It was J P Hartley who wrote that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The thing is, though, what if – once upon a time – a whole generation of women that includes you had lived there? Compared with what we now have, would you want to go back? At least for a brief visit?
That is what is on offer through the musical Ladies in Black, now playing in Sydney as part of an east coast tour. And the answer to that question was answered by both the “House Full” outside the theatre and the demographic of the audience filling it for the matinee performance that I was at. The majority, like me, were women who had grown up in the restrictive environment of the 1950s, and were now revisiting it through the delightfully upbeat and yet realistic unfolding of this comedy drama about a girl waiting for her Leaving Certificate results while working in a holiday job with other ladies in black in the women’s wear department of a DJ’s-like store. Which women of a certain age hadn’t been there, in some way?
Certainly, the starry reviews it had received were part of the explanation for the capacity audience. As were those readers who had enjoyed the warmly humorous book – The Women in Black – on which it was based, the most lighthearted novel of Madeleine St John. But if you were a teenager in the 50s, you would have to be in or around or past your 70s now. And the sprinkling of men and younger females in the audience was totally overwhelmed by the fascinating array of women of a pre-boomer vintage.
And the memories it brought back came rolling in, in huge waves comprising equal parts nostalgia for those long ago youthful daze and relief that the world – our world at least – had moved on in substantial ways for women. Of course, in the well worn question of long car trips – “Are we there yet?” – the answer is “Not quite” in areas such as equal pay, political representation, positions in the higher echelons of employment, and the sharing of housework and child care.
But, thank goodness, the central conflict of the piece – between a daughter wanting to go to university and a father believing that to be a waste of time before the inevitability of a domestic life – is far rarer now.
Then, it was a sad reality for many. Not, I hasten to add, for me, being fortunate enough to have been both brought up in a family and educated in a progressive all-girls school where university was simply considered to be the logical next step after the Leaving Certificate.
But I know of many cases such as that of a bright relative of mine, whose life was blighted by her parents’ refusal to allow her to realise her very achievable dream of becoming a doctor, and instead insisting on her becoming a bank clerk.
And now, suddenly, through Ladies in Black, we were transported back into that era, one that had long faded from our minds: where ladies were expected to wear gloves and chic hats to go out, and a frilly apron and welcoming smile for her man – the breadwinner of the family – coming home from work, and where marriage for female teachers and other professionals meant losing their jobs or being demoted so as not to clutter up positions that men needed to support said families.
Way back then, the wheels of women’s liberation were just beginning to turn, and we pre-boomers have both contributed to and benefitted from some of the most interesting times of change and evolution for females.
And so, at this age and stage of my life, it is interesting to ask myself whether I would like to be young again, if it meant being transported back to the 1940s and 50s, or to be old in the 21st century. Thanks to Ladies in Black bringing those earlier times to life so vividly, the answer is shatteringly clear.