The Thinking 

The Fifties Housewife

May 20, 2010


KAREN I. writes:

It is interesting that Siti “kind of assumes you draw your inspiration” from the fifties. I am sure she is not alone in that and you even agreed, saying “the word housewife conjures images of that era, doesn’t it?” As a housewife today, I wonder why the 1950s are so consistently associated with being a housewife. There is a curiosity about housewives of that era that does not exist for any other time, even though some women have always been housewives. I know there is no interest in my occupation these days and I doubt any classroom discussion about the roles of women today would even include housewives except in the most demeaning, dismissive way. By focusing on housewives of the 1950s, it makes the occupation seem passé, as though it were a quaint hobby of women living sixty years ago. I wonder if that is the underlying intent of schools, which focus on the housewives of the 1950s but no other era. Imagine the fury of working mothers if housewives were discussed in a modern sense! Far safer to relegate housewives to the history books! 

I wonder if the boys in Siti’s class are also studying the roles of women in the 1950s? If so, I am sure they are thrilled. I wonder if there will be a corresponding unit on the roles of men in the 1950s?

Laura writes:

On the one hand, people romanticize that era and honestly long to return to it. You see these vintage ads of fifties homemakers everywhere and some women consciously adopt fifties dress and decor, partly as an ironic gesture. On the other hand, people trivialize it and make the women seem as if they cared only about their kitchen floors or new appliances or as if this was the only period in history that women were domestic. By associating domesticity only with that time, it’s easier to dismiss it as a fluke.

– Comments –

Brendan writes:

There are a few reasons why the fifties are used as the “whipping post” when it comes to housewives.

The first is that the fifties was the period immediately preceding the social revolution of the sixties and seventies. In many ways the social revolutionaries — feminists and others — were revolting against the fifties. The fifties were the “bad period” that they were rebelling against, primarily, so of course the fifties are the period which is generally used as the “foil” to our “more enlightened” post-revolutionary era. The revolutionaries all hated the culture of the fifties, and so it should come as no surprise that they continue to mock it, and that the people who see themselves as their heirs (e.g., the mostly female writer group for the show Mad Men, about an era only slightly post 50s) continue to flog the same meme.

The second is that because the fifties were a somewhat abberational period in terms of macroeconomics, that particularity is used to discredit, or at least to relativize, all of the social norms that prevailed in the fifties — under the argument that “the fifties were aberrational, therefore housewives were aberrational, monogamy was aberrational, low divorce was aberrational, etc.”. It is a spurious non-argument, but in the intellectually vapid world of today, where our young people’s brains have been deliberately emptied by our educational system, that kind of associational argument is taken seriously, unfortunately. The reality that the fifties were simply the *final* era in which many of these norms still held some sway is lost on people who are convinced that the 50s were simply aberrational in every respect.

The third, and related, aspect is that the social movements of the 20th century were largely interrupted by the depression and second world war. International socialism (a la John Reed, and not FDR) and feminism made major inroads in the 1920s only to be stopped cold once people had real problems to worry about. It was only in the aftermath of the war that effort could be put back towards the social revolutionary programme — but the prosperity of the 1950s delayed that progress another decade or so. This added to the vast pool of seething anger on the hard left, chafing as it was due to the “lost time” of the thirties and forties. As a result, the loathing of the fifties was given even more stress, in terms of the emotion on the hard left, which saw the norms of the fifties as being a betrayal of the “progress” they had made in the 1920s. In many ways if you “erase” the 1930s-50s from the 20th century, you can draw a parallel line between what was happening in the 20s and what happened beginning in the mid to late sixties — the latter era kind of picked up the thread that had been dropped in the aftermath of 1929 and took it to places where the hard left thought society should have been already in the thirties and forties.

Laura writes:

This is an excellent explanation of the loathing of the fifties. As I said, the era is also idolized because people honestly long for some of the normalcy that prevailed.

“The second is that because the fifties were a somewhat abberational period in terms of macroeconomics, that particularity is used to discredit, or at least to relativize, all of the social norms that prevailed in the fifties — under the argument that “the fifties were aberrational, therefore housewives were aberrational, monogamy was aberrational, low divorce was aberrational, etc.”

Exactly. Time and again, people use the end of the prosperity of the fifties as an excuse for the decadence that followed.

Mabel LeBeau writes:

One of the aspects of the fifties I like to think about, (and yes there were a couple years I was old enough to remember something of it), is that it seems a practical and realistic time for self-sufficient women to live their dreams or at least find it easier to buck the system holding them back from advancement, without having to resort to depravity or unacceptable life-styles.

I remember a set of Grolier Books of Child Life filled with projects and hobbies to promote practical and culturally enriching experiences of participating in hobbies, group activities, sports, even book-reading. People were still trying to work with what they had. It was still a ‘can-do period of time. It would be interesting to compare the percentage of middle-class to the impoverished and destitute to other times in recent history. Twenty years later–pshaw, 50 years later I am still wearing the wool jackets, fashionable dirndls, pedal-pushers, oxfords, and substantially fashionable and durably sewn garments mother had added to her wardrobe in the fifties.

Sometimes, in looking back, I rather think to myself that had the members of my family been living in an urban setting in this day and age, we would’ve all been medically treated for conditions of hyperactivity, depression, a little schizo-affectedness, manias, and sometimes malnutrition (when we insisted on mono-ingredient diets), etc. instead of the endless programs and creativities devised to utilize energy excess or deficit. My view of the fifties is romanticized. I wasn’t a bread-winner, but a child, viewing the quality of goods produced and a level of respect and pride in honest work. For example, while my father was building our house, we lived in a trailer. And, there was a significant difference in durability and quality when costs relatively compared to trailers produced nowadays.

I would think the fifties was a time when the role of a woman caring for her family could be valued and cherished, not as fragmented or cultured’ as the role Martha Stewart provided nowadays, nor in the modern urgency for a woman to be all things to everyone, and the husband of the fifties to be both respected and valued for his contributions to family life.

In the fifties, my mother had her Normal School teaching certificate, had taught in a one-room school, driven by herself across the US and Canada, served her stint in the Air Force, and achieved her graduate degree before choosing to marry. When she and my father raised their family, there seemed no limit to creativity, nor energy in carving out a homestead in a remote area of the country. Perhaps, there was more of a pioneer, positivity back then. Martha Stewart had nothing on what my folks came up to teach and encourage self-entertainment for a family of bright, inquisitive children. I understand life could be indifferent in families disturbed by subjugation and shame, however, such as resident and immigrant groups excluded from naturalization, citizenship, interracial marriage, etc.

Rita writes:

I’d like to see the stats (although I DOUBT those exist) on how many women just abandoned their kids to be raised by relatives during the liberating sixties. I wonder how free and joyful their children felt. 

The movie The Stepford Wives which came out in 1975 really hammered home the point that submissive, happy housewives must be stark raving crazy underneath their perfectly coiffed hair and pretty aprons. It was remade in 2004 too just in case we needed to hear the message again.

Brittany writes:

Obviously the fifties was a great time for some people but seriously you only think the fifties is a near perfect period because you are a WASP. Also more than likely the reason your husband did not see single mothers was because there was a stigma on divorce even if the woman was getting abused and unwed mothers were pretty much forced to have illegal abortions that could kill them or give the baby up.

Laura writes:

If you read my original entry, you will see that I don’t think the fifties were near perfect.

I am not a WASP, but I am white. If you mean that it is only possible to view that period as better if one is white, I disagree. By objective standards, it was better for blacks too. The illegitimacy rate was under 15 percent for blacks in the fifties. It is now at 70 percent and a much larger proportion of the black population is in jail. Masculinity was radically redefined and the black father who lives with his children is now an exception. Black popular culture in the fifties was not the open sewer it is today and it is arguable blacks were more optimistic and happier. When white culture declines, blacks are negatively affected.

 Yes, there was a stigma on divorce and this guaranteed stability for children. It meant some men and women who were abused or mistreated had to live with it, although even then it was possible to get a divorce when physical harm  could be proven.

No unwed mother has ever been forced to have an abortion. Young unmarried women commonly gave their babies up for adoption or got married. There is an even greater demand for children to adopt today.



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