As I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, the world was a totally different place. It was proper, it was conservative and it was safe for children to play outside alone. In fact, we could be gone all day and maybe just show up for lunch and back out again.
We would never let our children be that far out of our site these days. It was also a world where most mothers, at least in my neighborhood, were home with their children. This was a safe environment, one my brother and I loved. We didn’t want any changes to that either.
My mother had a college degree in education and turned to us one day when we were in junior high school and said, “I think I’m going to get a job.” My brother and I were shocked. How could she not be home when we arrived, with the smell of dinner already cooking? Since we expressed objections, she gave up on the idea and continued her role as family caretaker for the rest of her life.
In fact, the role of women in the post war 1950s was repressive and constrictive in some ways. Women were supposed to fulfill certain roles, such as a caring mother, a diligent homemaker, and a dutiful wife. Our mother was the perfect “stay at home mother,” as was my grandmother. They spent their days cleaning the house, washing, ironing, visiting with the neighbors and most important to the kids, preparing the family meal where we all sat around the table and actually had meaningful conversation. Of course there were no cell phones and no TV watching was allowed when we were eating.
According to an essay, “How to be a Good Wife,” in the publication from the 1950’s American High School Home Economics textbook, a wife was to be submissive and supportive. Plus her job was to take care of the family. Television shows like “I Love Lucy,” often portrayed a woman in distress, who needed her husband, the man, to bail her out. Then there was “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” The mothers in those shows all wore dresses and high heels and pearls around the house and had clean homes, plus their children rarely did anything wrong.
Some excerpts from that home economics textbook reportedly suggest proper ways for every wife and mother to behave. Modern women, who now usually have careers of their own, will, of course, laugh at some of this. I will say that some of these suggestions applied at my household for my mother and others did not.
First, as I have said at my house, the most important thing was to have dinner ready. Then the essay suggests to wives, “Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready on time for your husband’s return. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs.”
“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. Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you’ll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people.”
My mother did subscribe to this thought. I remember about an hour before my dad got home from work, which was about 6 p.m., she would shower, change her clothes, put on makeup and look perfect when he arrived. One day when I asked her why she did that she said, “Your father’s been working with women all day who are all dressed up and looking good and I should be that way, too.” At that time it sounded right to me.
The textbook suggestions continue: “Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives. Gather up schoolbooks, toys, paper, etc. and then run a dust cloth over the tables.”
“Over the cooler months of the year, you should prepare and light a fire for him to unwind by. Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order, and it will give you a lift, too. After all, catering for his comfort will provide you with immense personal satisfaction.”
“Children are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part. Minimize all noise. At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet.”
“You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first – remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.” (What? This one is pretty funny. I have recently heard that most men say 25,000 words a day and most women say 50,000. By the time a man comes home he has already said his 25,000 and says very little at home, while the woman has at least 25,000 words left. At least that’s the way it is at my house.)
More suggestions from the textbook: “Never complain if he comes home late or goes out to dinner, or other places of entertainment without you.” (Even in the 1950s, I don’t believe this was the thought of the average housewife.) “Instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his very real need to be at home and relax.”
“Your goal – try to make sure your home is a place of peace, order and tranquility where you husband can renew himself in body and spirit. Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him.” (This has to be just one step too far. What woman in any country in any year would go along with this?)
In the 1960s and ‘70s, life really changed for a wife. Many were now employed giving most households two incomes. Some people worried about the rest of the family. Who would take care of them now? But really, women were not disappearing from the face of the earth. They were just working all day and then coming home and doing their job at home, too. Often family members had to step in and help a little bit.
Finally, women were having a more equal place in society and becoming much less financially dependent on their husbands. In fact, a recent statistic says 70% of mothers are now employed outside the home.
So, life was very different in the 1950s. There were many good qualities to it, but women have come a long way and made their place in the world, too.
(Melanie Behrens – firstname.lastname@example.org)
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