes, though 42,000 new jobs were created between 1942 and 1962. The new opportunities for employment emerged in the production of rayon at Courtaulds in Carrickfergus, the AEI turbine factory in Larne, at Chemstrand’s Acrilan Plant in Coleraine and Dupont’s Synthetic Rubber in County Londonderry.
Evidence from debates at Stormont highlighted efforts by the UUP to prevent family allowance payments to families with more than four children (indirectly targeting Catholics whose families were generally larger in size). Notwithstanding this, the benefits of the 1940s welfare state began to take effect in this decade, with striking improvements in health and educational opportunities. By 1954, deaths in childbirth fell to the same level as in England and Wales while the infant mortality rate continued its downward trend, reaching a new low of 29 in every 1,000 births. Following an outbreak of polio in the 1950s, vaccinations were introduced which brought the epidemic under control. There was little change in marriage and birth rates, and births outside marriage were recorded at 2.68 per 1,000 births - undoubtedly an underestimation. Pregnant women wishing to, or having little choice, in putting their illegitimate children up for adoption, were largely reliant on charitable or religious institutions, such as the Mater Dei Hostel on the Antrim Road in Belfast - managed by the Legion of Mary. It was the only lay-run Catholic institution for unmarried mothers and their babies in Northern Ireland. However, the many examples of both institutional and individual sexual abuse and neglect, which have been written out of history until research in recent times, suggest that a dark undercurrent of oppression blighted the lives of many women and their babies. On a positive note, it was over the course of this decade that family planning issues began to make progress, albeit slowly and tentatively, with the Belfast Women’s Welfare Clinic established by Northern Ireland Hospital Authority in 1951 as a public service. The work of resourceful local women doctors in this controversial project deserves greater recognition.
By the end of the academic year 1955-56 over 20,000 pupils were attending grammar schools on state scholarships; intermediate schools had greatly improved and greater flexibility in educational provision was reflected in the numbers of adults attending day or evening classes at Further Educational Colleges, a move that encouraged many housewives and mothers to embark upon a return to education thereby often changing their expectations and lifestyle. In the aftermath of war, it was estimated that 200,000 new houses were needed, although the Housing Trust completed 48,500 dwellings between 1945 and 1972, inequality in their distribution by local councils sowed the seeds of future acrimony. For example, of 1,048 council houses built in the mainly Catholic County Fermanagh in this period, 82% were allocated to Protestants. Such discrimination was the result of the combination of the ‘first past the post’ electoral system, the gerrymandering of council boundaries to boost Unionist representation in marginal Wards and the granting of multiple votes to companies, multiple property owners and institutions such as Queens University.
While the demand for electoral reform dominated the 1960s, an early example of Catholic frustration at this situation can be seen In Derry at the Springtown camp (a disused naval base). Rather than rehouse the Catholic families who had set up home in the totally unsuitable, freezing cold Nissen (corrugated iron) huts, Derry Corporation decided to install water and charge rent. At the peak of its existence, almost 400 families lived in 304 of these huts and in 1959, five children barely escaped being burnt to death when a spark from an oil fire ignited their home. The mothers of Springtown began an escalating campaign for better housing: they disrupted council meetings, squatted in houses, staged marches, courted the media, lobbied MPs, wrote to the PM, organised petitions, sent delegations to the authorities and appealed to the courts. Though the women had brought the issue to the public attention, and fought with determination on behalf of their families, the solution was eventually decided by government officials, men from the housing trust and solicitors.
Women’s engagement in the world of art, literature, and culture more generally, continued to be sidelined during this period. Until 1957, women were not represented in any arts society in Ireland. However, in that year, Gladys Maccabe, an artist who had exhibited in England as early as 1949, invited ten of the best known women artists of the day to join her in founding the Ulster Society of Women Artists. The first exhibition took place a year later in the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. Olive Henry, another founder member, worked in stained glass and held a one-woman show in the CEMA Gallery in Donegall Place in 1957, while Greta Bowen’s art can be viewed in the Ulster Museum. The world of theatre was greatly enlivened by the arrival in Belfast of Mary and Pearse O’Malley. Having been deeply involved in experimental poetic drama in Dublin, Mary began to stage one-act plays in the drawing room of her home, first in Ulsterville Avenue and then in Derryvolgie Avenue, both in south Belfast. The Belfast Lyric Players’ Theatre would evolve to greatly enhance the drama scene in Northern Ireland. Belfast author Mary Beckett wrote radio plays for BBC Northern Ireland in the 1950s, and had several short stories published.
Jonathan Bardon described the 1950s as the ‘quiet years’ in Northern Ireland, because they were characterised by the maintenance of the status quo. However, while the decade saw little overt female activism, the result of initiatives discussed above laid the foundation for the accelerated social, economic and political changes of the following decades. For many people too, the process of modernisation and the onset of easy-pay plans for time-saving kitchen equipment and a whole new range of commercial luxuries represented an upturn in living standards. By the end of the 1950s, the introduction of television to a popular audience and the appeal of a broader teenage culture also ensured that the social isolation and conservatism of the North would be challenged – not least by its women.
- Belfast Women’s Welfare Clinic (BWWC) opens to offer contraceptive advice. Beginning as a voluntary organisation, with patients paying only for contraceptive devices and fearing opposition from religious leaders, BWWC kept a low profile.
- The June Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II leads to both celebrations and protests in NI.
- Elizabeth Maconachie (Unionist) is elected to Stormont in the 1953 General Election.
- Patricia Ford (UUP) represents North Down at Westminster.
- First regular television service in Ireland begins with a broadcast from Divis in County Antrim.
- Florence McLaughlin is elected to Westminster.
- Formation of Ulster Society of Women Artists by Gladys Maccabe
- Ruby Murray reached number 1 in the charts with her hit song, “Softly, Softly”
- On 5 May 1956, Thelma Hopkin broke the world record in high jump in Belfast with a jump of 1.74 meters. Her achievement is commemorated by a plaque in Cherryvale Playing Fields, South Belfast. She competed for Great Britain in the 1956 Summer Olympics held in Melbourne, Australia in the high jump event, where she won the silver medal jointly with Maria Pisareva. In the 1954 Commonwealth Games, she won a gold medal. As well as athletics, she excelled at hockey where she was a regular choice for the Ireland Women's team, playing at forward. She won 40 caps.
- School leaving age is raised to 15.
- Introduction of Life Peers enables women to enter House of Lords at Westminster.
- Kay Fallon (Geraghty) of the Workers Union of Ireland proposes the establishment of the first National Committee for trade union women at the 1959 founding conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Betty Sinclair, who was Secretary of the Belfast and District Trade Union Council 1947-75, seconds her motion. The Women’s Advisory Committee was to be re-named the Women’s Committee in 1983.
Myrtle Hill, Women in Ireland: a century of change (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2003).
Maedbh McNamara and Paschal Mooney, Women in Parliament: Ireland: 1918-2000 (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 2000)
Leanne McCormick, Regulating Sexuality: Women in twentieth-century Northern Ireland (Manchester: University Press, 2009)
Myrtle Hill and Margaret Ward, ‘Conflicting Rights: the struggle for female citizenship in Northern Ireland’, in Esther Breitenback and Pat Thane (eds), Women and Citizenship in Britain and Ireland in the Twentieth Century (Continuum 2010), pp. 113-138
S. Prince and G. Warner, Belfast and Derry in Revolt: A New History of the Start of the Troubles (Irish Academic Press: Dublin, 2012)
Rebecca Pelan, Two Irelands: Literary Feminisms North and South (Syracuse University Press: New York, 2005)
Theo Snoddy, Dictionary of Irish Artists: 20th Century (Merlin Publishing; 2nd edition, 2002)
Margaret O Hogartaigh, Quiet Revolutionaries, Irish Women in Education, Medicine and Sport, 1861-1965 (Dublin: The Irish History Press, 2011)
Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ulster (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1992)