Sex symbols, protest marches and mother’s little helper. It was the era of the split personality. You had silver screen love goddess Rita Hayworth in black satin, performing a one-glove striptease as the ultimate femme fatale. This was taken to a sociopathic level when the bombshell’s image was featured on an atom bomb.
In this, the next in our series on women through the decades, we take a snapshot of women in the 1940s and 50s.
Women had a hard time figuring out who they were and where they were headed over these two decades. Their radical departure from the stereotype that women must be seductive, softly spoken and ladylike was triggered by World War II (1939 – 1945), which liberated large numbers of women worldwide from the socially expected role of mother and wife.
While the men were away fighting, women took over their jobs to play their part in the war. Women also signed up for the army, navy and emergency services. Some even landed up being the face of bombs.
Rosie the Riveter
The icon of the war effort was Rosie the Riveter, a self-assured, dominant woman, depicted rolling up her shirtsleeve to reveal her powerful right arm. The slogan for Rosie was the legendary ‘We Can Do It’.
This was a very different kind of woman to the femme fatale in black lace and satin, personified by Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner. These love goddesses were strong in their own right but their screen image was that of the ultimate man’s woman. Rosie, on the other hand, was the opposite of a man’s woman. She flaunted her strength and was proud of the fact that she was a big, strong, beautiful woman.
The irony was that Rosie was a United States government invention, as part of their propaganda campaign to get women into the munitions plants, factories and shipyards during the war. But then the war ended and the government had to start another propaganda campaign to get Rosie out of the ‘men’s jobs’ and back into the home.
Strategically packaged ideology
The real life Rosies were not the kind of women to oblige, and a new generation of feminists arose. However, the greater number of American and British women fell for the strategically packaged ideology of the nuclear family dream. They discarded university degrees for picket fences, and baby-making and domestic lives for fulfilling careers.
This led to a dark epoch for millions of women worldwide who increasingly became bored out of their minds. The latest hairstyle and vacuum cleaner could only delight for so long before they looked elsewhere for distraction from their less than satisfying lives. Many found solace in pills.
Mother’s Little Helper
From the 1950s an entire generation of women were fed a steady diet of Valium by their male physicians to keep them calm and on track. The Rolling Stones wrote a song about this called ‘Mother’s Little Helper’, which looked at the use of drugs like Valium amongst housewives:
Kids are different today, I hear ev’ry mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she’s not really ill, there’s a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day.
As part of her busy day, Hollywood reinforced the need to look gorgeous and behave like a sex kitten when her husband comes home. This was the way to catch and keep a good man.
Marilyn Monroe parodied this in movies like How to Marry A Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but many took the message seriously and willingly gave up their freedom, careers and self-development to meet and marry a rich man, preferably, or a good man, or any man.
Women who chose higher education and a career over a man or in parallel with a family, often found it difficult to secure a job in a man’s world. The campaign to get women out of the workplace and back into the bedroom had proved a resounding success and we are still living with aftermath of this today.
Evita on the rise
At the same time as this portrait was playing itself out, down south in Argentina, Eva Perón was on the rise. Widely known as Evita, she was the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 – 1952. Her championing of women’s rights led to women’s right to vote in 1947, signed by Juan Perón, her husband and the President of Argentina.
Evita subsequently created the Female Peronist Party – the first political party that addressed women’s rights on a large scale. By 1951 it had 500 000 members and 3 600 offices throughout Argentina. Thousands of previously apolitical women became politically active, and their votes helped to keep Evita’s husband in power for a while.
Regarded as the spiritual leaders of Argentina by their supporters and as demagogues and dictators by their detractors, Evita and Juan nevertheless contributed to the enfranchisement of women and the health and welfare of the general population. As part of this, Evita established the Eva Perón Foundation to provide financial assistance and scholarships to gifted children from impoverished backgrounds, build homes, hospitals and orphanages.
Evita’s Achilles heel was her love of ultra luxury. She used her First Lady status to purchase whatever she desired, including shoes custom-made with mink. Her rationale was that she grew up poor and was forced to wear broken footwear. This predictable pattern of capitalist catch-up is not unique to Evita; it’s alive and thriving here at home.
Freedom was a demand
The 1940s and 1950s in South Africa, as in the United States, ushered in the urgency for equal rights amongst black people. Freedom was no longer a dream; it was a demand, fueled by a spirit of resistance.
At Chancellor House, opposite the Magistrate’s Court in Joburg’s inner city, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo practised as attorneys from 1952. They were the embodiment of the bright, forward-thinking new South African.
Outside the court today stands the 5-metre tall metal sculpture of Mandela shadow boxing, by South African artist Marco Cianfanelli. It’s a brilliant tribute to this time. Inscribed on its base are Mandela’s words: “In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant.”
Up the road from here are Mandela’s friends Walter and Albertina Sisulu, captured in time in a sculpture in Diagonal Street. This side of the city is filled with the memories and architecture of 1950s (and earlier) Joburg. It is populated with men’s outfitters and small boutiques with exotic names like Lavender Moon, offering bright fabrics, spices and traditional African medicinal cures.
Schizoid division intensifying its twist
You can readily imagine men and women going about their business here 60 years ago; but at the same time you know that the schizoid division in South African society was intensifying its twist as the National Party entrenched its power. It was the long night of the equal rights movement, and, instead of the dawn lifting the hood, a tainted vision paved the way.
Sensing this well in advance, black politicians, trade unions and citizens had become increasingly more militant in the 1940s, with the formation of the ANC’s Congress Youth League in 1943. Black women were quick to follow, forcing an acceptance amongst men of their role in politics. Ever since the ANC’s formation in 1912 men had not accepted women as members, and it took until 1943 for this to change when the ANC Women’s League was formed. The voice of black women, including leading trade unionists like Frances Baard, Lilian Ngoyi and Bertha Mashaba, started being heard.
The Alexandra Women’s Council (AWC) was established at this time, and women from Alex Township became increasingly active in issues relating to housing and squatting. In 1947 women organised a march through Johannesburg to protest against the housing shortage.
Claiming political space
White South African women were also claiming their political space. They had not permitted to play any part in political decision-making until 1930 when they got the vote.
From all quarters, South African women became increasingly politicised, with progressive, mainly white organisations like the Black Sash, teaming up with their black sister organisations. Most Afrikaans women were caught up in Nationalist Party ideology, but distinct individuals like trade unionist Bettie du Toit rejected this and fought for the emancipation of all South African people.
Bettie du Toit from the old Transvaal
Born on a farm in the old Transvaal, her parents both died before she was three, and she was raised by the Dutch Reformed Church. At 18 years she left the platteland and moved to Joburg, indicative of her independent soul. Here she met trade unionist Johanna Cornelius who set her on this path. Du Toit got a job as a weaver in a factory in Johannesburg and helped organise the Textile Workers Union.
Despite being accused of being a communist and ostracised by her own people, Du Toit’s anti-racist resolve never diminished. She committed her life to fighting for the rights of all workers, including white Afrikaans women workers, and she was one of the participants in the Defiance Campaign of 1952, which led to her banning. She fled to Ghana in 1963 where she worked for Radio Ghana, then moved to London where she stayed for several years. She ultimately returned to South Africa where she passed away in 2002.
Suzman was an absolute outsider
Du Toit and other legendary women like Helen Suzman, carried the anti-apartheid flag for white South African women. As an English-speaking, Jewish woman in a parliament dominated by white, Calvinist, Afrikaans men, Suzman was an absolute outsider. But she made sure everyone listened to what she had to say. She was once accused by a minister of asking questions in parliament that embarrassed South Africa, to which she replied: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers”.
The 1940s saw large numbers of people moving to the cities in search of work in the factories and mines. Black people were not allowed to have permanent residences in the cities, which led to the growth of informal settlements on the outskirts of urban areas. Black women, who could not find formal employment, would brew traditional African beer and sell it to the migrant workers who could not afford the western beer or who preferred the traditional brew.
The epicentre of politics, jazz and blues
One suburb in Joburg that was exempt from the residential restriction on was Sophiatown, which was historically a freehold area where black people could own land. In the 1940s and 1950s it was the epicentre of politics, jazz and blues, and produced some of South Africa’s finest musicians, artists and writers. It was Joburg’s version of Harlem, Soho and Greenwich Village, all rolled into one multicultural renaissance. Nobel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer was part of this renaissance, and published her first novel, The Lying Days, in 1953.
Sophiatown was also the home of a famous heavyweight boxer and Sophiatown legend, Ezekiel Dlamini, known as King Kong, who inspired one of South Africa’s greatest jazz operas, King Kong. Its entire cast was black and it literally took South Africa by storm when it premiered in 1959 at Wits University’s Great Hall, which was one of the few venues where mixed race audiences were allowed. It reflected the vibrancy, violence, music, streetlife and shebeen culture of townships in the 1950s. The extraordinary Miriam Makeba played the lead role of this production that went to London’s West End.
Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe and Letta Mbulu
Makeba and fellow female singing stars Dolly Rathebe and Letta Mbulu gained fanatical followings during this time when South African women realised that they too could be stars.
At the same time they realised they needed to become increasingly militant to combat apartheid’s penetrating claws. Thousands of Black, Coloured and Indian women took part in the Defiance Campaign in 1952, which involved the deliberate contravention of Whites Only laws.
Two years later, the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) was established, bringing together women from the ANC, the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), trade unions and other groups of women for the first time. A Women’s Charter was drawn up, which pledged to bring an end to discriminatory laws.
20 000 women march
On 9 August 1956, FEDSAW organised over 20 000 women to march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to present a petition against the carrying of passes by women to Prime Minister J G Strijdom. This was the famous Women’s March, now celebrated as Women’s Day on 9 August each year.
The women’s anti-pass campaign, the Women’s Charter and the famous march to Pretoria became benchmarks in South Africa’s liberation struggle. Over sixty years later, however, we are still not seeing the sacrifices of the 1950s generation manifesting in a safe, non-sexist country, and we need to work out what it is we need to do today.