A Woman’s Place
Penguin Books, $20.00,
A Woman’s Place is a small book in every sense. Penguin’s web page classes it as both “humour” and “gift book”. Though it does have pages and a cover, it belongs to the growing legion of publications that are more like extended greetings cards than books. In those terms it’s good value – it costs roughly the same as three or four average cards, and only a few dollars more than the really fancy kind with a built-in soundtrack. The blurb and web page both show that it’s aimed at the main card-buyers – women. To drive home this message, every page is gussied up (ironically, I’m sure) with chichi candy pink frames, ribbons, bows or lace.
So what will the ladies get for their money? A brief introduction and six sections – “The Female Mind”, “Before a Girl is Married”, “Good Wives”, “The Happy Housewife”, “The Working Woman”, and “Health, Beauty and Being Your Best”. Each has its own concocted, arch introduction and some text extracts dating from the 1940s to the 1960s telling women what and what not to do. But most of the pages feature reproduced black-and-white ads, all targeting women, for everything from luncheon sausage and cornflour (with remarkably nasty caricatures of the intended customers) to soap, deodorants and breath fresheners (did all that concern with body odour reflect the limited bathroom facilities of those days, or was it mostly imaginary?).
Peer at the source lines in small red italics, often on a pink ground, and you’ll see that some extracts come from the Evening Post, a handful of assorted advice books (some dating back to 1944) and two 1960s home economics textbooks. The others, along with all the ads, come from New Zealand Truth between 1950 and 1967. Redmer Yska’s thoroughly researched book about Truth, “the people’s paper”, came out in 2010, and this looks like a quick commercial spin-off. Perhaps that’s why his name is missing from the cover and title page, and appears only on the imprint page, making it seem as if he isn’t keen to claim this as his work.
It’s pointless, of course, trying to break passing butterflies like this on great creaking critical wheels. What interests me is why such publications, along with a raft of other items making similarly tongue-in-cheek, nudge-nudge use of 1950s prescriptions for women, are currently so prevalent. I’m not including here the many items featuring cleverly doctored images, such as Cath Tate’s Loose Knits cards based on old knitting patterns (my all-time favourite is the woman with the steely gaze, the pompadour and the body-armour fair-isle cardigan, captioned “She had not yet decided whether to use her power for good or evil”). Maybe it’s to do with recession and insecurity, a kind of half-nostalgic harking back to the legendary good old days when, so the story goes, men got jobs for life, women stayed home, and if everyone behaved themselves they all lived happily ever after.
That doesn’t explain why there’s such a strong focus on women. It’s not for lack of material, though New Zealand has nothing quite as startling as the post-war US men’s magazines (have a look at the very strange Art of Manliness website), where wild animals (“I Battled a Giant Otter”; “Chewed to Bits by Giant Turtles”; “Flying Rodents Ripped My Flesh”) got much bigger headlines than wild women (“San Antonio: Home of Texas’ Love-Happy Girls”; “Washington, DC: Free Love Along the Potomac” – no change there, then). But articles and ads aimed at straight men rarely figure in 1950s reruns. When they do, it’s often because they now come across as unintentionally gay, and are therefore presumed to be funny.
Nor are we seeing cute little collections of 1950s pieces about Maori, with snippets from articles earnestly discussing Maori children’s lack of formative experiences such as going to the beach, followed by boxes on social studies charts showing “primitive races” illustrated by carved wooden clubs alongside “our forebears” in Victorian dress (from a 1949 issue of Education, the free School Publications journal for teachers), with a few “Hori” cartoons thrown in for good measure. Neither Maori nor Pakeha readers would be expected to find this funny.
So why are women expected to find things like A Woman’s Place funny, just as we were once expected to find rape jokes and wife-beating jokes funny? I’d like to think it’s because, unlike rape and wife-beating, such absurd, contradictory, damaging shibboleths have vanished forever, leaving women and men free to manage their lives and loves as they see fit, while finding the notion of “a woman’s place” utterly ridiculous. But as the spate of vitriolic online comments on any media story about female inequality shows, that’s obviously not the case.
The prescriptions have certainly changed – from corsets and chastity to Botox and Brazilians – but they’re still there and women still feel pressured to conform to them, as Caitlin Moran wittily pointed out in How to Be a Woman. Officially it’s all very upbeat: women can do anything (so if you can’t it’s your fault). In private it can still be bloody awful, just as it was in the 1950s, except that then there weren’t even any refuges or today’s pitiful remnant of what used to be called “social security”. And yes, some women do still have to ask their husbands for money to buy what they need – let alone for a bit of fluff like this.
Anne Else’s memoir, The Colour of Food, is out this month as an Awa Press ebook.