Some years ago, I carried out a research project which explored the experiences of students in British universities between the two World Wars. As a social historian I was interested in questions of access, funding and social background. I also wanted to find out more about the value that students and their families had put upon higher education. The replies to my questionnaires (from some 1250 elderly graduates) were patterned by gender. Many of the women used strong emotional language to rate their university years as one of the best and most memorable experiences of their lives. The men used a different language, and their replies were cooler. They tended to look back on getting a degree as an essential start to a career. But for many, National Service had proved an equal or even more powerful shaper of career and identity.
In my latest book, Love Lives: From Cinderella to Frozen (OUP 2021), I focus on the dramatic changes in women’s lives, hopes and dreams since 1950, but men’s and women’s lives are of course deeply interwoven, and writing the book entailed me giving a great deal of thought to men’s experiences and to changing expectations of masculinity. I found myself thinking again about National Service. In addition to those who served during the war, more than two million men were conscripted into peacetime National Service between 1945 and 1960. It impacted upon relationships between men and women in profound and far-reaching ways.
Historians such as Tom Hickman (The Call-Up, A History of National Service, Headline Book Publishing, 2004) and Richard Vinen (National Service: Conscription in Britain, 1945-63, Allen Lane 2014) have written valuable, focussed accounts. They contain plentiful material on how service was designed to toughen up men, thus distancing them from domesticity and the feminine.
The obligation to give two years to National Service cut a deep divide between young men and women. It turned young men’s education into something of an obstacle course, especially if they were bent on higher education and a professional career. How did you fit it all in? The postwar years marked an interesting demographic trend: young people were marrying at much younger ages than before. This trend was in part driven by the aspirations of young women, who were increasingly likely to consider themselves ‘left on the shelf’ if they had failed to secure a husband before reaching twenty-one years of age.
This generated a great deal of social conflict. Young girls, fuelled by the dreams of romance propagated in the new magazines of teenage culture (Boyfriend, Roxy, Romeo, Valentine) sought true love and an engagement ring whilst still in their teens. Society frowned on ‘pre-marital’ sex. In the 1950s and early sixties, sex was legitimate only if it followed from love and marriage. But parents of boys who were ambitious for their son’s futures weren’t happy about them falling in love too young. They were suspicious of girls wanting to ‘lure’ their boys into marriage. Young men might crave sexual experience, but could be terrified of getting a girl into trouble and being ‘trapped’ into a ‘shotgun’ marriage.
These are some of the tensions embedded in the fiction of the 1950s and early 1960s. David Lodge’s novel about National Service, Ginger, You’re Barmy (1962) is a perfect example. Similar cross currents of tension and anxiety characterise the novels of William Cooper (Scenes from Provincial Life, 1950) and the writings of the ‘Angry Young Men’; Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, Kingsley Amis et al.
The conflicts certainly complicate any simple notion of the 1950s as a decade of happy families and harmonious relations between men and women. The abandonment of National Service in the early sixties paved the way for longer hair, ‘unisex’, and easier relationships between men and women.
Carol Dyhouse is a feminist historian and emeritus professor of history at the University of Sussex. She writes about the social history of women, education and popular culture. Her publications include Glamour: Women, History, Feminism (2011), Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women (2013), and Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire (2017). Her most recent book, Love Lives, From Cinderella to Frozen is published by Oxford University Press.