Only halfway to paradise: women in postwar Britain, 1945-1968

TitleOnly halfway to paradise: women in postwar Britain, 1945-1968
Publication TypeBook
Year of Publication1980
AuthorsWilson, Elizabeth
Number of Pages233
PublisherTavistock
CityLondon
Abstract

Only HalfWay to Paradise is not a conventional history of the position of women in postwar Britain, it is far more ambitious than that. Neither is it just a history of women but more a history of feminism and an attempt to understand how contemporary feminism has emerged out of certain historical convergences, contradictions and crises. The scope of the book is vast, covering, for example, the social sciences, social policy, literature, law, sexuality and psychoanalysis, but as Elizabeth Wilson makes clear her aim is to 'show how they operated together and all contributed to the making of a received wisdom about the position of women'. The book is therefore not a descriptive account, but a political analysis that serves two purposes. It politicizes the biographies of a whole generation of women by removing recent history from the grip of nostalgia and spelling out the implications of much of what happened in the fifties denied within the Puritan church though this did not of course mean that they had equal governing rights; their labour was important to the farm enterprise. As Utica grew and its local political and social structures became more complex, women were able from the start to occupy some limited positions of authority - in philanthropy, for example, women were very influential from the beginning. Again this contrasts sharply with England. The local English community of the early nineteenth century already had a legal system and an established Church which granted no authority or power to women. Women's subordination had been written into common law and into customary economic practices for centuries. As a consequence, when middle class men began to fight for their own positions of influence, the space for which they struggled was initially more circumscribed than in the United States - and meant that there were even less possibilities for women. Middle class men were inserting themselves into an already male-dominated political system, reforming it and changing it along the way but never challenging the gender divisions given within it. Their new societies set up in pursuit of their scientific social, political and economic interests, followed the pattern in marginalising women from the start. It took a long time for women interested in philanthropy in England to make a place for themselves in that world: initially they were expected to confine their activities to the private and the informal. A Utican evangelical pamphlet of the late 1820s reported a little girl as saying to her mother 'Mother there are so many societies'... I longed for you this afternoon when I came home from school, and they told me you had gone to the Maternal Society: You go very often. Mother, what is a Maternal Society?' (p. 105 ) Such a query is hard to imagine in the England of the 1820s. The most important contribution that Mary Ryan has made for me is that she has taken feminist perspectives firmly back into the study of the whole society - her book cannot be ghettoised; it is not 'just about women'. Up to now feminist historians have had very little success in forcing male historians - even those who are supposedly sympathetic - genuinely to re-think their accepted categories. Her book may help in our long term struggle. I hope that it will soon be produced as a paperback, but meanwhile, do order it for your library. Only HalfWay to Paradise is not a conventional history of the position of women in postwar Britain, it is far more ambitious than that. Neither is it just a history of women but more a history of feminism and an attempt to understand how contemporary feminism has emerged out of certain historical convergences, contradictions and crises. The scope of the book is vast, covering, for example, the social sciences, social policy, literature, law, sexuality and psychoanalysis, but as Elizabeth Wilson makes clear her aim is to 'show how they operated together and all contributed to the making of a received wisdom about the position of women'. The book is therefore not a descriptive account, but a political analysis that serves two purposes. It politicizes the biographies of a whole generation of women by removing recent history from the grip of nostalgia and spelling out the implications of much of what happened in the fifties. It also goes some way towards providing a cultural heritage for women which may eventually curtail the necessity for new generations of feminists to 'rediscover' and 'retread' the same ground as their predecessors.

(Book Review- Catherine Hall)

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