Interview

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Cornwall based, writer, and novelist

Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann is a writer and novelist specialising in the mystery and suspense genres. She has also written several non-fiction books, including Out Of Harm's Way, the story of the overseas evacuation of children during WW2, and The Fifties Mystique. Mann was educated at St Paul's Girls' School and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read Archaeology, and the Leicester University, from which she has a degree in Law. She has written features, comment and reviews for the Literary Review magazine, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, Western Morning News, House & Garden and others. She has appeared on TV and radio programmes including Question Time and represented the South West on Round Britain Quiz. 

The Fifties Mystique is a fascinating look into life for women of that period. It is a big departure from your usual type of writing - why did you feel it was important to write this book? 

I'd noticed an increasing number of young women - understandably exhausted as they juggled jobs and children - writing or saying that they wished they lived in the 1950s when they could have stayed at home and baked cupcakes. But I was a schoolgirl, undergraduate and wife in the 1950s, and although personally I was perfectly happy (and am still happily married to the same man more than half a century later) I look back with a kind of shock/horror at the society we took for granted. It was deeply hypocritical and life was extremely austere until the second half of the 1950s, and above all, women really were second-class citizens. I wasn't aware of it at the time. Absolutely everybody took it for granted that some (actually, lots of) privileges and professions were for men only. So I was partly writing for myself, wondering if I could explain why we were all so passive until Women's Lib got going, dredging up that long lost world from the bottom of my memory, and partly writing to warn young women of the 21st century not to surrender their hard-won freedom. So the book ended up as a mixture of autobiography and polemic. 

You admit that you were quite fortunate in that you had a university education and married a man who understood your desire to be more than a wife. During your research process, did you come across any stories from less fortunate women that particularly shocked you?

Lots and lots of them. Clever girls who weren't thought worth educating - I know a good many who went and took degrees when they were middle aged. Then there were so many girls who got pregnant by mistake. Some underwent dangerous and illegal backstreet abortions. Some had shotgun weddings - not exactly a recipe for happiness - others gave up their babies for adoption. I've heard heartrending stories from contemporaries who had kept the secret for decades until a stranger turned up on their doorstep and said "you're my mother." And you're quite right in saying that I was fortunate, but I still think it was pretty shocking that when I applied to become a barrister's pupil the unashamed reply was "we don't take women." And that was as late as 1970.

At times, you seem to suggest that women today are at risk of losing some of the freedoms that have been won over the past fifty years; how real do you think this danger is?

The first step to losing freedom is thinking that it doesn't matter - which is, effectively, what any woman who says "I'm not a feminist" is implying. The next step is having no money. It is simply human nature to defer to a person on whom one is completely dependent.

Traditionally, the breadwinner was the boss and in the 1950s that boss was usually male - so women couldn't get mortgages or make contracts or even, in some cases, sign their own operation consent forms. If women did stay at home and bake cupcakes I don't think it would be long before they went back to being second-class citizens. And in present circumstances, when there aren't enough jobs (and given the increasing sophistication of machines there won't ever be enough jobs again) it wouldn't be surprising if policymakers started suggesting that jobs should be for the boys again. And then it wouldn’t be long before women were completely excluded again. Just one example: in the early 50s, when my mother, as a mature student, started training to be a solicitor at the London Law School, it didn't have a women’s lavatory because there hadn’t been any women. 

Though we've come a long way, there are still gender inequalities in our society. One only need look at the Everyday Sexism project. How important do you think it is for young women to take up the feminist cause?

It’s extremely important. There are still too many boardrooms and offices where the only women are there to answer the phone and bring the tea. This imbalance spreads absolutely throughout our society still and one of the ways it survives is by persuading young women that feminism is finished because  it has triumphed.

But look for example at my profession of writing and reviewing. The literary pages of any newspaper or magazine, despite the fact that a large number of literary editors are female, are nearly always heavily weighted in favour of men both as authors of books reviewed and as reviewers. Last week in the Sunday Times review, about 85% of the bylines were male, and on  about three quarters of the books reviewed too. And that's a perfectly usual proportion. This kind of imbalance is found in almost every profession - music, art, commerce, politics: just look at the gender balance in the current Cabinet!

Are there any other books you'd recommend for people wanting to find out more about 1950s life for women?

As a novelist myself I really believe that the most accurate pictures of normal life are found in fiction and especially (I would say that, wouldn't I?) crime fiction, in which tiny everyday details are mentioned because they may be clues. So anyone wanting to find out what it was like to live in the 1950s could plunge into Agatha Christie and other less well-known domestic crime novelists such as Celia Fremlin, Gladys Mitchell or Ngaio Marsh. One of the most memorable novels about the period  is Mary McCarthy's The Group, and the most accurate and funny are Kingsley Amis's early books  such as Lucky Jim and Take a Girl like You. The L-shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks is brilliant about pregnancy and the unmarried girl.

If you want non-fiction, there are the contemporary feminist texts such as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, a book which had an enormous influence on me, or The Captive Wife by Hannah Gavron, and of course there are the blockbuster histories such as David Kynaston's Family Britain and Never Had It so Good by Dominic's Sandbrook. And finally I highly recommend as a really good read with lots of background information about the period, a new account of the John Profumo/Christine Keeler scandal, An English Affair by Richard Davenport Hines.