What did it mean to be a ‘good housewife’ in the 1950s?
Even though humanity still sees major gender disparity, there’s no denying that society has made strides in the right direction. One major area that has seen a lot of changes in regards to men and women’s roles has been in the home.
In the past, women were relegated to the kitchen (which misogynists would still prefer to be the status quo). Now, wives are seen as equal partners to their husbands. (At least, if you’re talking about a healthy, equitable, and functional marriage). And thank god, because after digging up some 1950s advice on how to be a good housewife, marriage back then sounded rather bleak by today’s standards.
Even though the stereotype of the 1950s is that women functioned primarily as “homemakers,” like most stereotypes, that characterization is not entirely accurate. In reality, American women have been working since the 1800s, with the women in the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts forming the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA) in 1844.
In fact, women made up such a significant part of the workforce that in 1920, Congress established the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, a federal agency charged with representing the needs of wage-earning women in public policy, was founded several years later in 1920. But perhaps the most famous time period of women in the workforce occurred during World War II when the government and media led campaigns to persuade women to take jobs (Rosie the Riveter, anyone?).
Beginning in 1941, 7 million women took industry jobs. And, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about one in three women participated in the labor force in 1950.
But even though women were able to work in the 1950s, women were not exactly seen as equal to men, especially in the home. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this quite like “The Good Wife’s Guide” a spread that ran in a 1955 issue of Housekeeping Monthly. It consists of 18 tips to “be a good wife,” and the advice may make you glad that you exist in a more, shall we say, progressive time period.
That didn’t age well
The very first tip in this list starts off pretty reasonable: “Have dinner ready,” it begins. That seems fair, considering that we can assume this list is geared at housewives and stay-at-home mothers who would likely be responsible for providing the family meals.
However, it continues: “Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a meal ready, on time for his return. This is a way of letting him know that you are thinking about him and are concerned about his needs.”
Even this qualification doesn’t sound too bad; cooking and caring for another person’s needs could be seen as fulfilling the Acts of Service love language. If this man in this spread feels most appreciated when his wife performs certain actions, then cooking him a meal would be a good way for his wife to show she cares. (Then again, this article came out in 1955, a full 40 years before Gary Chapman’s ‘Love Languages’ would even become articulated).
But then the tip, which starts out relatively understandable, keeps going into territory that is, frankly, weird: “Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal (especially his favorite dish) is part of the warm welcome needed.”
Yes, this is true—it’s fair to imagine that most working men are hungry when they get home. But so are most people after a long day of work. The tone of this tip feels like it’s talking down to the woman reading it. Not to mention, it paints the woman’s hunger as less important than the man’s, since she’s meant to put his needs before hers, cooking food to suit his tastes only.
The very next tip on the list isn’t much better: “Prepare yourself,” it reads. “Take 15 minutes to rest so you’ll be refreshed when he arrives.” Okay, that one is pretty nice, right? It’s actually encouraging the woman to rest after spending her whole day cleaning, taking care of the children, and cooking, right? Not right. It immediately continues, “Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people.”
There’s no way a piece of “advice” like this would fly nowadays. To be clear, of course, it’s nice if a person wants to get a little dressed up for their partner. But it should be by no means mandatory. Not to mention, if someone wants to touch themselves up, they should do it because they want to do it, not because it will put their partner in a better mood.
Perhaps the most obviously sexist tip for being a good housewife appears towards the end of the list: “Your goal: Try to make sure your home is a place of peace, order, and tranquility.” (So far so good). “Where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit.”
If anyone needed a more blatant indicator that women were meant to be submissive to their husbands and essentially forget about their own needs, here it is.
Even in 2019, few would disagree that the home should be a place of peace, order, and tranquility—but (at least hopefully) we acknowledge that it should remain that way for the benefit of both spouses. But in 1955, only the husband’s needs are important. It’s especially ridiculous considering this spread seems to imply that only the husband needs to “renew himself in body and spirit,” presumably after spending his day at the office, when data shows that even during this time period, one in three women might also spend their days working. Even if that wasn’t the case, being a mother, caretaker, and homemaker is an equally (if not more so) exhausting job that warrants rest and renewal.
In addition to “The Good Wife’s Guide” giving housewife advice, there was also the Pictoral Medical Guide, a 1961 book written by 42 specialists that were proclaimed to be “Every Woman’s Medical Guide.” Most of the advice is a welcome change from that of “The Good Wife’s Guide,” such as, “The mature woman is independent of her parents, she makes concessions to others, but at the same time she does not become too dependent upon them,” and “[A] mature woman profits by her own experience and the experience of others.”
This seems to indicate a shift towards seeing women as more than second-class citizens. However, the book is not all feminism and equality: there are some pretty troubling commandments in there, too. Take, for instance, the vague, “Mature woman has an attitude toward sex, love, and marriage compatible with adulthood,” or No. 20, which simply reads: “She is heterosexual.”
None of that is great. And, of course, marriage in the 21st century isn’t perfect and equal (marital rape didn’t become illegal in all 50 states until 1993), we have nonetheless made some strides.
Nicole Ligon, a lecturing fellow at Duke Law School, says: “Since the 1950s, there’s been a great deal of positive change in the activities and representation of women in society generally, though we still have a long way to go. Women today are more likely to be engaged in financial roles, assuming financial obligations, and making major decisions.”
That’s seemingly great news. Unfortunately, as Ligon denotes, equality is still something the genders are working towards.
“Women can be seen engaging in the workforce in a variety of fields in greater numbers,” she admits. “This, however, does not change the fact that women still remain highly underrepresented in numerous fields (including STEM); overrepresented in more “traditionally female”-type fields (nursing, teaching, etc.), and seemingly compromise lower ranks in certain industries significantly more than the highest positions.”
Today, if you visit Wiki How’s page on “How to be a good wife” opens: “To be a good wife, you have to be able to communicate effectively, to keep your romance alive, and to be your spouse’s best friend while maintaining your own identity.”
None of that is rooted in outdated gender roles, and the tips that follow are more about gender-neutral communication strategies than female-specific pointers on keeping house. In fact, you could swap out “wife” with “husband” (or even ‘spouse’) and the content of the advice wouldn’t be affected or seem out of place.
Even the fact that the wife’s spouse is referred to as just that, the spouse (and not the husband) signals a move away from the heteronormative limits of past advice. Women still face considerable obstacles when it comes to equal pay, reproductive rights, there have been changes since the 1950s—which makes it all the more painful that conservative lawmakers seem to want to revert society back to that time period.