Modern Wife, Modern Life is a new exhibition that will run at the National Print Museum of Ireland between August and October 2015. It explores the representation and expectations of housewives in 1960s Ireland as seen through the pages of women’s magazines.
Locating the Everyday Woman I was inspired to organise the exhibition for two reasons. My previous publications have related to high politics and as I undertook the research, I noticed the absence of the ‘everyday’ or ‘ordinary’ person. My last book (A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-73), for example, dealt with such issues as abortion, divorce and contraception, but it was the voice of the policymakers, activists and lobbyists that were most prominent. I began to look at more diverse sources to identify the views of the ‘ordinary’ person whose way of life was being debated. Influenced by the work of my friend and former colleague at UCD, Dr Niamh Cullen, I turned to women’s magazines, particularly the letters pages. Although some of the letters were created by the magazines’ editors and genuine ones only represent a snapshot of Irish life, they still offer some insight into the values of and issues confronting non-political women.
The New Marriage Manual? Around the same time, I discovered The Young Wife, a marriage manual from 1938 that belonged to my late grandmother Annie Meehan amongst some of her papers in my parents’ attic. As I read through it, I noticed that much of the advice given was very similar to that outlined in the magazines in the 1960s: needs of the husband to be placed above that of the children; the importance of budgeting; how to run a home, and so on. The major difference was that the magazines pushed the boundaries and gave advice on sex and intimacy, and they also carried an array of advertisements. ‘Modern’ was the buzzword in those advertisements, which promoted time- and labour-saving devices and new technologies. I began to read the magazines as the new marriage manuals. The concept of the ‘good wife’ and the ‘modern wife’ became blended into the one ideal.
Themes The exhibition will focus on six key themes: print culture; advice for the newly-married wife; beauty and presentation; new technologies in the home; women behind the wheel; and the wife who works. While, on first glance, it would seem that the magazines via the advertisements they carried located women firmly in the home, editorials and various articles argued vigorously for women in the workplace and advocated women in politics. In fact, many of the issues that became mainstream demands of the feminist movement in the 1970s can be seen identified in the magazines in the sixties.
Support the Exhibition Although the magazines will be at the centre of the exhibition, the display, in an effort to create a ‘people’s history’, will be supplemented with objects and items largely crowd-sourced from the Irish public. Anyone can be part of this project by donating or loaning items from around the home dating from the 1960s. A full credit will be given in all exhibition literature, and items will be handled with care and returned promptly once the exhibition ends. People can also support the exhibition by contributing to the financing of the production costs. Rewards for donating include a private curator’s tour, reproduction images and a signed limited-edition booklet.
Further Details For further details about Modern Wife, Modern Life or to loan an item, visit the exhibition website: modernwifemodernlifeexhibition.com.
Donations to the exhibition fund can be made securely through the dedicated Fund It page: http://fundit.ie/project/modern-wife-modern-life-exhibition.
Regular updates are also posted on the exhibition’s twitter account: @ModWifeExhibit.
Dr Ciara Meehan is a lecturer in history at the University of Hertfordshire. The Modern Wife, Modern Life exhibition is one element of her current research project that explores the everyday lives of Irishwomen in the 1960s. She is also writing a book on the same topic.