General, Women's History

Women’s History Month: Career Novels in the 1950s.

The 1950s are often imagined by the public- and most recently politicians- as an era where women’s goal in life was to marry and have children. Yet, while it was a period when most women would marry, and many would give up work upon marriage, it was also a time where women were expected and encouraged to work in the period between leaving school and ‘settling down’ in their mid-twenties. As women were increasingly well educated and many began to attend university, ‘careers for women’ became a topic of discussion amongst teenage girls. The importance of this discussion led to the rise in the ‘career novel’- fictional stories for teenagers that focused on the working lives of young women- starting in the 1930s in the US, but flourishing as a genre in the 1950s in Britain. These novels provided career advice for girls thinking about their school leaving choices.

The authors of British career novels were faced with a difficult conundrum – how to promote various career options for girls without upsetting the expected return to traditional gender roles of bread-winning husband and domestic housewife of post-war 1950s society. The novels also had to appeal to girls from a wide range of social backgrounds, as increasingly all girls were expected to take up employment after school and before marriage. Published by Bodley Head and Chatto & Windus, the genre flourished between 1954 (Air Hostess Ann, June Grey Fashion Student) to the early 1960s (Anne in Electronics, Margaret Becomes a Doctor). Some fifty novels chronicled the lives of young women training to be nurses, library assistants, journalists, continuity girls and travel agents and acted as conduits of information on a career. They also gave their heroines a taste of independence within a conventional framework, but confirmed their ultimate domestic role through a successful romance. These novels provided instruction to their audience of teenage girls about how to engage their natural desires for performing their essential femininity in terms of the consumer goods of food and fashion. Readers of these books were being prepared for roles in the workplace that middle-class mothers might have only have experienced as part of a brief necessity between 1939 and 1945.

One career open to women and popular in novels was the air hostess. In 1950s Britain, the relatively new career of air hostess, signified by the recognisably stylish uniform, was promoted as a glamorous way to see the world. However, Pamela Hawken was at great pains in Air Hostess Ann to emphasise that the job also entailed hard work. At her interview Ann reflected on the excitement but also on the necessarily short career of a young stewardess:

‘of course, I want to do it because of the glamour as well – foreign lands, seeing hibiscus in bloom when there’s frost and fog in England, meeting famous people, getting to know the world – and myself. I don’t just want to stand behind a counter all the years between school and getting married, if I get married. I want to do things and see things first’.

Inevitably by the end of the book, there was more than a hint of romance in the air with pilot Alan.

The heroines of the career stories were usually solidly middle class, although their fellow trainees came from a variety of social backgrounds. They were instructed in what we might think of as ‘natural’ female characteristics. The air hostess trainees were taught ‘how to make the most of their looks’ by a few days at a Bond Street Beauty salon; ‘we help you with your skin and any other beauty troubles’.

Ann was surprised to learn that beauty treatment would be part of her training. Was this the reason airgirls had a reputation for attractiveness? She became acutely aware of her own amateurishly powdered nose, and home-shampooed hair.

Within the role of hostess there was room for adventure as well as for demonstrating natural feminine traits, and while Ann looked after troublesome children and tended to a sick passenger, she also kept her cool in a crisis when the plane landed without its under carriage. In a section entitled ‘Women with exciting jobs’, The Girls’ World noted that the ‘slim young air hostess has become the modern symbol of romantic womanhood’. Following on, the author described experiences strikingly similar to those of Air Hostess Ann. ‘Sharing the still-existent risks of the air with pilot and navigator, coping with such emergencies as an air birth, and rather more frequently, like her sea sisters, with sickness, with nervous passengers … she thoroughly deserves her pre-eminence’.

Pamela Hawken listed the qualities that ‘British World Airways’ looked for in their trainees: ‘tact, resourcefulness, an air of confidence and calmness … the ability to be firm and yet pleasant, to be unfailingly courteous, always serene, never giving a hasty, bad-tempered reply, or appearing flustered or nervous’. The Girls’ World piece provided the qualities needed by potential applicants to the airlines.

Good education, poise, intelligence, ability to act in an emergency and to avoid over-emphasising the glamour of the job – these are the qualities looked for, coupled with such practical qualifications as languages, sick nursing, and the ability to prepare and serve the dainty meals for which the Airlines are famous.

These same characteristics also might have been listed in a definition of femininity or offered as advice to a young bride to be in the pages of increasingly popular women’s magazines.

The dilemma of the dual role of worker and wife was central to much of the career literature for young women in the 1950s. Eleanor Brockett’s reflection at the end of that decade on choosing a career highlighted the need for girls to consider how those choices would affect their eventual expected role of wide and mother. It is therefore hardly surprising that advice about specific careers emphasised the generic qualities that they enhanced, including ‘a sincere interest and liking for other human beings, the ability to inspire trust and confidence, meticulous accuracy and personal integrity which are essentially feminine and should be well developed in the married woman who is also a mother’.

Dr Nancy Rosoff is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Program Development at Rutgers University, Camden. Dr Stephanie Spencer works on the history of education at the University of Winchester. They discuss the options presented to girls in mid-twentieth century fiction in ‘“To Be Unfailingly Courteous”: Teenage Fiction and Transnational Ideologies of Femininity, 1910-1960’ in the next issue of Women’s History Magazine– available to members of the Women’s History Network.

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