Christmas 1950 at British Woman
Rationing, Schiaparelli, Washboards & No Sex (by order of the Churches)
Woman was the most successful ever British magazine for women. (1) Edited by Glaswegian Mary Grieve – the first woman, bizarrely, to edit a women’s magazine (before then it was a mans’ job) – she was the editor from 1937 until 1962. Under her tenure and direction the annual sales income of Woman reached £12 million by 1962. The magazine had continual problems with the established churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. She was born in Hyndland, Glasgow.
The dust jacket of her 1964 Gollanz published autobiography – Millions Made My Story – reads:
“During the last war, and specially during the post-war years when the British social revolution was being wrought, one of the principle signposts and the most popular mentor of the female population of the United Kingdom was Woman, the magazine that is now read by eleven million people each week, including, rather surprisingly, two and a half million men.”
Mary Grieve’s letter to readers, December 23, 1950.
Above, a variation of “Make Do and Mend” and below, post-war rationing still in place in 1950. In 1945 Britain was near bankrupt at the end of the Second World War. Bread, which was not rationed during the war was rationed by the Labour Government in the peacetime 1940s. Unknown to the British public, the Labour Prime Minster Major Clement Atlee had secretly started the costly development of the British Atom Bomb, despite being opposed by his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, on the reasonable grounds that Britain could not afford it. Attlee pushed ahead anyway, excluding Dalton from an inner Cabinet group when the decision was secretly taken. By 1950 £100,000,000 had been spent on developing the British Bomb – in today’s value £3¼ billion. One of the first things that Minister of Food and lapsed Marxist Stafford Cripps did in 1946 was to bring in bread rationing. A case of bombs before bread. Bread rationing stayed in place until 1948. Sweets (‘confectionary”) rationing was ended in early 1953 by the Conservative government.
Note the washboard in the Pacquins advertisement below, besides the cigarette. Twin tub washing machines were, in the UK, still a few years away. Washboards, boilers and mangles were how clothes were cleaned, and semi-dried in 1950.
Mary Grieve, editor of Woman from 1937 – 1962, highlights in her Millions Made My Story, how careful the magazine had to be about mentioning birth control, and the powerful institutional religious forces against it, and also against other areas of women’s sexual well-being. (On the whole, the same lack of information effected men too). Evelyn Home received hundreds of letters a week, amongst which were a significant number touching on sexual health worries and family planning, and she had to tread carefully (as did Mary Grieve as editor) with what letters were used and how they were answered.
The background to this was partly the social times when the magazine started (although the caution was still being exercised in 1963), but also very much the force of the established churches and obscenity laws. In 1942 the then Church of England Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple had been alarmed by an explanatory article on birth control in Everywoman, a sister Odhams magazine. Temple made representations to the owner of Odhams, Lord Southwood, who as a Labour Party member, Julius Elias, had been bumped up to a Lord, to sit on the Labour seats in the undemocratic House of Lords. Lord Southwood sympathised with Temple’s views. “While we must be up-to-date, and if anything in advance of the times,” Southwood reportedly said, “we must not be too much in advance… When the schools put this subject in their curriculum, it will then be time for us to deal with it in our paper.” (Quoted in Millions Made My Story.) Mary Grieve went on to write, in 1962 (the book was published 1964)
“I don’t know how the schools have got on with the subject since then, but the women’s magazines, with other means of communication, have proceeded with caution. This may seem curious, because family planning has become an accepted factor in many marriages, and the Royal Commission on Population gave a clear recommendation that contraceptive advice should be included in the National Health Service. One would think, therefore, that the women’s presses would feel free now, twenty years after the Everywoman incident, to be frank.” Mary Grieve, Millions Made My Story.
The situation for Woman mentioning, even indirectly, “family planning” with their readership in Eire was forbidden by the Irish State, with it written into the 1937 constitution of the right of the Irish Roman Catholic Church to have a say in all areas of family life: adoption, divorce, contraception, and the seemingly innocent area of introducing clinics for mothers and children (which they successfully opposed in 1951 on the grounds that such a scheme was “anti-family”). Meanwhile, single mothers and their babies were put into the notorious Catholic run Mothers and Babies Homes. The opposition of the Irish Roman Catholic Church led to the resignation of Irish Minister of Health Dr. Nöel Browne, who had tried to introduce the scheme against a background, amongst other concerns, of the high infant deaths in the Irish Republic, 26,000 in 1950 for example.
“…. The reason for the continuing reticence about (family planning) is political. A minority religion here (the UK), the Roman Catholic, has such deeply held convictions against the use of contraceptives that it is hard to see any political party embracing with enthusiasm the cause of family planning by this method.
In Eire the subject is completely taboo. Magazines risk, and have experienced, being banned from the country by ignoring the taboo… Woman’s sale in Eire is very small beer in relation to the total sale of three and a quarter million. But at no time in our fight did I find management willing to sacrifice this sale to keep up with the British Joneses…. We ran, as did other magazines, a special slip page for Eire free of comments or information which could offend. Our human problems page, conducted by Evelyn Home, was our chief source of danger. This is the page that is remade every week for Ireland” – Mary Grieve, Millions Made My Story, 1964.
The British Labour Party has had a close relationship with the Roman Catholic hierarchy on mainland Britain since before 1914, where in areas of high numbers of Roman Catholics with an Irish background they made concessions to get their vote. These included the pledge to build Roman Catholic schools. In Glasgow the cry of the opposition to this was “No Popery on the rates”. Besides Liverpool in England, in Scotland, Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire, Glasgow, and parts of the Lothians were solid Labour areas because of these concessions and accommodation with the Roman Catholic Church, even were there were also protestant Labour voting Scots in constituencies such as Monklands and Airdrie, and elsewhere. The joke in Scotland was that a prospective non Roman Catholic Labour candidate in some constituencies couldn’t get selected unless he had an overnight conversion to Rome.
The Labour Party Roman Catholic voting electorate had a direct effect on the Labour Party’s attitude to family planning and sexual health. When the Catholic Church was suspicious with mooted ideas about such things Labour Prime Minister (and Presbyterian) Ramsay MacDonald as early as 1924 helped to “diffuse Catholic suspicions by appointing the Clydeside Catholic, John Wheatley, as Minister for Health in which capacity he maintained the ban on the provision of advice on birth control by local authority clinics” – Speak for Britain!: a New History of the Labour Party, Martin Pugh, 2010.
Below, the Evelyn Home page for Christmas, 1950, and beneath it, typical letters that were selected to print.
Tampons had been developed in America during the 1930s and were starting to be marketed in Europe in the post-war 1940s. Prior to their introduction bulky sanitary towels were available, and continued to be available. The Irish parliament under pressure and persuaded by the Irish Roman Catholic Church banned their sale in 1947 “lest they cause harm (or sexual pleasure) to women”. The Irish Catholic Church opposition was led by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who was to lead the successful pressure on the Irish Government in 1951 over their intended introduction of Clinics for Mothers and Children.
N O T E S
Mary Grieve: This writer can find no online photograph of Mary Grieve, nor is there any online encyclopedic entry about her.
- In 2018 the best selling women’s weekly magazine in the UK is Take a Break, with nearly half a million print sales.
Copy of Woman magazine December 23, 1950, and cover of Millions Made My Story: Pete Grafton Collection.