The Era of the White Picket Fence

By Peter Fisher

We cannot return to the days of the ‘white picketfence’. But we should recognise that there were many virtues and human qualities proper to that era that we are now the poorer for having jettisoned.

THESE DAYS, any reference to an era of the so-called ‘white picket fence’ is often accompanied by scorn and derision from modern ‘progressives’. The period in question is the 1950s and early-to-mid-1960s, prior to the coming of age of the baby boomers and the sexual revolution that came in their wake.

Clearly, some critics see the picket fence as a metaphor for the alleged confining of the wife and mother to daily domestic drudgery, denying her an opportunity to express her individuality in the world outside.

No doubt it’s true that many wives and mothers then made, and now continue to make, huge sacrifices  in the interest of their families. One wonders however, what proportion of the women of that era – despite episodes of weariness, pain, anguish and frustration – were mere abject victims, overcome by the futility of their existence.

One also wonders what proportion of them looks back on that period with immense pride for the role they played in the care and nurture of their families. Am I wrong in suggesting a small proportion of the former and a very large proportion of the latter?

When I look back through my particular brand of rose-tinted glasses I admit that all was far from perfect in that time. There were pockets of grinding poverty, demoralisation and serious crime. Many lived in basic accommodation, communal facilities were limited, roads and highways were sub-standard, means of communication were restricted and food, clothing and home appliances were relatively very expensive. There were also elements of sectarian prejudice, and at least in the early years of the post-war migrant boom, of racial ignorance and intolerance.

Some have also contended that art, culture, cuisine and architecture were dull and stultifying then, and that they have since been liberalised to the advantage of society.

It seems to me that there were many highly admirable qualities and values present in the ‘white picket fence’ era that sadly have all but vanished over time.

Lack of material benefits was not nearly as important then as it is today. Credit was very restricted and it was very difficult, unless gambling or other social ills intervened, to live beyond one’s means however meagre. Saving was encouraged and pursued as much as individual or family circumstances would allow.

It was a period of post war growth and general optimism. Quality of life tended to be measured in terms of family, community, sport and work-related well-being, and dare I say it, religious practice, rather than in terms of material possessions.

Families tended to be larger with very strong common bonds and with a willingness to sacrifice personal interest and comfort for the sake of overall domestic well-being and harmony. It was not uncommon for gifted children to leave school early in order to hold down a job to help support the family. Payment of board was both expected and usually made without complaint or discord.

The general working class was very large and homogeneous, usually with common goals and aspirations. With some few exceptions there was a quiet but admirable dignity in the way men toiled hard, often in menial tasks, to support and educate their families. Trade unions still played a very important role in their support and solidarity in striving for better pay and working conditions. Neighbourhood bonds were strong. Spoilt children were rare.

Moral and ethical values of the day were high, engendered even in families living on the poverty line. School education was conducted in Catholic and State Schools by both lay and religious with a strong sense of vocation and fundamental purpose without hidden political or philosophical agendas. Individual development was encouraged. Firm but generally fair discipline was exercised for the common good. Rebellious behaviour was not tolerated. Police and civic authorities were respected and civil disobedience was rare.

Life was ordered and relatively peaceful but not necessarily dull. Political correctness was unknown and the ‘Nanny State’ had not yet emerged. Life could be extremely adventurous. Children from a very young age roamed free and wide, most often without much adult supervision but subject to strict curfews. There was little or no fear of the ‘dark stranger’ and people were generally trusted and trustworthy. Children usually heeded the advice of parents and elders and for the most part avoided major misadventure, though not always minor mischief. Obesity was rare.

Youth groups abounded, were lively and provided simple but satisfying recreation and enjoyment based on group activities. Boys vigorously pursued girls and despite flaring hormones, generally respected  the  widely accepted boundaries of female intimacy. Girls of good upbringing were in the majority and highly respected. Coarse language and unseemly behaviour were almost unheard of.

The women of the day were not the docile, down-trodden creatures portrayed by today’s rabid feminists and modernists. Certainly very few pursued careers and most were keen to marry well and raise a family. Their position in the household was almost invariably one of dignity, respect and strength. They exercised considerable power over the care and well-being of the family. Very little of consequence happened in the family of those days unless it had the agreement of the wife and mother. While the father was the breadwinner, it was the mother who was the more powerful influence within the family.

There was great respect for elders socially and within the working environment. Experience gained from life and work was honoured. The life experiences of grandparents, senior relatives and friends of the family made lasting impressions on the young. Seniority was often the criterion for promotion at work and while not always the best indicator of ability, it usually fostered a stable working atmosphere. On the other hand those with talent and ambition – even if not highly educated – usually did well.

The widespread availability of the contraceptive pill and the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and 70s had a profound and lasting effect on western society and sounded the knell of the era of ‘the white picket fence,’ and of much else besides.

Hailed as the great liberator – especially for women – from sexual repression, and the means by which one could express one’s individual freedom and desires often without the constraints of marriage, the results are plain for all to see.

Pope Paul VI was widely criticised at the time for his Encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’ that confirmed the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and artificial birth control. Allegedly the Pontiff failed to ‘read the Signs of the Times’. The contrary is the case. While the Encyclical disappointed many otherwise faithful Catholics, there is also no doubt that the Pope’s predictions as to the effects of artificial contraception on moral standards and behaviour have sadly come to pass. Only the most intransigent liber-tarian would deny the consequences of the moral decline since the days of the ‘white picket fence’.

The litany of moral slippage makes long and miserable reading. Increasingly youthful sexual adventure, unstable de facto relationships, widespread drug and alcohol abuse, chronic inter-generational unemployment, dysfunctional families, pornographic saturation of the internet and social media, rampant abortion on demand and gay ‘marriage’ – all are commonplace.

The Catholic Church comes in for a lot of flak for being too preoccupied with sexual matters but surely, as Paul VI predicted, it is from the abuse and misuse and commercialisation of this most basic human gift of sexuality that most of the above problems originate. In this litany I am not overlooking the Church’s own problems which, however, evidence suggests, grew rapidly, like much else, in the post ‘picket fence’ era.

Recently a District Court judge was widely criticised for remarks he made about incest. I tend to agree with some commentators that in fact he was suggesting that our past moral taboos (generally in line with Catholic Church teaching) one by one, have fallen in the name of ‘progress’. And that incest, or euthanasia or human cloning may be the next taboo to fall.

‘Progress’ and the promotion of individual human rights have brought us to the stage where religious freedom is under threat often from Government legislation.

Catholic health workers in many jurisdictions are being denied by law the right to express their conscientious objection to birth control and abortion. And in education Catholic institutions are being pilloried for failing to employ teachers and academics with lifestyles or beliefs openly hostile to the ethos of the Catholic institution. Unfortunately, some Catholic institutions tolerate this situation in the name of academic or professional freedom.

No one denies there have been very significant advances over the last fifty years in science and technology. The benefits to mankind have been wide and numerous. Unfortunately also, they have carried in their train serious ethical issues which the Church alone appears to be questioning. These have been very sympathetically reviewed in some detail in Archbishop Anthony Fisher’s excellent 2012 book Catholic Bioethics for a New Millennium.

We cannot return to the days of the white picket fence. But we should recognise that there were many virtues and human qualities proper to that era that we are now the poorer for having jettisoned.

Would we not be wise to call them to mind, and use them as a beacon which – as we journey inexorably on – we may keep firmly in view in our rear vision mirror?

PETER FISHER is a retired professional forester with over forty years experience in all facets of forest management. He is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Forestry Commission of NSW.

This article appeared in the December 2014 issue of Annals Australasia. It has been reprinted with the kind permission of its editor, Fr Paul Stenhouse MSC PhD.

Annals Australasia
Journal of Catholic Culture
PO Box 13
Kensington NSW 2033