Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[20] Vive La Différence


It’s time to talk about sex. Before you get too excited, I have to explain that the word ‘sex’ meant something quite different then. It was more like what we now call ‘gender,’ without any of the connotations of gender identity. (We only used the word ‘gender’ when talking about French or Latin grammar. We most certainly did not talk about what we now call sex.)

I am going to talk about what we would now call institutionalized sexism, which was then a pervasive part of the culture of Britain (and, to be fair, almost everywhere else). For today’s lesson, I will start with a bit of Natural History. (Yes, you normally get a little lesson. You’ve had history, geography, Welsh …)

Sexual Dimorphism

As my eternal friend Wikipedia explains, sexual dimorphism is a phenotypic difference between males and females of the same species, typically differences in body size, physical strength, ornamentation and behaviour. It is widely found in nature, mostly in animals but also in some plants.

Dimorphism is widespread in birds. (Sorry, folks, birds are my specialized subject.) Most readers will recognize the difference between a duck (female) and drake (male) in the common Mallard. Here is a pair of Mandarin Ducks in the Forest of Dean, showing obvious dimorphism. (The male is on the left.)


Similarly, the male Peacock, with its extensive, ornate tail, is very different to a plain, brown Peahen. In the same way, the much more common Pheasant has a larger and more ornate male than female. In birds, bright colours in males are supposed to attract the females.

Pheasant3_Strumpshaw_19Jun12   Pheasant_Rutland_14May11

In many insects, spiders and fish the female is many times the size of the male. (For some spiders the male may be eaten by the female after mating!) Some species of anglerfish, such as the triplewart seadevil (Crytptopsaras couesii) display extreme sexual dimorphism. The females are typical angler fish, whereas the males are tiny rudimentary creatures with stunted digestive systems. A male must find a female and fuse with her, becoming effectively a sperm-producing parasite.

With sexual dimorphism, there may be differences in behaviour as well as form. For example, with birds, it is usually the female who sits on the eggs and incubates, but for some species, the care is shared, and for some the male does most of it. (This is not the place for a discourse on the life of Penguins. Just discovered today is Penguin Awareness Day but you can look them up yourselves.)

When ants have wings, for just a few hours, the male and female meet and mate. The female starts a new colony and lives for many years, becoming a queen, hundreds or thousands of times her former size, producing tens of thousands of eggs in her lifetime. The male just loses his wings and dies. That’s sexual dimorphism!

Sexual dimorphism in physical form and in behaviour is largely genotypic or genetically determined, but it does include some environmental affects. It is not easy to separate these two influences. Behaviour can be gradually acquired over several generations.

Human Differences

Most primate species show sexual dimorphism in form and limited differences in behaviour. Men and women are different. There are clear differences in anatomy and physiology (not just related to sexual function), and differences in medicine from sex-linked genetics. (The recessive haemophilia carried by Queen Victoria is a well documented example.)

Wikipedia has many pages on human differences, suggesting other differences in psychology, intelligence, memory, aggression, personality traits, crime, education, religion and culture.

In our society, which has been formed by hundreds of years of male dominated history, there were in the fifties obvious differences in behaviour, personality and attitudes between the sexes. I will not attempt to say how much these differences were innate and genetic, perhaps driven by hormonal differences, and how much was determined by culture, education and upbringing. (Attitudes have change since then but still many questions about these differences remain unanswered.)

I try to describe how things were then, without attempting to explain or justify differences – keeping neutral and non-controversial. There is a spectrum of views, where one end treats men and women as totally identical, and the other sees them as totally different. Modern attitudes veer almost towards total equality in a way that would have been unrecognizable then. In the fifties, women were assumed to be almost completely different in many ways that we now see as wrong or unfair. The reasons for this are historical, cultural and religious, but at the time, there was little public discussion about whether it was right or wrong.

[In this post I will describe some differences without considering what we now call sexuality or gender issues. These topics were never publicly mentioned then. I expect to consider them in another post.]

Family Life

The assumption was then (as it had been for hundreds of years, and as it still is in many other countries,) that women looked after children at home. It was tacitly assumed they were best suited to do this and that they preferred to do it. Most married women stayed at home, as housewives, to look after the home, the children and the needs of their husbands. Married men went to work and earned the money to support the family.

There were some kindergartens for young children but, otherwise, there were virtually no childcare facilities. (Of course, the process of shopping, cooking and cleaning were very different then, so that there was more of a requirement for housework. The concept of a housewife has now effectively disappeared from modern life in Britain.)

People then were more family oriented. They married earlier, had children earlier and divorced less (often staying together ‘for the sake of the children’). There was very little of the modern complications of unmarried parents or step-parents. Families were much more often in line with the stereotypical nuclear family – father, housewife and mother, and two, three or four children.

As a result children saw much more of their mothers and spent time with them learning about life. They may also have seen more of their fathers. There was much more time together as a family. The idea of formalized babysitting circles had not really developed.


Married women generally did not work. (If you go back a little further, this was more strictly enforced. My mother and father kept their marriage a secret from work colleagues so that Mum could continue working. No one had much in the way of employment rights. Women routinely lost their jobs when they married and this was an accepted practice.)

Many jobs were stereotyped by sex. Most jobs of any importance, or high paying jobs, were not open to women. There was open discrimination or sometimes just unwritten rules about this. Women might be technically allowed to apply but they never did, knowing that they would never be accepted. Bus drivers were always men, while bus conductors were mostly women. (You may not even know what a bus conductor was!)

Jobs open to women were very limited and almost invariably very low paid. There were those jobs left over from the days of service – cooking, cleaning and housework, looking after children; menial office jobs such as typing; and waitressing at the cheaper end of the market, in cafes. (More formal restaurants used mainly waiters.) We have already met usherettes in cinemas and stewardesses on planes.

Secretarial jobs for women were not much better than typing and not much better paid. Vocational jobs such as nursing and midwifery were lowly paid, and almost completely reserved for women. (I don’t think ordinary hospitals had male nurses. They may have appeared in mental hospitals with male patients. The concept of male midwives did not exist.)

Teaching in Infants and Junior schools, was female dominated. Senior school teachers were generally male.

There were no women priests and virtually no women lawyers, doctors, professors, politicians, scientists or engineers. In the armed forces, there were separate organizations for women with their specific (non-combatant) roles.

Where women did do the same as men, or similar work, they invariably earned considerably less, and in practice, though for no defined reasons, they were not promoted to the higher paid grades or jobs.

(Words such as manager/ manageress, actor/actress, etc. were used to designate men and women doing equivalent jobs. This usage has largely disappeared now.)


[You may remember ‘On the Buses’ television and films from around 1970, showing a sexist view of the life of bus drivers and conductresses. Picture from Wikipedia]

Women’s Rights and Feminism

Married women in the 1950s had few rights. Legally, their assets and debts were owned by their husbands. For income tax purposes, a married couple was a single entity. The man would add any income from his wife on to his tax forms. Similarly, married women, and their children, appeared as additions on the husband’s passport. Police ignored domestic violence by a man on his wife, almost on the assumption that she belonged to him. There was no concept of rape between a man and his wife.

There was no right to equality of pay between the sexes – but people did not know what other people earned. Many wives had no knowledge of their husband’s earnings. (He had to know his wife’s earnings and declared them on his tax return.)

Things were beginning to change gradually, sparked perhaps by the political emancipation of the 20s, and the trend away from being housewives (helped by the war in which some women took on jobs made available because the men had become soldiers). Feminism began to emerge in the late 60s, and since then women’s rights have improved very slowly. This has been associated with a trend away from marriage, an increasing divorce rate and the increased practice of married women keeping their unmarried surnames. It is generally associated with more freely available contraception.

Equal Pay legislation came in the seventies but took decades slowly to take effect.


The only thing I will say about sex is that women were not then widely and publicly displayed as sex objects as they often are now. You did not see pictures of naked or semi-naked women (or women in overtly sexual positions) in shops or newspapers or advertising hoardings. As we know, there was little television; newspapers had few pictures; and topless models had yet to become a Page 3 phenomenon. (I was not very old, so maybe grown-ups moved in circles where this was different. It was possible for children to have a sheltered upbringing, in a way which is not possible now.)

I will also leave sexual relationships until another blog …

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

23 thoughts on “[20] Vive La Différence

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  8. I enjoy reading this blog. I was born in Britain and lived there from 1946 to 1969 when I emigrated to Western Canada. Western Canada mixes some British style political institutions with American (USA) culture. However, I remember Britain vividly from the 1950s. So much has changed. The greatest cause of social change has been the introduction of “The Pill” and I think that Alan mentions that above.


    • Yes, contraception has been one factor but there are many others – technology and the availability of information; post-war economic affluence; the decline of religion, …


  9. I think that you are right in that the forces bringing about change–social, medical, political, technical–are all interconnected., something like the development of “The Pill” does not happen in isolation. Social change also happens sufficiently slowly that we might not always be aware of its effects until someone–journalists or social scientists perhaps–points out what has been going on…makes us conscious of what has been happening all along.


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