21st April, 1955, my birthday – it was a time of right-wing extremism – a desperate attempt at maintaining a reactionary but dying political and cultural conservatism - Menzies (british wannabe and staunch monarchist) and the Liberal party were in power and catholicism was the major religion. This is a brief ‘snapshot’ into the decade surrounding my birth – the 1950s – a time of incredible change.
World war 2 had formally ended in 1945 but it's inherent social upheaval was still affecting life in general. The absence of men from the workforce allowed women work outside of the home - it gave them a taste of independence - a place within society - self-worth. With the return of the servicemen, women were being encouraged - by whatever means - fired, guilt-tripped, threatened to go back to the home and be good wives and mothers, and give men back 'their' jobs!!! And with the Korean war ceasefire agreement having only been signed in 1953, even more men were returning from the front, and there was a perceived idea that life would get back to 'normal'.
“The immediate response to the end of the war was one of delirious joy and relief. People poured into the streets when peace was announced to sing, dance, cry and to kiss and hug absolute strangers. Peace brought an end to agonizing tensions, to shortages, to the separations, and the long hours of work. The urgency of returning to “normality” gripped many like a fever. There was a boom in babies and marriages.
For most women the blessings in the years that followed the war were mixed indeed. The trend to shift many more women in paid work into the textile and clothing industries started before the war ended, and this continued. Women who had been metalworkers and ironworkers in aircraft and munitions factories found that their man’s jobs and man’s pays disappeared. “Rosie the Riveters” went back to waiting on tables at not quite pre-war levels of pay. “Equal pay” was reduced to 75% of the male rate.
Many of the comprehensive full-day nurseries and other child care centres which had appeared during the war disappeared along with federal government funding for such projects. Some women found themselves widowed on inadequate pensions or the companions of severely war-shocked men, with little community understanding of or support for their problems.” (Joyce Stephens, “A history of International Women’s Day – the 50s & 60s”)
Women were being expected to give up their new found place in society.... they wanted women to go back to their previous lives of subservience and drudgery... after having tasted this freedom and camaraderie...
women weren't going to give up their gains so easily - being a 'doormat' no longer held the same appeal for most women - the fight for equality was gaining momentum!!!!
Contraception was a volatile issue… “the pill” wasn’t available yet - Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League (eventually becoming Planned Parenthood) was fighting for research into. and production of, the pill, receiving funding for the major part of the research from Katharine Dexter McCormick. Common forms of contraception in the 50s were that ever unreliable withdrawal method, condoms, cervical caps, douches and not much more. With no free, safe, legal abortion, backyard abortion was widespread, and with it came its associated complications, such as incomplete abortion, sepsis, hemorrhage, and damage to internal organs. While those responsible for the deaths and mutilations were being allowed to get away with their torturous practices, women continued to suffer and die. Women were getting angry… they wanted action!!!!
Homophobia was rampant at the time... "While the 1920s onwards saw the emergence of a thriving underground camp scene in the major cities, the 1950s witnessed another serious crackdown against male homosexuality in Australia. Again, this was part of a process of reinforcing the nuclear family, this time in response to the social liberalisation that had occurred during World War II. There was a sharp increase in the number of people charged and convicted for homosexual activities, and there is strong evidence that police were actively involved in entrapment of homosexual men. A special squad targeting homosexuality was set up in the Victorian police, and the NSW police superintendent labelled homosexuality "the greatest social menace facing Australia" (Rachel Morgan, "In depth: homophobia in Australia").
Binge drinking and alcoholism were rife amongst working-class men – the six o’clock swill was in force in Victoria from 1916 until 1966 so as soon as they finished work men went to the pub and got really pissed up until 6 o’clock – and of course, with extreme drunkenness came violence against women and children!!!! There’s another post item here too.
Marijuana was under siege yet again – hemp was used for canvas, rope, cloth – companies stood to earn more with the development of nylon so they needed to outlaw the competition - DuPont and William Randolph Hearst both played a role in the criminalization of marijuana. Mandatory sentencing and increased punishment were enacted when the United States Congress passed the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956. The acts made a first time marijuana possession offense a minimum of two to ten years with a fine up to $20,000; (this attitude to marijuana of course spread to Australia and Britain); however, in 1970, the United States Congress repealed mandatory penalties for marijuana offenses.
The Cold War was in full swing; McCarthyism and anti-Communist ‘sentiment’ and ‘fear’ were at an all-time high – the “red scare” was used quite successfully by Menzies who had been re-elected in 1954 at the height of the Petrov Affair – and Australians were ‘brainwashed’ by the “reds under the beds” campaign.
“During the 1950s, politics of all kinds were played out against the background of extreme bigotry and a dwindling democratic practice. Attempts were made not only to ban the Communist Party, but to give the government powers to declare who was or was not a communist, with the onus of proof on the accused. It was a time which has been described by radicals and conservatives alike as one of hysterical witch-hunting during which anti-communism was used to smother political dissent or to blacken opponents, whatever their real persuasion.” (Joyce Stephens )
The following excerpt from a paper by Sara Waugh at the University of Omaha differs a tad from the official version but the sentence in heavy italics (my emphasis) makes more interesting reading!!
“The White Australia Policy began to disintegrate during the second World War. Australia requested that only white soldiers be sent for their protection, but the United States refused the request and sent only mixed racial troops. Australia was forced to allow the soldiers into the country in order to have protection from Japan. In 1949, Australia passed laws allowing the refugees who had married Australians and Japanese war-brides to remain in the country. In 1957, those people of non-European ethnicity who had lived in Australia for fifteen years were allowed citizenship, and in 1958 a migration act was passed which made it easier to gain citizenship and got rid of the dictation test. In 1966, the fifteen year requirement for citizenship for non-Europeans was lifted and they were allowed the same five year requirement as Europeans.”
Jedda was released in 1955 and was a landmark movie for a number of reasons – it was the last movie made by Australian filmmaker Charles Chauvel, the first to star two Aboriginal actors (Robert Tudawali and Ngarla Kunoth) in the leading roles, and it was also the first Australian film shot in colour.
Of course, the status and treatment of the indigenous population was appalling at this time – they weren’t even eligible to vote!!! You might like to check out the Koori History website – it has a really good historical timeline, or find out about Jessie Street, a suffragist, feminist and human rights campaigner who fought for Aboriginal rights.
The Great Australian Dream (and it was only ever a dream for my parents - and pretty much everyone else I knew) was being touted – home ownership (the 1/4 acre block, Hills Hoist and all the mod cons) was the answer to everyone’s dream so they told us… and of course we needed houses to bring up all those children we were going to have because we were being encouraged to “populate or perish” - consequently a massive immigration programme was launched – between 1947 and 1950 200,000 migrants and refugees arrived in the country, with 1 million migrants arriving during the 50s.
That spawn of the devil – Rock & Roll – was making its way into the Australian culture. This of course led on to juvenile delinquency, immorality and debauchery!!! A report by Dr. Keith Moore from the School of Humanities and Human Services, Queensland University of Technology entitled “Bodgies, widgies and moral panic in Australia 1955-1959” makes extremely interesting reading – here are just a few excerpts…
“In August 1955, the Sydney Sun-Herald warned that the rock and roll ‘dance music craze’ that was sweeping America would soon reach Australia. Alerting readers about the ‘hysterical … abandon which characterize[d] its primitive rhythmic beat’, the feature warned that the music was ‘a contributing factor’ in juvenile delinquency and banned by police in a number of United States communities (Sun-Herald, 28 August 1955).
As rock and roll erupted across Australia, the public’s alarm over teenage delinquency escalated, especially because many bodgie gang members dressed similarly to the rock and roll singers and embraced rock and roll music. In September 1956, just as Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel reached the top of the hit parades, Sydney’s first rock and roll riot occurred following the screening of Rock around the Clock. Wild dancing in the street took place, with those defiantly dancing outside police headquarters charged with offensive and indecent behaviour (Melbourne Herald, 22 September 1956).
To the country’s moralists, Elvis Presley was ‘Satan personified’ as his ‘erotic’ gestures on stage seemed designed to corrupt the most demure of teenagers. When reviewing an overseas Elvis concert, Perth’s Daily News complained that his performance was a ‘frantic sex show’, and under the headline 'Filth [and] eroticism’, the same newspaper a week later advocated that Presley’s records should be banned (Perth Daily News, 14 November 1957).
In the latter half of the 1950s, concerns that Australia’s teenagers, and especially working-class teenagers, were becoming delinquent reached a crescendo. Law-abiding citizens observed with concern bodgies (male) and widgies (female) congregating in milk bars and on street corners. Violence and sexual license were their hallmarks, they believed, with alarmist and sensationalist media reports having established and fuelled these understandings. Parental alcohol consumption and gambling, lack of discipline, high wages and youthful access to unsuitable comics, horror picture shows, and after 1956, rock and roll music were among the factors that generated delinquency, they suggested. Their views, popularized by sensational press reports, contributed to a ‘moral panic’ throughout the Australian
I highly recommend reading this report – it’s a time capsule into the cultural changes happening during the 1950s – and there were BIG CHANGES happening!!!! One item in the report I intend to write another post about is the banning of comics – but that’s for another time!!!!