The 1960’s were a time that many people look back on with fond memories, but which others blame for some of the failings in society. Until the early sixties society had remained largely stable since the second half of the nineteenth century. The family was the most important social units and it was usually dominated by the breadwinner, also known as the father. By the end of the sixties, what mattered to many in society was no longer the family, but the individual. Freedom and self-expression now seemed to be more important than responsibility and obligation.
This meant people had more individual rights. Everybody knew that young people let their hair down, but that later, as they matured, they settled down to their responsibilities. But what made these changes so important and more worrying to some was that the changes were not just affecting young people. It was also a time when there were startling changes in morality and social values were taking place. The whole emphasis seemed to be on change and experiment. As one person put it “It was very heaven to be alive”
To most people, the developments of the years from 1963 to 1965 seemed to be harmless. It was just a case of young people having fun for almost the first time in British History. But to some people events were already beginning to take a more sinister turn. In 1967 abortion also became legal as well as the pill for the first time in Britain. Until then the only way of terminating a pregnancy was to use a “back street” abortion. These were carried out illegally by untrained people and were potentially very dangerous.
Nevertheless, it seems that there were about 100,000 of these each year. Abortion was strictly controlled and could only be carried out under medical supervision and at a certain time during a pregnancy. The “pill” arrived. It was available from family planning clinics. This not only provided a safe form of contraception, but also reduced painful menstruation and even acne. There were side effects, which have only been recognised more recently, but at the time, for many women, the pill seemed to be a simple solution to a difficult problem.
Unlike earlier forms of contraception, it was made available for unmarried women as well as married women. At the time the pill was blamed for an increase in sexual immorality. The combined effect of the pill and abortion was to allow women to plan their lives much more effectively. Not only could the number of children be limited, but also they were able to decide when to have them. This meant that a woman could decide how long she was going to spend on a career before she had children and then how long a break she was going to have when she had children at all.
The negatives and opposition to the pill and contraception were very dangerous developments. They were opposed by some Christians believed that taking the pill was against the teachings of the church. Another criticism was that the contraception would lead to the breakdown of social values because it would prevent the development of loving relationships and lead to sex being regarded as a purely physical act. The conservative interpretation to the legalisation of abortion was opposed for many reasons. Christians believed that it was little better than murder because a life was being taken away.
Other people believed that it would encourage sexual relationships and reduce the value of the bond between mother and child. The pill and abortion and the freedom of the sixties did not make motherhood any less attractive for the great majority of women. Many of the girls who left school to work in boutiques or as receptionists were soon married with children. The popular image of childcare was still that it was women’s role in the family. Schools, the government, advertising and the media all pushed the traditional view that women should stay at home, and so sacrifice their career prospects for their children.
A further influence came with the feminist movement; it began to challenge all traditional ideas of women’s role in society, the economy and the family. To people who supported the traditional view of the relationship between men and women and their role in society, the women’s liberation movement was a serious challenge. But worse was still to come. Further blows were struck at the traditional views of the family and society by developments that took towards the end of the decade. In 1967 parliament voted to homosexual relationships that took place in private.
Despite the apparent air of freedom, however, there was little sympathy or tolerance of homosexuality in the sixties. Obviously young people could be very intolerant. To many people this was the beginning of the end. Homosexuality struck at the very basis of the family and therefore at society. Feminism could lead to similar developments. One very important aspect of the sixties was a total lack of respect for traditional ideas and values. Politics, the church, the monarchy all became targets for comedy. In 1962 satire moved to television. A weekly programme called TW3 was broadcast every night.
It made fun of views of news items and was soon watched by 12 million people TW3 challenged accepted ways of doing something. Programmes such as TW3 were produced by young people who were tired of being told what to do by their elders. They were created to make an atmosphere in which people began to think, say and do things that they would have not done only a few years earlier. A lack of respect for the authority approached. Drugs were being taken and tried by a high percentage of teenagers. Drugs led to a complete disrespect of family life.
If some aspects of the sixties appeared to challenge society and existing ideas, then the hippie movement seemed to reject it altogether. Some people took the movement very seriously. The hippie movement was also encouraged drug taking as well. To many people the most worrying aspect of the hippie movement was the way that its followers seemed to abandon responsibility. Not only did hippies appear to reject all forms of confrontation, but also their behaviour suggested a weakening of society and the family in particular. I conclude that there were different types of opinions by very different people.
The changes to the law relating to marriage and homosexuality suggested that society was changing permanently. Secondly the fact that many of the changes were legal, rather than social. This suggested that the government and people in authority seemed to be aiding and abetting changes. There was plenty of evidence form the sixties to suggest that British society was moving in a completely new direction. For the teenager, the 1960’s were a time to experiment, rather than a time to be told. For women, it was a time to speak out from male dominance, and push for equality.
Not only was there an ever-decreasing respect for the establishment, but people who seemed to have less respect for each other. The legalisation of the pill, abortion and homosexual relationships in private, not only showed growing disrespect by going against Christian Teachings, but sent out a message that the government thought such ‘immoralities’ were ok. Generally, those who had been brought up before the war years saw the 1960’s as a time when society went past the point of no return. But those born after saw it as a chance to experience freedom and fun in ways never before seen possible.