Everyone has this idea of what the 1950s and 1960s were like… Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, jukeboxes, milkshakes and Cadillacs. But behind those illustrated Coca-Cola advertisements, like we see in Mad Men, there was a world of ignorance, hatred, murder and misogyny.
When I was 15 I discovered a love of 1950s and 1960s culture. Through my history GCSE we studied the impact of Elvis’ hips, mini skirts, pop art and – most importantly – civil rights.
There seems to be a romanticised idea that the 1950s and 1960s were all about drive-in movies and hamburgers. And yet people seem to forget that it was only sixty-one years ago this August that Rosa Parks stood up (or should I say stayed sitting) against the segregation of black and white people on public transport. It was only fifty-nine years ago this September that the Little Rock Nine had to have the National Guard intervene so they were able to enter the school.
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
When you think about those lunch counters with two white kids sharing a soda, remember the many civil rights activists (black and white) also sat in those seats to silently protest the right to be served in any area of the restaurant. But the protestors had to endure, spitting, cursing, beating and sometimes, murder.
A lot of white people believed in segregation. Not all, but a lot. A lot of people believed that the black community were diseased so couldn’t drink from their fountains. That the “help” had to use a separate bathroom. Black people were seen as different. They were hated literally because their skin was a different colour (whose skin is the same as anyone else’s anyway?)
All of this seems like an outrageous idea. And that’s because it is. Yes, I am fully aware discrimination and racism happens here in 2016. I am aware that black people are looked at differently in certain areas of the world, even in the USA where there is a black President. I am aware that a lot of non-white ethnicities are looked at differently. That is why I am aware of white privilege. White people are privileged – we have never had to endure as much pain as any other ethnicity. And I would never want to live in a world where that is the norm.
It’s not right and it’s not normal that 1950s/1960s culture encouraged separate communities of black and white people – that’s some Nazi shit going on and we can all agree that was messed up (unless you’re Donald Dickface Trump).
There’s no other way to put it but in the 1950s and 1960s, the majority of men were sexist. Even some women believe their place was baking cakes and making babies. They didn’t believe that women deserved a place outside of being a housewife, a secretary or a waitress.
During World War II women were required to work in factories and in the community but once their men came back that soon stopped. Women were good enough for the war, but not good enough when they wanted to move away from their hair curlers and dish cleaning. After getting married women rarely went back to work. We women enjoyed the independence, we enjoyed being more than a housewife. However, this wasn’t an easy thing to make husbands or fathers to understand.
Us girls were given education in domestic skills… How to become good wives. And that’s pretty much as far as studying went. It was hard to move past that.
Sickening, isn’t it? That even 130 years after gaining the right to vote (like it was something we had to achieve), women were still having to fight for their rights.
And it’s still going on today. Lack of equal pay, no right to how we use or treat our body and constant misogyny. And in some countries it’s illegal to have abortions. Whatever your opinion is on that matter, let me just say – it’s no one’s business what a woman OR man does with their body. It is THEIR choice.
The same goes with marriage, having a family, being sexually empowered or getting a job as a secretary or as CEO. We all have the right to do what we like, whether you are a man or woman.
Smoking was “the thing” before it was discovered it triggered cancer and many other horrible diseases. In fact, advertising firms actually convinced customers it was good for you. Not only that but doctors would smoke in the GP office. What the…?
Just imagine – in homes, at bus stops and at restaurants groups of people would smoke cigarettes one after the other.
It was only a study in the early 60s that made people look a little differently at cancer and smoking and advertising it was made illegal. This was actually when warnings were added to tobacco products. But it wasn’t just smoking. Mental health was an issue too.
Seeing a therapist was seen as embarrassing, wrong or shameful… Oh and if you were a woman, your husband would be able to find out everything you said during your session (great).
In addition, new medications were prescribed to calm imbalances however these medications could be prescribed incorrectly causing further mental issues. Not only that but doctors would prescribe addictive medicines which could cause overdoses. Examples of this include Marilyn Monroe (who was prescribed over 700 pills in less than 2 months before her death), Judy Garland and Dorothy Dandridge. Medication is prescribed much more carefully nowadays, even with barbiturates still being handed out like sweets to celebrities.
While everyone else were finally getting their rights, governments across the world were clamping down on the LGBT community. It was in fact very illegal to be sexually interested in other men. The horrors against Oscar Wilde in the Victorian era were still happening.
Most people have heard of Alan Turing for his genius, but also for how he died. In 1954 Alan Turing committed suicide – like many homosexual men – due to the fact it was illegal to love who they wanted to. They were terrified of ‘treatments’ or prison. These people were often high-ranking heroes (whether scientist or soldier).
But Alan Turing’s situation wasn’t the worst. In the 1950s many men and women were given a choice of prison or ‘treatment’. Not only were healthy homosexual people put amongst the dangerous (in prison) but also forced to endure mistreatment that would cause permanent damage to their minds. Aversion therapy and ice-pick lobotomies were considered humane and totally legal. There were more than enough accounts of suicide and direct deaths due to these treatments. (American Horror Story: Asylum was quite accurate at representing the treatment of LGBT people back then.)
In 1963, The Minorities Research Group (MRG) was formed and provided lesbians with information about their sexuality and the opportunity to meet other women in the UK. They even had their own magazine. Men had to go into bars and clubs and pretend they were aware of gatherings of homosexual men. It is said they would say they couldn’t remember the name of these establishments just so someone would mention it. This way they knew they knew a place where they would be accepted. A sad truth.
But hey! One good thing for the LGBT community within the 50s/60s was that in England and Wales homosexuality was finally legalised in 1967. It would be 1980 for Scotland and ’82 for Northern Ireland.
BUT IT WASN’T ALL BAD. WAS IT?
Okay, not everything was bad in the 1950s and 1960s. For example:
- The first organ transplant took place in 1950.
- We got colour television in 1951.
- Seat belts were introduced in 1952.
- The polio vaccine was discovered in 1952.
- DNA was discovered in 1953.
- Segregation was made illegal in 1954 (although it didn’t really work).
- NASA was founded in 1958.
- Birth control pill approved in 1960.
- First woman goes into space in 1962.
- Martin Luter King Jr. give his I Have A Dream speech
- Civil Rights Act passes in US in 1964.
- The mini skirt first appears (causing a bit of outrage) in 1965.
- Homosexuality legalised (yes, loving someone was made legal) in the UK in 1967.
- The moon landing in 1969.
The lesson here is, we should keep fighting for equality and appreciate the times we live in and not repeat history.