Niamh Cullen

Growing up girls in 1950s Italy: Expectations of motherhood

The 1950s were a crucial bridging decade between post-war austerity and conservatism and the dramatic social changes that the boom years brought, beginning to be felt in the latter 1950s but only fully perceived by the 1960s.
For women it could be a confusing time in terms of the expectations and restrictions put on their behaviour and ambitions. The rise of consumerism, mass culture and urban life along with increased opportunities for work and study, were bringing about changes in appearances – from hairstyles and clothes to lipstick – and gender roles. However at the same time there was a backlash against women’s increased liberty and visibility in the public sphere. This came from both the Church, in the form of a morality crusade that focused on women’s bodies, and from the mainstream media, visible especially in the debates surrounding the Merlin Law. Women’s magazines advised that the modern woman could and should have a career, but that she had to give it up upon marriage – still expected to be every woman’s dream – to dedicate herself
completely to husband and family. This paper explores the attitudes and expectations of girls and young women to motherhood and marriage, against this backdrop of this changing climate and the contradictory views and models that they were faced with.

Although contextualised by sociological studies as well as mass media commentary, the focus will be on the subjective experiences of girls and young women themselves. In order to do this, I make extensive use of the memoir and diaries of girls and women growing up in the 1950s, as collected in the Italian Archivio Nazionale del Diario. The use of life writing sources allows me to analyse the extent to which women’s own expectations of adulthood and/or motherhood fitted or differed with those presented to them in the mass media, and how they negotiated the expectations that society placed on them. In this way the paper hopes to shed some light on ordinary young women’s expectations of marriage and motherhood as Italian society was making the transition to an urban, industrial society.