Social Science and Married Women’s Employment in Post-War Britain
Past & Present
Oxford University Press (OUP)
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McCarthy, H. (2016). Social Science and Married Women’s Employment in Post-War Britain. Past & Present, 233 (1), 269-305. https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtw035
The normalization of married women’s employment was one of the major social changes taking place in western societies in the second half of the twentieth century. Focusing on Britain, this article explores the role played by the emerging discipline of sociology in fostering this change between 1940 and 1970. It argues that a group of social researchers active in this period helped to reshape popular understandings of married women’s work, which they presented as a permanent feature of ‘modern’ societies rooted in irreversible demographic and socio-economic trends. By framing paid work as an activity which met women’s new psychic needs and material aspirations across social classes, this sociological narrative dampened much of the moral fervour which accompanied popular debates about working wives and mothers. But whilst sociological research into women had a cultural throw which reached far beyond professional social science, its authors could not always control the meanings it acquired in the hands of others. It could, for instance, be deployed by professional women’s bodies to advance demands for flexible working, or by civil servants to legitimize inaction on day care provision for the children of working mothers. This analysis reconstructs the professional lives and collective contribution of Pearl Jephcott, Viola Klein, Alva Myrdal, Judith Hubback, Nancy Seear, Hannah Gavron and Ferdynand Zweig in order to argue for the importance of taking ideas seriously in accounts of women’s changing post-war lives. It demonstrates how the shifting conceptualisation of women’s paid work, traceable through social-scientific ideas and their effects, offers an illuminating lens through which to write the history of gender in the twentieth century.
External DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtw035
This record's URL: https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/289736