My Gran: A Working Mum In The 1950s

Think of a 1950s mother and what do you think of? Apron on, cooking or baking, hair curled, looking pretty? That’s the image that jumps into my mind. Basically Betty Draper from Mad Men. In the 1950s, all mums stayed at home and looked after their children while the men went out to work, right?

Housewife and stay at home mum in 1950s


I was fascinated to discover this week that my gran was a working mum in the 1950s. When my uncle was eight and my mum was four, she went back to her job as a primary school teacher in Midlothian. I love that she was being independent, and in a time when most people believed women should stay at home to look after the children, she was challenging this belief. My mum describes her as “a happy rebel and a wonderful teacher” – how fantastic that she didn’t just do the norm and I wonder how many children benefitted from her teaching them in those years that she could have been at home.

More surprising still, I assumed that my gran must have taught at my mum and uncle’s school, meaning childcare wasn’t an issue, but no, she went back to work before my mum started school. She arranged for her parents to come south from Wick to Midlothian to look after my mum. Isn’t that brilliant? Back in 1950, she was facing the same issues and dilemmas (and guilt, I have no doubt) that mums today face. She would have had a conversation with her parents, asking them to come down from Wick in the north of Scotland, to stay with them and look after their granddaughter, to allow her to return to work. And they agreed! How very forward-thinking and modern! I’m told that once my mum started school, they returned to Wick, and since my granddad was the headteacher at my mum and uncle’s school, he took them to school and brought them home each day.

The number of working mums in the UK has tripled since 1951. I’m so proud that my gran, Rena Robertson, was one of the few who worked in the Fifties.


Working Mum in the 1950s



  1. March 15, 2013 / 5:23 am

    Wow, that’s fantastic. I had no idea.

    Coincidentally, I’m in the middle of reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, and have been thinking a lot about you as I’ve been reading. If you’re interested, I’ll happily send you a copy.

    We learned a lot from the example of Mum and Gran, and I suspect reading it might help you crystallise some of your thinking as you raise your own daughter.

  2. March 15, 2013 / 6:38 am

    Really interesting and a fascinating piece of family history to learn about. One of my grandmas was also a working mum – and a working single mum at that. I’d love to write a book about her one day. She raised my dad, his twin brother and two sisters alone after my grandfather died from stomach cancer when my dad was 12. Before my granddad died, he’d been in and out of hospital for a long time. My grandma’s parents had basically disowned her because she (an aristocrat) had 4 kids out of wedlock with a man (my granddad) who was already married – but separated during the war. They met when he was a caretaker at the primary school that my grandma taught in. I find it all fascinating!
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  3. March 15, 2013 / 7:05 am

    Go Rena! It just goes to show how unreliable those somewhat romanticised stereotypes can be! I think my granny worked in the 50s too and my mum always worked when I was growing up. I think that’s probably why it never occurred to me not to work.
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  4. March 17, 2013 / 8:16 pm

    This is interesting. Actually, made me think that I am the first woman in my family who is on this ‘extended’ maternity leave (past one year mark). Both of my Grandmothers had successful
    careers and my mum was doing her Phd when I was little. However, they all had close family members living nearby, which is unfortunately not the case for Hubby and I.
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  5. February 22, 2016 / 9:11 pm

    Love this post. I find the trends so interesting. My nan was a working mum in the fifties in schools. Her parents helped with childcare before my mum and uncle started school. Once in school they would could home for lunch and let themselves in after school (latchkey kids). My Nanny then helped look after us while my mum worked as retirement was earlier in those days. Now women work for a lot longer so my own mum can’t look after my kids as she has a full time successful career in her late sixties. I’m already hoping that I will be able to help my own children out with their careers when the time comes as I can see how hard it is for those of us without help.
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