John Murphy’s report (Murphy, 2002) of interviews with a small number of married couples about their working and family lives in the 1950s is open to conceptual and empirical criticisms. His references to theories do little more than decorate an a-historical treatment of evidence which does not receive the skepticism applicable to all reminiscence. (Niemi, 1993) This note takes up five points:

1. a. the inexact use of hegemony, and
    b. the inapplicability of a tradition/ reflective dichotomy;
2. the inadequacies of identifying male identity with breadwinning;
3. the mistaken view that the breadwinning model peaked in the 1950s;
4. the failure to critique with the substance of “breadwinning”;
5. a lopsided approach to immiserisation as a gendered experience.
(Pages numbers for quotations from Murphy are given in brackets.)

1a. hegemony
Murphy claims “the male breadwinner/ female carer model had the sheer, compelling power of obviousness”. (66) That condition applies to his commentary. His remark that “[n]aturalness is the major chord of hegemony” (66) should be truer for those subject to its operation than for its interrogators. Rendered down to a hypothetical element through which ideas float, hegemony is unable to explain how gender, ethnicity or class operates, still less how they compete with or reinforce each other.

Murphy notes that “[t]he expressions they [the interviewees] use capture a sense of being immersed in a gender culture that was taken for granted and hegemonic”. (66) The association of “hegemonic” with “taken for granted” means that Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is itself taken for granted. Hegemony thus sags to become for social analysis what the Shorter Oxford defined as the role of the ether for physics: “an elastic and subtle substance believed to permeate all space”. If physicists once considered ether as “the medium through which the waves of light are propagated”, hegemony should be no less illuminating.

1b. reflexivity
Murphy proposes that attitudes towards “breadwinning” in the 1950s were “traditional”, or pre-reflexive, a dubious dichotomy imported from Giddens: “The self in a traditional orientation is a given, while the self in post-traditional societies ‘has to be reflexively made’.” (quoted 67) The evidence presented of male pressure on their wives to conform suggests that the men were at least dimly aware that the gender division could dissolve unless driven home. Hence, the husbands appear not to have taken gender as a given. Their saying that it was so is a further hint that their attitudes were reflexive. Murphy’s treatment of gender is back in the 1970s when feminists perceived femaleness as a social construction but assumed maleness to be a given.

Evidence that gender roles in 1950s Australia were not “traditional” is available from the changes in the image of the man of the house propagated by merchandisers. For instance, the representation of the father in print advertisements around Father’s Day shifted from a rigid and remote pipe-smoker in an armchair reading a classic to a “colourful”, “playful” and “Dandy dad” for children to “pamper” or “butter up”. In 1958, David Jones offered gifts “For Dads who like to cook”, “For Coffee Loving Dads” and “For the Surfing Dad”. By 1960, Women’s Weekly advertisements were portraying husbands not as the dependable father figure but as men prone to stray and who therefore had to be wooed homewards with red lipstick. In 1961, the sell-out of Father’s Day greeting cards led one retailer to hope: “This could be the end of the Mother Image and Father can re-assume his position as head-of-the-family”. Next year, cards which took “a quiet shot at Dad were a big feature of the sales. Perhaps the Mums took delight in reducing Dad’s ego a bit”. Murphy gives no indication that gender roles shifted during the 1950s, the decade that saw as much change to settler Australia as any since the gold rushes of a hundred years earlier. (Francis, 2002)

To report that “the next generation grew up very differently” (67) is to recognise disruption to the natural order. If the baby-boomers were raised in families where the gender division was as “natural” as Murphy proposes, where did those children learn to slip from under its hegemony? One answer is from the marketeers who had delivered Father’s Day.

2. breadwinning as identity
Murphy reports as “virtually a truism in the literature” the notion that “working to be a provider is the key to men’s sense of identity”. (61) If so, conventional wisdom has missed three other contributors to male identity in 1950s Australia: first, military service; secondly, paid labour and unpaid work; and thirdly, fatherhood.

Military service is another kind of forced labour, one integral to gender formation. (Barton and Hacker, 1987) Opponents of conscription in the Great War had felt obliged to prove their manhood by volunteering. The nostalgia about the war years as the best time in a man’s life is a comment on how estranging other kinds of forced labour can be. The experience of having served in the armed forces was keenly felt among the post-war cohorts of husbands and fathers. The 1950s was Australia’s most militarized decade in terms of the numbers who had military training, if not battle experience. The Great War generation was still in charge while the Second World War generation was making its run. All eighteen-year olds males were beginning military training (Kilmartin, 1974) that, according to opinion polls, would “make a man” of them.

The second contributing factor to male identity is being a maker - homo faber. Paid employment meant more than allowing the male to win the bread. Behaviour at work defined his esteem as a professional, a craftsman, a hard worker, or a solid unionist. The significance of “making” extended to being handy around the house and garden as the one who could change a fuse or repair a motor vehicle. Sales of Black and Dekker tool-kits peaked as the breadwinner built or extended the home he was paying off.

The third aspect of male identify was fatherhood, also linked to breadwinning, but with the generative power associated with national types such as “The Father of Federation” or The Father of Landscape Painting”. As Marilyn Lake has noted, male soldiers had given birth to an entire nation at Gallipoli. These metaphors were allied to the falsehood that the man’s capacity to generate sperm increased the chance of pregnancy, with twins being proof of potency. Spunk was a moral quality. The birth of the Sara and Lucke quads made their fathers local heroes.

The impress of being a breadwinner, a member of the military, a producer and a father overlapped in practice and in the reconstructions of masculinities. To discuss one without even acknowledging the others is to misunderstand all four.

3. 1950s peak
Building on a one-dimensional treatment of male identity, Murphy claims that “in the 1950s, the breadwinner model was at its peak”. To establish this point he would need data from the previous 100 years, about which too little is known. His sole comparison is drawn from the USA, and presents “cooperative working-class family economy” as being stronger until the 1910s. (62) It is safer to treat the 1950s as a point of comparison for what has happened since - not a peak, but another plateau off which various aspects of masculinity have slipped.

That the 1950s was the peak of the breadwinner model is further countered by Murphy’s following paragraph where the participation rate of married women is given as rising from 8.6 in 1947 to 18.7 per cent by 1961. To the extent that attitudes are represented by actions, these numbers mean that the zenith had not been in the 1950s. Moreover, the figures are aggregates. The participation rates of mothers with children are a firmer measure of whether gender ruled. Between 1911 and 1933, the percentage of mothers working had never been much higher than 6 per cent. By 1961, it had reached 18. This trebling casts further doubt over the 1950s as the peak. (Richmond, 1974: 269)

The disparity between immigrants and Australian–born women presents another problem for taking gender as the determinant of family-work relations. Are we to believe that gender prejudices were less powerful among Central and Southern European families than in the locally-born Anglo-Celts? The numbers available do not distinguish UK immigrants from local Anglos or from other new arrivals. The statistics for the later are contrary, with half of Greek wives working but only one in three Maltese. (Richmond, 1974: 296-303) The economy of immigration offers as likely an explanation for their workforce participation as gender by itself.

Reliance on census data means that the ideological significance of the wives and mothers who had gone into paid work from 1942 to 1945 is not considered. Their employment had had nothing to do with any weakening in gender hegemony, but flowed from circumstances beyond the control of families. That fact has significance for the entirety of breadwinning.

4. the substance of breadwinning
The exploration of the breadwinner model should never forget that the 1908 Harvester judgment sought to determine a wage. At its best, “breadwinning” is a colloquial term for the sale of labour power and hence for the effort to gain the wherewithal to meet the socially necessary costs of its reproduction, hourly and across generations. At its worst, the “breadwinner” model, by pivoting analysis on the individual family instead of across the web of social relationships, is but another way of disguising the exploitation of labour under the rule of capital. The criticism that the Harvester Award was unfair to women assumes that there can be a fair day’s pay for any worker.

In thrall to this Australian family Robinson Crusoe, Murphy is silent on the capital-induced expansion of the goods as a pressure on participation rates and on gendered attitudes. (Lebowitz, 1977-78) From the late 1940s, inflation further eroded the breadwinner model. Menzies’ failure to put value back into the pound meant that more wives had to earn some money to sustain the “homes material, homes human and homes spiritual” that he promoted as core values in his Liberal Party propaganda. (Menzies, 1943: 3-5) During the 1950s, more couples faced a dilemma: should the wife try to earn some money to pay off the white goods that would reduce the domestic labouriousness and thus help to make paid labour bearable; or should she provide more domestic substitutes for the consumables becoming available through mass marketing. If the man remained the breadwinner, the woman was becoming the margarine-spreader. Jam came later.

One woman recalled that her husband would say “Now, why did you have to spend this amount?” It was horrible”. (69) Indeed, it was horrible. Yet, the husband’s behaviour expressed more than male prejudice. He was also acting out the pressures from financing a family. That husband would not have been alone in erring by the imposition of a spending regime only after his wife had outlaid his earnings, instead of talking with her in advance about what they could afford. Nonetheless, those spending decisions were inescapable. Also “horrible” was the “misery” when necessities could not be afforded, and, even worse, when white goods, the car or the family home were repossessed. Those concerns were expressed by several of Murphy’s subjects, but are passed over in his review. For instance, an engine driver recalled battling “to provide as much money as I could to keep the family”; another informant said that “you worried about whether you could pay the next mortgage payment yourself”. (68) Misery was not just a matter of being stuck at home. A working mother of four told the Women’s Weekly in August 1951 that, three years earlier, “things started getting dearer and dearer, and I started to get nervy, and giddy turns and blackouts.” Her doctor advised her “to get part-time work and get my mind … off not having enough money”. (O’Sullivan: 25)

Husbands carried the impress of labour discipline into their domestic spheres, another aspect ignored in Murphy’s commentary. One woman recalled that her husband, an engineer manager, had believed that “if he can’t keep his wife in order, how can he bloody run the company”. (71) This man had started life in the working class and was perhaps voicing doubts about himself as well as asserting his potency as an agent of capital. Another factory manager made his working wife hand over her entire pay packet in a replication of his work-place authority. (69) Such behaviour was more than an expression of maleness. Gender bias was caught up in the controls demanded by the labour process. Its mechanisms for domination were reproduced households. (Reich, 1975: 68-108) Meanwhile, military manners invaded both management and matrimony.

5. misery
In a segment entitled “Manhood, Money and Misery”, Murphy treats gender as the source of misery for the women at home but has not a word of empathy for the men at work. Yet, in one case, Grace reported that her husband, Len, a process worker in a boiling-down works,
was working practically 7 days a week to keep us … for a long time, he worked 12 hour shifts. He would get up in the morning and go to work, come home, have something to eat and go to bed, and that went on for a long, long time … because we needed the money. (65)

Murphy evinces not a skerrick of sympathy for Len’s reportedly working eighty-four hours a week – the equivalent of two full-time jobs. Len’s load was equal to a working mother’s doing one paid job on top of being a wife and mother. Would Murphy have remained mute had Grace been working in a factory for 84 hours a week and had still been expected to share the housework? The prospect of any academic observer putting in even a single eight-hour shift in a boiling-down works should be enough to preclude such heartlessness.

Similarly, Murphy shows scant sensitivity to the plight of an Italian cabinetmaker through “his gradual decline into sickness, and the decline of their marriage into violence”. (70) His Anglo-wife had to become the breadwinner. An alternative reading might see a skilled tradesman, who has lost the self-respect that he had gained from a craft job well done, taking that deprivation out on his wife. The gendered household becomes the vehicle for compensating for his loss of identity through his work, thereby compounding the bitterness felt through the reversal of the allocation of breadwinning. His wife is quoted as saying “he ran the show even though he was sick”. That resentment is valid from her side of the battle. An astute observer would have pondered the extent to which the cabinet-maker had intensified that domination “because he was sick”. The hidden injuries of class are never an excuse for domestic violence but their impact on home life should not be erased. (Sennett and Cobb, 1972)

Murphy ends his note of “Acknowledgement” by claiming that the “transcripts were then subjected to detailed narrative analysis, a method which …. recognises the possibility of ambiguous and even contradictory narratives or story lines”. (73) Either that method is inadequate or Murphy’s application is poor. He offers a one-dimensional account which hunts the breadwinner factor without recognizing how that notion is a cluster of attitudes and practices caught up in the sale, reproduction and application of labour power. Murphy blames the victims of that regime by focusing on the male as an oppressor operating outside the impress of capital’s immiserisation of both partners.

Barton, C. and Sally L. Hacker (1987), “Military Institutions and the Labor Process: Non-economic Sources of Technological Change, Women’s Subordination, and the Organisation of Work”, Technology and Culture, 28 (4): 743-75.

Francis, Martin (2002), “The Domestication of the Male? Recent Research on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century British Masculinity”, Historical Journal, 45 (3), September 2002, pp. 637-52.

Kilmartin, Leslie (1974), “The militarisation of adolescent males”, Don Edgar (ed.), Social Change in Australia, Readings in Sociology, Cheshire, Melbourne, pp. 441-464.

Lebowitz, Michael A. (1977-78), “Capital and the Production of Needs”, Science and Society, 41 (4), pp. 430- 447.

Menzies, R. G., The Forgotten People, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1943.

Murphy, John (2002), “Breadwinning: Accounts of Work and Family Life in the 1950s”, Labour and Industry, 12 (3): 59-75.

Niemi, I. (1993), “Systematic Error in Behavioural Measurement: Comparing Results from Interview and Time Budget Studies”, Social Indicators Research, 30: 229-244.

O’Sullivan, Georgina (1951), “One Wage is Not Enough”, Australian Women’s Weekly, 29 August 1951, pp. 24-25.

Reich, Wilhelm, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1975.

Richmond, Katy (1974), “The workforce participation of married women in Australia”, Don Edgar (ed.), Social Change in Australia, Readings in Sociology, Cheshire, Melbourne, pp. 267-305.

Sennett, Richard and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class, Knopf, New York, 1972.