As a traditionally feminine woman who strives daily to perfect that stereotypical image of the 1950’s housewife, I often catch an unfortunate amount of flack from various individuals concerning every aspect of it. But while the points they make are often perfectly valid, thought provoking, and generally not wrong in many cases? They’re usually still irrelevant and show an increasing detachment from the reality of history.
The 1950’s Housewife is such an incredibly complex thing to discuss. To add to that complexity, too, are years of Conservative Romanticism on a grand scale- and counter to it, Liberal Rejectionism- which has muddied the waters and made historical facts unclear to those not invested in a good, historical analysis of the era.
No better example of both the Conservative Romanticism and Liberal Rejectionism exists than in the myth of The Good Wife’s Guide; when you Google information about the 1950’s Housewife and her duties, the majority of the information that comes up includes at least some form of throwback or reference to this document. It’s inescapable, and if you’ve been around for a while you know exactly how much I hate it.
Claiming its origins in a Home Economics textbook from 1954, as its name implies, The Good Wife’s Guide is a list of things which the 1950’s Housewife was expected to do for her Husband daily in order to be considered a good wife according to the standards of the era. The slant at which this document is written about, however, varies from article to article that you find, and greatly depends on whether or not the author of the piece is ultimately a Romanticist or Rejectionist (these are just some examples); Conservative Romanticists often rave about it an uphold it as the ideal wife- while Liberal Rejectionists use it as the prime example of why being a Housewife is inherently oppressive and no one in their right mind would (or should) appreciate anything about the era.
As Stephanie Coontz writes in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap:
When Liberals and Conservatives debate family policy, for example, the issue is often framed in terms of how many “Ozzie and Harriet” families are left in America […] Liberals seem to think that unless they can prove that “Leave it to Beaver” family is on an irreversible slide toward extinction, they cannot justify introducing new family definitions and social policies. [And] Conservatives believe that if they can demonstrate the traditional family is alive and well, although endangered by policies that reward two-earner families and single parents, they can pass measures to revive the seeming placidity and prosperity of the 1950’s associated, in many people’s minds, with the relative stability of Marriage, Gender Roles, and family life in that decade; if the 1950’s family existed today, both sides seem to assume, we would not have the contemporary social dilemmas that cause such debate.
As Snopes entry on the subject of The Good Wife’s Guide writes, however, there is a minute truth to the list despite its fictitiousness- and as Stephanie Coontz notes, there has indeed been a rise of traditional families that mimic the model common in the 1950’s. And yet despite having origins in some minuscule truth, The Good Wife’s Guide isn’t truth. In fact, our best guess is that it’s no older than the 90’s- hardly a true Vintage piece at all. More than that, it directly contradicts the majority evidence we have about what real life was like in the 1950’s for real Housewives.
Ultimately it is a fictional work developed to caricaturize the 1950’s in such a way as to prove the era’s absurdity, and establish a moral and social superiority for Modern ideologies (which, truth be told, does make it a bit ironic when Conservative Romanticists take it seriously).
It has become fashionable to portray outdated societal behaviors and attitudes — ones we now consider desperately wrongheaded — to be worse than they really were as a way of making a point about how much we’ve improved […] The juxtaposition of wonderful modernity with a tawdry past also serves to reinforce the ‘rightness’ of current societal stances by making any other positions appear ludicrous. It reminds folks of the importance of holding on to these newer ways of thinking and to caution them against falling back into older patterns which may be more comfortable but less socially desirable. [Snopes]
As someone who loves history, I have to recognize that there are certainly a number of problems that existed in the 1950’s. Indeed, a lot of the criticism against the decade is incredibly valid for a number of reasons- including its rampant sexism, racism, abelism, and other issues. Our own decade might not be perfect, that’s true. But it’s undeniable that we’ve certainly made progress in leaps and bounds when compared to prior eras.
My problem, however, is that often those who pick up and single out the 1950’s often do so while failing to recognize several important things about the era; they fail to understand the historical context.
WW II began in September of 1939. A year later in September of 1940, the United States instituted the Selective Training and Service Act- otherwise known as The Draft. This act required all men between the ages of 21 and 45 to register for military service; at first, those selected were required to serve at least 1 year of mandatory service in the armed forces. Later, however, these terms would be extended in perpetuity- or at least until the War was over in 1945 (The Draft and WW II).
As you can imagine, this left significant holes in the working population- especially in male dominated labor industries. As a result, a patriotic campaign was started to encourage Women to take up those positions to help with the war effort. The catch, though, is that Women were already a part of the Workforce in the first place; Low Income Women had never had the option to or not to work. But with the beginning seeds of the middle class that the Industrial Revolution had brought, there were fewer Women in the workforce than there had been in prior eras. And it was these Women who were ultimately targeted by these propaganda campaigns, in an effort to drive them out of their early Middle Class comforts and back into a workforce that desperately needed them.
Joining the labor force as a Woman- but especially a White, middle class one- was seen by both the Right and the Left as an act of Patriotism and support for the cause. And it was through their encouragement via propaganda (the most famous of which is still the Rosie the Riveter campaign) that female employment rose from 27% to almost 40% in the span of just a few short years.
By 1943, 90% of single women between the ages of 18 and 40 were either working or engaged in newly created National Service occupations. In some areas, Women would even go on to make up as much as 65% of industry workforces (such as in the case of the Aviation Industry). And by the time WWII ended in 1945, it’s estimated that 1 out of every 4 married Women were employed- a number which, despite the fact that Women have always held positions in the work place throughout history, was previously unprecedented. (American Women in WWII; Striking Women: WW II)
But then WW II came to an end, and those Military Men and Women who survived the horrors came flooding back to their homelands. Unfortunately for them, Women still dominated the work force- and many of them were reluctant to leave, leaving hundreds of predominantly Male service veterans unemployed. As a result, another widespread campaign was started in an effort to return America to a pre-war social state.
The problem? Prior propaganda was working against them. And so society turned once again to Propaganda in order to solve the issue; the Government, Magazines, News Papers, Product Manufacturers… A number of both corporate and political entities worked in tandem throughout the 40′s and 50′s to create and disseminate a fictional idea, a political message, largely through the use of add campaigns. This time, however, the propaganda focused on the Nuclear Family Model that we’re familiar with today.
The Nuclear Family Model (and everything that went with it) had one sole purpose: To encourage Women to retake their roles in society as Mothers and Wives. This in turn helped to displace them from their previously occupied male labor roles, opening them back up for the returning Men… But it also helped combat population losses sustained during the war efforts.
It was a double edged sword, and it served its purpose particularly well. But there was another aspect at play, however, that heavily influenced the post war era- and it’s one that often gets overlooked: Wartime Rationing and Technological Advancements.
Rationing, unlike the war, didn’t begin to lift in many areas until 1950. In other areas, such as the UK, it wouldn’t be lifted until as late as 1956. And during its course, it kept a number of items- up to and including food and soap, fabric, and more- out of the hands of the common people for prolonged periods of time.
When Rationing ended, suddenly the market was flooded with items that people had previously been unable to get their hands on in upwards of a decade in some cases. But rationed items weren’t the only one’s hitting the market. Wartime technologies now needed to find a new place in civilian society as well. And of course companies turned to their favorite medium for convincing the masses: Advertising and Propaganda. And through those campaigns? Various social rules and beauty standards, and a number of consumerist ideologies, were created to encourage these items be taken up- either for the first time or once again- and used by the populace.
As one documentary illustrates, many of the technological advancements that found their way into Post War homes weren’t always safe. Still, the majority of these advancements wound up being applied to Women’s industries (especially where it concerned the home) as more companies turned to Women as viable consumers. When combined with the after effects of rationing, they often became more over the top; more feminine, bigger, more patterned or lavish or extravagant than they had been in prior years. This is most evident nowhere else than in the first fashion collection released after WW II.
Released in 1947 and nicknamed “The New Look” for its stark deviation from pre and post war Fashion up to that point, Dior’s new collection was different. And it was different, according to Jonathan Walford, in “Its abundance – the excessive use of luxurious fabrics and time intensive labor [… and …] the overly female form that he presented” (Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look)- all things which were in direct, stark contrast to the simplicity and bleakness of wartime fashion that predated it.
Though Christian Dior was not American, and the collection debuted in France, it was America who received news of it first and instantly became enamored with it. And by 1950, the image of the All American Housewife established by the Nuclear Family Model was heavily influenced by Dior’s collection. Indeed, Dior’s collection was arguably the birth of what we now consider the stereotypical image of the 1950’s Housewife- at least in appearance and femininity.
But the economy factored into this as well; wartime technologies, economic and political security, and the lift of rationing were some of the major driving forces behind an absolutely incredible economic boom. And as Stephanie Coontz once again notes in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, that boom further pushed the Middle Class into a dominant position that helped not only pave the way for, but also solidify the concept of the Nuclear Family:
The pro-family features of [the 1950’s] were bolstered by impressive economic improvements for vast numbers of Americans. Between 1945 and 1960, the gross national product grew by almost 250% and per capita income by 35%. Housing starts exploded after the war, peaking at 1.65 million in 1955 and reaming above 1.5 million a year for the rest of the decade […] 85% of new homes were built in the Suburbs, where the Nuclear Family found new possibilities for privacy and togetherness. [And] While middle class Americans were the prime beneficiaries of the building boom, substantial numbers of White working class Americans moved out of the cities and into affordable developments.
Many working class families also moved into the middle class […] By the mid 1950’s, nearly 60% of the population had what was labeled a middle class income level (between $3,000 and $10,000 in constant dollars) […] The number of people with discretionary income doubled in the 1950’s.
For most Americans, the most salient symbol and immediate beneficiary of their newfound prosperity was the Nuclear Family. The biggest boom in consumer spending, for example, was in Household Goods […] Putting their mouths where their money was, Americans consistently told pollsters that home and family were the wellsprings of their happiness and self-esteem […] When respondents to a 1950’s marriage study “were asked what they thought they had sacrificed by marrying and raising a family”, an overwhelming majority of them answered “nothing”.
Evelyn Millis Duvall and Reuben Hill, in their book When You Marry, near perfectly illustrate of the largest ways in which this newfound middle class ultimately impacted the image of the Nuclear Family we’re familiar with today. And perhaps unsurprisingly, it has to do with the quintessential idea of the Homemaking Wife and Bread Winning Husband:
Years ago the productive tasks of the home were much greater than they are today. With childbearing and the lack of modern aids and conveniences, the work of most wives was probably greater than that of their husbands […] Gradually, however, the family bought more and more of the things which women used to make in the home […] Women bore fewer children and had more and more conveniences […] to aid them. Since these purchases were made with the money earned by men, the burden on the husband became increasingly greater. He had to do what he did not have to do before: Earn enough for two, as well as enough for the children […]
As time went on […] and wives and children bought more and produced less, the increased burden on the husband became accepted as the normal and proper situation […]. Far from resenting this situation, men often assumed the cost proudly as evidence of their earning power. Many came to resent […] the idea of their wives working outside the home as a reflection upon their ability to provide support
But as the authors of When You Marry so wonderfully illustrate, many of the ideals surrounding the Nuclear Family Model are “hardly more than a generation old”.
This intimate view of American home life is familiar to us all through the kindness of advertising mediums of every variety and haunting ubiquity. We are fortunate because without their aid we should never see such a pretty picture. [When You Marry]
Ultimately the social expectations were harsh, that’s true. As Sheila Hardy notes in her wonderfully detailed historical account of 1950’s England, Women certainly did quite a lot; the role of the Homemaker wasn’t an easy one in that era- though when has it really ever been. Likewise, there were Women who successfully managed to live out this idea that was peddled to them- some of whom managed to do so quite successfully. And by 1950 many of these propaganda campaigns appear to have been “targeted adds that emulated the lives wives were already living”.
But the reality is that not many actually had the means to live it out as a reality in full and complete. As a result, the quintessential 50’s housewife we see in media simply never existed- let alone outside of White Middle Class America- in any genuinely tangible way; the Women we see in add campaigns, television, and commercials of the 1950’s- the Women who we think quintessentially define the image of the 1950’s Housewife- was never anything other than an incredibly complex mixture of everything from propaganda to politics, and a heavy dose of socio-economic factors.
More than that, the campaigns they were developed out of have a history that started well before the war even ended. The fictional idea they portrayed served it purpose, was largely bought into by the populace, and was incredibly effective. So by mid 50′s? It wasn’t that the adds were mimicking everyday life. It was that most of life was finally mimicking the propaganda behind the adds. But you completely miss that if you don’t look at the history and use of WWII propaganda during wartime- especially as it specifically targeted Women.
And that’s quite a stark reality for some to face.
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