The Australian Women’s Weekly and gendered Cold War discourse

Hannah Viney explores how Australia’s most famous women’s magazine engaged with Cold War politics.

Nearly seven decades after the 1950s, one of the most enduring and iconic figures of the period is still ‘the radiant housewife’ with the tiny waist and apron who beamed from magazine advertisements.’ Look at any women’s magazine from the decade and you will undoubtedly find the housewife smiling back at you. While the world teetered on the brink of extinction as Cold War events threatened nuclear destruction, the middle-class housewife was apparently content raising her children and caring for her home. Her smiling face, however, has obscured the complexities of Australian womanhood in the middle of the twentieth century.

Advertisement for Rinso laundry soap in The Australian Women’s Weekly, May 12, 1954. Image via the National Library of Australia.

Modern scholarship has largely failed to challenge this housewife figure, and has assumed that the 1950s was an extremely restrictive period for Australian women. Consequently, both scholars and popular culture alike have presumed that women were politically disconnected; according to Stephen Alomes, Mark Dober and Donna Hellier, women lacked ‘awareness’ of the political situation of the Cold War. Political scientists and sociologists such Jocelyn Clarke and Kate White have summarised the decade briefly in explorations of earlier or later feminist movements. Many used the 1950s only as an example of what second-wave feminists were apparently reacting against.

The popular Australian Women’s Weekly, however, presents a much more complex picture of Australian women’s political awareness in the 1950s. Previous scholars of the magazine have focused on the Weekly’s portrayal of the housewife ideal and the more traditionally feminine interests of romance and families. However, the writers of the magazine repeatedly offered readers – at least half of all Australian women – informed and critical discussions of the events and politics of the Cold War. Eighteen percent of editorials during the decade focused on the Cold War, and the majority of Weekly issues, referenced the conflict in some way. Writers such as editor Esmé Fenston and columnist Dorothy Drain both frequently wrote on issues of nuclear warfare, communism and international relations between the East and West. At the same time, the Cold War discourse presented to readers of the magazine was frequently framed through conventionally feminine themes. This was perhaps an attempt to encourage women to become involved in the Cold War and the political discourse surrounding it.

In August 1958, the Weekly published an article written by Canadian gynaecologist Dr Marion Hilliard on the dangers nuclear testing posed to children. Written during a period when it looked like nuclear weapons testing might be banned globally after the Soviet Union suspended their testing program, Hilliard asserted it was ‘pathetic and stupid’ that humans took ‘such great care’ for individual children yet the world continued ‘exploding bomb after bomb with who knows what untold disaster for future generations.’

The piece was obviously gendered. Written as ‘a plea for the unborn child,’ Hilliard opened the piece by writing emotively of her seven-year-old nephew and the wondrous future of space travel he might experience. Following this, she immediately segued into warning of the dangers of the ‘gigantic grey mushroom-shaped shadow that puff[ed] ominously over the world.’ The photographs accompanying the text reinforced this stark contrast, with the header image of a young mother staring lovingly at her baby juxtaposed by an image of a nuclear bomb exploded during Christmas Island testing.

Using her credentials as a gynaecologist to legitimise her authority, Hilliard urged that:

it [was] time the women of the world – of the whole world, East and West – should rise up and say: ‘It’s time to stop. Let there be no more use of weapons which will let loose radioactive power in this world. My child, all the children of the world should have a chance to start life as sound in body and mind as possible.

She followed this passionate plea by reminding readers that, ‘as women, we are the bearers and guardians of life.’ It was not for themselves that women should save the world, but for their children, for the ones who took ‘for granted [the world’s] limitless possibilities.’

Dr Marion Hilliard, ‘A plea for the unborn child,’ The Australian Women’s Weekly, August 27, 1958, 7. Image via the National Library of Australia.

Hilliard’s piece epitomised the way the Weekly often presented the Cold War through an overtly gendered lens. Repeatedly, the magazine published full-page articles that employed similar methods to Hilliard. Relating Cold War issues to more ‘feminine’ themes, the writers often used articles nominally on romance or family to discuss the more political issues of the conflict. Underlying these arguments was the assumption that all women were or would be mothers, and it was to mothers specifically that Hilliard addressed her appeals. She did not demand that women take a stand against nuclear warfare because it was the duty of humanity, but rather asserted that it was women’s duty as mothers to demand an end to nuclear testing and the use of nuclear bombs.

Yet despite the gendered focus, this piece also demonstrates that the Weekly believed women had a central place in discussions of the Cold War and believed that women should play a role in ending it. Although Hilliard addressed women as mothers first and foremost, she did not suggest that this role precluded them from Cold War participation. As Marilyn Lake has explored, earlier maternal feminists had argued that their womanhood and maternal natures gave them the right and the obligation to participate in Australian politics in order to provide balance. Likewise, the Weekly embraced 1950s’ understandings of women as the caring and maternal sex to justify and encourage women’s participation in Cold War political discourse.

Pieces like Hilliard’s demonstrate that the enduring image of the 1950s housewife fail to grasp the complexities of the decade. The extraordinarily popular Weekly did see women as housewives and mothers first and foremost, yet the magazine’s Cold War coverage suggests that the role these housewives played was more complex than simple homemaker and child raiser. Rather than politically unaware, 1950s Australian women were interested and involved in the Cold War, to the extent that an extremely popular women’s magazine felt it was commercially advantageous to publish articles on the conflict. The middle-class housewife of the 1950s was, for the magazine at least, an important player in the Cold War because she had an obligation to protect her children from the horrors of nuclear armament.

Hannah Viney completed her Honours in history at Monash University in 2017. Her thesis, ‘“Tongues Before Guns”: The Cold War in The Australian Women’s Weekly, 1950-1959,’ explored Australian women’s engagement with the political climate of the 1950s. Hannah plans to continue researching the political interests of Australian women in the mid-twentieth century by undertaking a Master of Arts in 2018.

Follow Hannah on Twitter @hvineyhistory.

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