Review: Painting the Beauty Queens Orange: Women’s Lives in the 1970s
Gemma June Howell
Inside the retro wallpapered cover-art booms a cacophony of women’s voices in what can only be described as a work of seminal importance in contemporary feminist discourse. This anthology of 27 essays transforms the “unacknowledged and unregarded background noise to the lives of men,” into a vibrant, and historically relevant collection of anecdotal, introspective, and inspirational stories of women living in 1970s Wales.
In the opening essay, Carnival City by Catrin Gerallt, we get a celebratory snapshot of the “sunlit optimism,” which characterised a decade of idealism, diversity, and internationalism. Cardiff was quickly becoming a hub for music, fashion and politics as well as carving out a new identity via radical nationalism and a revival of the Welsh language.
As well as amplifying a nostalgic counterculture of “equality and acceptance,” the anthology draws upon women’s political, economic, and personal lives in a decade of economic turbulence and cultural clashes.
Dominated by industry, strikes, power-cuts and parliamentary politics, Wales was developing a homegrown faction of organic intellectuals via a blossoming café culture, brilliantly defined in Liz Jones’ Don’t ask for the Moon.
Pushing for freedom of thought and a greater expansion of class consciousness, a conflict between the morality of 1950s chapel culture and the defiance of Punk Rock (explored in Nic Hafren’s Torn Dresses and Rebel Rules) was distinctive of the era, and with revolutionary leaps in gender equality laws, this anthology is an exciting and insightful read.
There are several stories which pay homage to the silenced sacrifices made by women, under a lingering, and punitive post-war definition of womanhood. In a Peculiar Pregnancy, a moving, yet uplifting story of forced adoption, Ruth Dineen’s “fallen soul” narrowly escapes “the obligatory shave and enema,” required before childbirth. An archaic and inhumane procedure, commonplace within the patriarchal practice of medicalising women’s bodies, Dineen sees this as “a win against the system.”
Within Women Bleed, Sue Bevan navigates the “contradictions” and stifling atmosphere of Seventies valleys life. The first woman in her family to go to university, she experiences second-wave sexual liberation and the damning repercussions of teenage pregnancy.
In The Wonder of Woolworth, Jane Salisbury highlights how the Saturday job was as a step towards greater economic autonomy.
Such victories, no matter how big or small, appear throughout the book, bringing to life a triumphant chorus of women’s voices, and, despite their losses and struggles amid a climate of normalised sexism and racism, a strong a sense of female solidarity, empowerment, and imminent emancipation sings from every page.
The Sound of Water explores the strain put upon women during the 1976 “drought-filled summer” when, with a new-born and young daughter in-tow, Carolyn Lewis was burdened with the task of conserving water for her family.
During the hosepipe ban, and sheer daily slog of collecting water from the communal standpipe, Lewis discovers a clandestine neighbour watering his garden under the cover of night.
A stand-out piece in the anthology, Lewis’ memoir epitomises the importance of social responsibility, highlighting inequalities surrounding privilege, foreshadowing the 1980s individualistic embracement of greed, which came to define the last quarter of the 20th century.
Kate Cleaver’s Firsts is a bitter-sweet insight into the racism inflicted upon her family living in the West Midlands, where at the time, the headquarters for the National Front was based. With an Indian father and Caucasian mother, Cleaver experienced what it means to be a “cultural other,” where both communities vehemently rejected the coupling.
Told through a child’s eyes, her memoir captures fragments of memory surrounding her family’s survival, during the economically turbulent times of the era. Cleaver skilfully combines the raw incidents of vicious racist attacks with a childlike humour; a poignant juxtaposition which serves to enhance both worlds.
An invaluable journey
This anthology certainly challenges what Rhian E. Jones refers to as the “eroticised objectification and sentimental self-sacrificing stereotypes” often found in portrayals of women.
On reading the stories, you are liberated by a new understanding of the mechanics of womanhood in the Seventies, gaining a far richer insight into how women challenged their assigned gender roles, made inroads in public life, trailblazed in ‘man’s world’ professions (Sue Davies’ Spirits Having Flown), solidified and navigated community groups (Sue Harding’s Seeking Refuge in Seventies Cardiff and Barbara Michaels’ Welsh Female and Jewish), and laid the foundations for future feminist triumphs.
Within the present climate of political fragmentation, this anthology is a victory, casting light on the crucial roles that women played both behind the retro wallpaper and beyond it.
Rebecca F. John has adeptly placed each essay in such a way that the reader is submerged in the private worlds of each contributor and taken on an invaluable journey through such a politically defining period for women and marginalised groups; with themes of unfairness and ambition coexisting between, and within, the individual life stories, which then reach out and connect to our lived experiences today.
It is refreshing to get an exclusive glimpse into the few accounts of ordinary women from the era, revealing a deeper level of interpretation that moves between the intersections of class, race, and sexual orientation … beyond “the smiling line of lipstick,” (Lynne Parry-Griffiths Painting the Beauty Queens Orange) and those who were seen and not heard, but at the same time asked to enter the workforce at half the pay.
Painting the Beauty Queens Orange: Women’s Lives in the 1970s is therefore a triumph for women’s writing in Wales and stands as an important social excavation, which has a significant place for further thought, inquiry, and discussion.
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