Lately— especially since I have been busy working hard to try to attain everything I wanted, I have been thinking about what it is that society expects of millennial women and if it was always this way. Today’s society has a lot of expectations that typically include: getting an education, going to university, having not just a job but a successful career, starting a family and then somehow maintaining childcare and being a devoting mother whilst also not sacrificing one’s career. On top of everything else, women are under constant scrutiny to maintain their physical appearance since fitness and a strong physique has come into trend. With increased information and research regarding health and fitness, women are expected to put the work in physically for their physique as well as everything else. With ever-changing standards of beauty there seems to be a new element of the physical to consider and waste another five minutes on every single morning.
It got me thinking: is this standard even possible? And has it always been this way?
I, for one, do not think everything is achievable. I have friends who have children and I have friends who are working towards a career but I do not have friends who are maintaining both. The truth is that you cannot do everything and society will criticise you for whatever it is that you drop. For example, stay at home to take care of your child? Society will tell you you’re lazy and aren’t making your own money. Want to put your child into childcare and continue to work at your career? Then you’re a selfish mother who doesn’t spent enough time with her own children. Society will criticise regardless of what it is women have to sacrifice. If you choose a career over children you are considered less successful. If you choose not to marry you are not ‘single’ you are labelled a ‘spinster’.
So my intrigue got the better of me and I decided to ask two more women of two different generations to ours to see if the standards of women were any different for them, how they have changed and if they achieved the image of a successful woman who ‘had it all’ in their generation and whether they believe they could still achieve society’s expectations in today’s generation.
Without further ado, meet Susan, a woman of the eighties and Shirley, a woman of the sixties…
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your generation
“I started school at the age of 4; though it was not called a nursery it was more about play learning than actual learning for the first year. I have no A levels or O levels or any distinction of qualification really. I took the 11+ mock exam once and passed it but I didn’t go to the actual test because I knew that my parents couldn’t afford to buy the uniform that you had to buy or the hockey sticks or things like that”.
“Childhood was much more fun and free because we could spend all of the summer holidays away from home and take picnics without any fear of being abducted or any downside of safety fears or anything like there is today. We would play outside and roll each other down hills in barrels and make dens in woodland. Parents always joined in when they could as well, they would play with their children in the street, whether it was skipping or playing whip and top or marbles— anything that they could join in with they did”.
“I left school at fifteen and went straight into factory work. We made knitwear but my particular job was to put the buttons on knitwear. Work was always fun, there was a camaraderie between all the girls I worked with and we were allowed the radio for one hour, twice a day. The days were eight until four with an hours lunchtime break. I worked there from the age of fifteen until twenty which was when I left the factory and my job to get married”.
“My generation still had a lot more freedom than today’s generation has but it was a little less than the freedom that my mum had. We played outside less and went round to friends houses instead and to swimming pools— that was a big thing for me because we lived close to a swimming pool. I could go at about eleven in the morning by taking the two pence bus rides. I was younger than [my daughter] when I did this and we had no mobiles but were always fetched by car. As I was older I went on shopping trips to Walsall [from Brownhills], we also went caravanning to Little Lakes which was like a holiday to us on most weekends— most of the other children didn’t have that. We would spend nearly all the holidays there. It had its setbacks because I didn’t have the friendships with the others that they had for meeting up with each other every weekend. I had a completely different set of friends in the summer than my school friends. We always had a holiday even if we didn’t leave the country— that’s something that my mum didn’t have”
“As for school, I think I started from five years old and walked myself to school against mum’s better judgement, always with older kids though and the school was only a few streets away. The primary school followed different traditions [than the typical education now], we took part in maypole dancing [wearing] white dresses, pumps and flowers. This might be the beginning of the breakdown of stereotyping because boys and girls both used to maypole traditionally— all of that has gone out of school today. We still wore uniforms like today. High schooI started when I was eleven and I stayed until I was sixteen. I did not stay on to do GCSE’s or A Levels. Actually it was CSE’s not GCSE’s and unless you achieved a grade 1 it was not recognised. There wasn’t the drive behind the exams that there is today, there was no pressure, the exams were there for the able. There was also no teaching to pass an exam like there is today. It was down to you to identify what you needed to in the exam”.
“I left school to do a ‘youth opportunities scheme’. There weren’t the jobs to go into after school so to get the unemployment figures down they [the government] created a scheme for school leavers, they paid £60 a week and did job training type stuff. It wasn’t an apprenticeship with anything to show for it like there is now. My first job was Hewitts (car sales) and I was seventeen years, working in the parts department doing the admin side of things. I was made redundant within the same year and then moved to kidderminster where I got another job in car sales admin again”.
What was beauty like in your generations?
“Until I was seventeen, I wasn’t allowed to wear any make up of any description because my father didn’t approve of it. I took lipstick with me when I was out and took it off before home so that my parents didn’t know because it was a no no. I started [wearing make up] properly when I got married— I used moisturising cream, a powder based foundation, not too bright lipsticks because I’ve never been a red kind of girl. Eyebrows weren’t focused on like today. You were what you were and there was no pressure to be something else unless you put the pressure on yourself and were jealous or wished you were something you weren’t but there was no pressure to change yourself that wasn’t from yourself”.
“For my generation the big make up things were eyeliner, eyeshadow, no foundation as a teenager, some mascara. In my early twenties I did full the full face of foundation, basic plucking of eyebrows so we had no monobrow or stray ones. I think our generation were starting to become more aware of body image and there was a bit more pressure to be like people in magazines and follow the trends of fashion magazines that we saw in things like ‘Jackie’ etc. The ideal body type was slim but not today’s version of slim”.
At what age were you considered a woman?
SHIRLEY: “Probably eighteen”.
SUSAN: “I would say the same I think— though because of driving, that changed things because you could drive at seventeen which gave you freedom. I think there was a different impact on what you did as a woman because when you [to Shirley] were eighteen it was common place to be married which it wasn’t for me”.
SHIRLEY: “Today girls think they’re women at sixteen I think, because of body image in society”.
SUSAN: “Working with travellers is interesting because they see a woman as a woman when they get their periods and then they want them out of school”.
What was expected of you in terms of education, family, career and beauty?
“As long as we were good kids, the plan was always to just do your best and you can’t do any more than that. There was no pressure because there wasn’t the opportunities that there are today in front of us anyway. Being the oldest, I took on the bedtime reading role in my family and always had to help out with mealtimes. I was never made to drag the other kids along with me when I went anywhere but I usually did anyway. There was no pressure to have children of your own but the way of the times was to get married and within the first three to four years you were expected to have started a family which was usually the case because, as there was no pressure, things just happened”.
“Our generation [saw] the mum stay at home to look after the family and it was frowned upon to not. There was also no childcare to put your children in so you had to leave them to your family if you absolutely had to. [Youngest son] Darren was thirteen before I ever took another job and went out to work because Granddad had always felt that it was his place to provide and not mine. That was what it was like at the time. When we first married I went into another factory, making baby clothes, hats and sunhats. I did do some cleaning work before we had [first child] Gary and moved from Birmingham to Brownhills. I cleaned at a food hall market in Birmingham with one of [husband] Fred’s aunties. Soon after that we got a house in Brownhills and knew nobody so there was no one to leave the children with so I stayed home to look after them. There was enough money [my husband] brought in to manage on, though there was nothing to spare”.
“There was nothing, no expectations, it was just the same as we are with our children; you just want your kids to have better than you had and be more financially stable than you were and all of that. There was never any pressure to be any one thing or follow anyone or have a career and there was no expectation of getting qualifications, you just do your best. There was no pressure to have study timetables or spend x amount of time on homework or anything, we had the early reading that has always been in place but no ‘your child must do x amount’ from schools, we were left down to our own devices”.
Do you think it is the same now?
“No, there is more of a need to go out to work today because of the lifestyle that everybody today wants. Education is much further forward than it was for us, there is a much greater expectation of education and rightly so. There is much more freedom of choice as to when you want to start a family nowadays too and you materially need more around you than we did— material things didn’t matter as much as they do today”.
“Education: there is an expectation that you’ll come out with decent grades in GCSE’s and A levels; we never had the expectation that any one of us would go to uni, ad did not expect it of our children. If you [directed toward her children] wanted to go, we thought it would be wonderful to go if you were academically able but that was the only time it came into our family. University pressure might be a result of education today and the change in results and expectations. Whether or not one has to go down the university route is dependent on the individual”.
“There is pressure to know what you want to do for your life now at a very young age— I think that it’s wrong because you’re expected to know what you want to do to pick the right subjects so there is a pressure there— I think theres a pressure career wise too that you’ll be at the top of the game in as short a time as possible and on as big bucks as possible. We were not expected before this generation to match the men in careers and gender roles— it had been the minority of women who strived to have the same and do the same as men. Now the balance has changed and the expectation to do the same as a man and get the same promotions and salaries [is more evident]. Though I don’t think any woman can because the fact that you could have children works against you. Because it is all still men at the top of the tree and until there is a balance of men and women across that tree I don’t think you’ll ever correct that [pay gap and inequalities]”.
Is there anything that you wanted to do that you felt you couldn’t?
“ Well work really, to go out to work. [My husband] and I had quite a run in over me wanting to do something to bring in a bit of extra money but he felt that he would be frowned upon if his wife had to go out to work”.
“My naivety and my limited knowledge of the world stopped me even knowing about things like taking year outs— its commonplace to take a year out now before uni and between uni and work but I wasn’t open to that because it was only there for the families with a lot of money and those who could afford to do it— it is the same now but because of social media and internet access now, children are probably more mature now in the the processing of information to know what their options are”.
Is there anything that you did not want to do that you felt obliged to?
“No, not really, I’ve only done what I thought has been right”.
“ I was not obliged to do things but I think when everyone was going off and getting married you felt the expectation to follow suit, to find the right partner, to get married and settle down. There was a certain level of expectation there because you wanted to be like everybody else”.
“Marriage has changed; living together without marrying has changed today and is more popular than marriage”.
“I wonder if I’d still have settled down with [my first husband] as early as I did if the friends around me weren’t doing it. You felt you had to things at the same pace as everybody else. I think the difference is what information is available and social norms; now the expectations of living together before marriage is acceptable, there are different ages at which people marry and remarry and that has affected peoples decisions. The wants of your generation are more than what our generations wanted; it’s quite a throw away society now.”
“It’s because of all the opportunities.”
Do you think perhaps my generation is putting off marriage because it is now more expensive?
“My mom made my wedding dress. My whole wedding probably cost less than a thousand pounds and that included the buffet of meals, the wedding bands, the room hire and the clothing”.
“There is more of an expectation on couples today to have the expensive and big wedding but that is pressure of themselves that they put on themselves, I don’t think it comes from the family.”
“Maybe people just compete with friends and society. My wedding was at a register office with family only before we went back to our house and just had a home made buffet, a wedding cake from Sainsburys and then we went on our own honeymoon and had a blessing there [in the Caribbean]”.
Were there age milestones and expectation that you felt you had to stick to?
“No not really, you sort of just drift into things, there is no pressure to be anyone or anything really, thats come along since you lot were born really”.
“The pressure was coming in at my generation, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to but I went to a careers evening with my mum and all that came out of it was that because Gail was doing okay in banking I was supposed to do as good”.
“With little opportunities there was no expectation”.
Let’s talk feminism and sexuality. Do you think sexuality has changed today?
“Gender is different now, kids feel they have to come out. It is more the norm to be sexually different, I feel that they’re not being advised though, for example, even the straightest person has times when they don’t know but that doesn’t mean anything necessarily. They shouldn’t act on it until they’re of the age where they’ve had chance to reason everything through. I think schools are too accepting these days so kids feel they must know”.
What were the sexual norms in your generation? Today women can be more overtly sexual and are less judged for it. Did your generations embrace sex in the same way?
“It was frowned upon if you were pregnant before marriage. I think women being sexy was just a case of following the fashion trends of the day, there was no real pressure to look any way or be ‘sexy’. It was already the sixties when I married, the Beatles were in their prime, the trends followed pop groups. It was the norm to sleep with your husband only or it would be frowned upon. Because I was married in the sixties I was too late for the hippy scene. I think even if it was as big as they say it is, it would be the choice of children and their actions were probably still frowned upon by parents”.
“[In my generation] we still couldn’t sleep with whoever we wanted, we weren’t that free, it had a lot to do with how your parents raised you and the morals. There was pressure more to meet the right person, get engaged, married and have children. I think it was still frowned upon to have multiple sexual partners, at least within my own family culture. I think it’s dependent on families. Maybe other people were more sexually active and they just weren’t in my circles. Today, with so many divorces now, it is expected that you should live with someone for a bit before getting married. I think it was still preferable to be married to have sex in my day but you were more free to have sex before marriage than the previous generation as long as it was with a steady partner since the expectation was there that you would marry them. Nowadays casual sex seems part of the culture when you go out at the weekend and drink and deliberately have sex with someone for the benefits and nothing more”.
What was contraception like in your day?
“The most popular contraception came in pill form in the sixties”.
Was it readily available?
“It was readily available I suppose but it felt as though it would have been frowned upon to walk into a chemist and ask for it, it was not so free as it is now. We used contraception, personally, not when I first married but after we had Gary [first son] and then after that we used it so as not to have any more but had a surprise anyway! It was okay to have children when we moved out of our parents houses and had our own. I went on the pill again when we were taking care of our parents within the home as [husband] Fred’s dad came to live with us because he was paraplegic. I came back off of it because of depression”.
“ I went to the GP for the pill in particular but it was a big thing to do, it was not given out then like smarties as it is today. After I went on it that’s when they began to run different separate clinics for it. The contraceptive pill had moved on from mum’s generation— where it was purely a prevention of children, to more medical reasons such as control of periods. Nowadays it is offered earlier on to women for medical benefits”.
What did it mean to ‘have it all’?
“Being happy and having a family because there weren’t the expectations that there are today. We were married in council property up until we moved years later and had a mortgage”.
“It had changed a bit by my generation because to have what you wanted you had to work to be able to keep the house. There was some pressure to have the best of everything in your home— dishwashers and nicest cars etc. People took it a sign of success if you had the material things, you were judged by the car you drove, the places you shopped for your food (as we still are now), etc. I wasn’t fussed about working but you just have to. I think a measure of my success as a mother is how my children turn out too and how well I can support them”.
What do you think it means to ‘have it all’ today?
“Can you ever have it all? I think you’ll always reaching for something more”.
“You’ve got to be at the top of your game, you are judged on what you wear, where you shop, your designer labels, what you do for a living, how far up the career path you’ve taken it, there is more pressure on women with high powered jobs to find a successful balance between their work and family life because I think they’re expected to have the kids in daycare for longer”.
Well, I hope that you found this interesting and that any question you might have wanted to ask an older person was asked. I think I was quite open and gave a variety of questions in an attempt to cover most areas of being a woman! It would certainly appear that we have come forward, as millennial women, with areas such as sexuality, pride, the freedom to work etc but I also think that with increasing opportunities come increasing pressures to be able to juggle everything. I look at the most successful women I know who are beautiful with a fit physique, a busy work schedule, some even juggle children and I don’t know how we do it, in the face of SO much expectation and societal pressure but hats off to you ladies!
As always, this is a discussion so leave your thoughts below if you want to and let me know if you enjoyed it so I know to do more articles like this one! If you have any other topics or interviews you’d like me to do then get in touch! You can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I accept suggestions!
Lots of love,