I recently realized that my husband has no real expectations of me aside from those anyone would have of another human being with whom he might share his home. Well, it was my home before it was ours, but…You know. The typical expectations we have of anyone we live with. Contribute to the household. Don’t poop on the floor. Don’t murder me while I sleep. Those types of things.
Then I got fired for being pregnant. I know. I keep harping on it. But it’s what happened and the company knows it and I’m not going to pretend here – the one place I ought to be able to say exactly what I think – that it was anything else. So here I sit. No longer contributing financially to the household. Still not pooping on the floor. No immediate plans to murder my husband in his sleep.
And I can’t help but think of the cultural archetype of the smiling fifties housewife, gleefully vacuuming the floors in heels and concocting dinners of butter and meat with giddy abandon. Is this the truth of the matter? Were American housewives of the era really that chipper? The ones on amphetamines, perhaps. Kidding. My understanding of the social history of the time, which is based on history classes I took in college not dealing explicitly with women’s history, is that the swinging of the pendulum back to a focus on family and stay-at-home wives and mothers was a function of the end of WWII. The period of time from 1945 to the official start of “The Fifties” marked a period of social change. Where women were encouraged during the war to contribute to America’s success by taking jobs that men left behind as they enlisted or were drafted into the military, postwar American women were portrayed as more fulfilled by domestic endeavors.
So I’ve been trying to learn a little more about how much of our popular understanding of the 1950’s housewife as an oppressed and rather pathetic creature is authentic and how much of it is an insinuation perpetuated by television, magazine articles and other media. One of the things that comes up most persistently when one runs a Google search on terms such as “1950’s Housewife” is this. I referenced that particular instance of the article because it sends people straight to Snopes, which I think is one of the best websites ever. Anything that seems wrong or off to me immediately gets “snoped.” Snopes says that the article is, “an exaggeration with a point.” While no one has found the source of the list (leading most to believe that it was written long after the fifties had given way to modernity), it seems to be a sort of amalgam of the worst parts of a woman’s existence – its point being to give us a more cheerful outlook on the current state of things by comparing it to the worst of the past.
But it really doesn’t help me. You see, while I spend the next two months cooking my twins, I find myself at home all day with nothing to really do aside from be a housewife. I cook dinners. I clean. Sometimes. I watch Toddlers and Tiaras and vomit. The two are strongly causally related. I start drafts of blogs. Sometimes, like this morning, I finish them. And I’m wondering whether I could hack it as a housewife in the fifties. Trouble is that I can’t find any real references to what being a housewife in the fifties was actually like.
Jen (but never Jenn) had this idea before me, as have many women. She did a Fifties Housewife Experiment and, for her reference material, she used household guides, magazines, cookbooks and home economics texts from the era. She also used (and as a result, hipped me to) videos from the Prelinger Archives that were meant for women of the era. In her experiment, she tried to recreate the schedule, social life and work load that a housewife would have in the fifties. She also attempted to stay as true to the era as possible while still remaining within the bounds of reason. And, in the end, she took a lot of heat for it.
Lauren Bans, in an article for Slate, said of the results of the experiment, “Though I suspect “pretending” for two weeks probably makes days of cleaning and cooking easier than when it’s the immutable reality of your life.” This was my first thought when I first began forming the idea of doing a similar experiment in my mind – long before stumbling on Jen Byck’s blog. And, to be fair, Bans also opened her article by stating, “Looks like someone wants a book deal!” I won’t lie. That was also at the forefront of my mind. So…transparency. But to be honest I have to wonder what Bans wanted from Byck. I’ll be honest, I’ve not read through all the entries regarding Byck’s experiment and I’ve only casually glanced over her “results,” but it seems to me that one would have to read such an experiment as unscientific. I’m not sure whether Byck failed to explicitly state that the experiment was not up to snuff in terms of the rigors of science – worthy of peer review and replication – but any reasonable person should understand that to be the case after just reading the introduction. And the experiment I thought of doing – one similar in most ways to Byck’s – would be the same.
The majority of complaints Byck received on her work seemed to center on the argument between those who feel that the fifties housewife was oppressed and forlorn versus those who feel that there may be something to the lifestyle that may have been – and may be now – beneficial to a marriage. The disconnect between the two is obviously (to me, at least) the issue of Free Will. Choice. Something that women in the fifties seemed to have precious little of.
The problem with women’s roles in postwar America was that they were enforced. Expectations of women and wives were that they would marry, keep a house and bear children. Those who didn’t risked being ostracized as social lepers. Spinsters. No one wanted to wind up a spinster. According to the US Census, the median age of marriage for women in 1940 was 21.5. By 1950, the age was 20.3, and that age didn’t rise significantly until 1980, when it rose to 22. Perhaps now we feel that social pressure to behave in a certain way is less of a factor in our behavior. Perhaps it is. I really don’t know. But what one needs to understand about that period in American history is that it was a time when one did not want to veer too far from the prescribed path. Social damnation was a very real and very formidable fate.
We were trying “communists” and The Monsters (were) Due on Maple Street. I know, that particular episode premiered in 1960, but it was about this time in the fifties, when the chill of suspicion infused everything. It seems to me that the plight of the American housewife was that she really didn’t have a lot of choice. Women in the forties had had a moment of independence. They’d had jobs. They’d had freedoms. They’d been able to make it independent of a man and a marriage. It was as if women had been allowed out of the pasture and were now being rounded back up as their fellas came home from war. Patted on the shoulder and told “good job, girls, now kindly make us a sammich.” Not literally, but one can see how the changing role of women seemed to be taking a step backward. Many women were fine with it. Many were led to believe they were fine with it because they bought into the American ideal of the Affluent Society – appliances and conveniences and the facade of security. Social pressure can be an incredibly powerful motivator. I’m not saying that all women were oppressed or not oppressed. I think it depends on the woman.
The same social pressure exists today. Do you know how many of the girls I graduated with wanted to become housewives after high school? None. That I knew of. If any of us did we certainly didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t even discussed as an option, although classes were offered in both Foods and Parenting. I took both. Because I didn’t want to take another class I’d have to study for. After working and going to school, though, I always kind of thought fondly of what it would be like to just be in charge of a home. My aunt was my model for what a stay-at-home-wife looked like. Trouble was that my uncle had a swanky ass job and they could afford all the luxury they liked without her bringing home a check. And that was the thing in the fifties. The austerity of wartime was over and everyone was being pressured to buy, buy, buy! And it was possible, at that time, to live with reasonable comfort on one income. Such is not the case today. The only reason we’re going to be okay is because The Company (cue lightening bolts and frowny faces) “laid me off due to lack of work.” Read that as “you may collect unemployment.” Also, pregnant women in my state are generally universally eligible for Medicaid through delivery. And keep your mouths shut, folks. I’ve worked and payed into the system since I was sixteen and I have ten weeks of my pregnancy left. I’m not one of “those people” who sits on her duff from graduation on claiming all sorts of maladies that prevent her from working just to collect “your money.”
Back to the direction I meant for that paragraph to go in. The same social pressure exists today, but in reverse. We women are told that we should desire careers and lives outside of our homes. And here’s my argument: We should be allowed to desire whatever we want. I’ve spent time at college. I have interests other than my husband and his interests. I feel happy and fulfilled catching up on my housework, working on my writing, cooking actual meals instead of depending on that Ginger Kid Wendy for all of my sustenance. I’m enjoying being a wife and making a home. I’m chosing to be a homemaker, in a way. I am applying for work, as per the requirement set forth by the Department of Labor and Industry, but I’m fully aware that any interview I walk into is doomed by the size of my belly – triple Sneetch at this point. I don’t expect to be working until after I deliver, and I’m okay with that. And the hardcore feminists are, I’m sure, looking down their noses at me from their big, you know, executive desks or whatever and either pitying or mocking me. But I’m doing what I’m doing fully aware that, at least after delivery, I have every option to be doing something else. I have the Free Will that the fifties housewife didn’t have. And that makes it okay.
Hmm…but maybe I could trade just a little bit of my Free Will for some of their amphetamines….