In an interview she did in 1977, author and godmother of the second wave feminist movement, Betty Friedan, mentions, a little tongue-in-cheek, the idea of writing in the census blank “Occupation: Housewife” when she was a young woman in the 1950s. In her seminal 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, Friedan defines this decade as the era of “Occupation: Housewife.” Many women who had gone into the work force due to the shortage of men in the 1940s had, in the post-war era, retreated back to the home. As I explain in my blog post about the feminine mystique, women in mid-20th century America were sold a bill of goods about their identities and their purpose in life as wives and mothers. “Occupation: Housewife” was an extension of that.
In the 1950s, the role of housewife was taken very seriously, so seriously it seemed as if outside forces were working together to convince women the only road to happiness was as a housewife. Icons like Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver, Father Knows Best’s Margaret Anderson, and Ozzie and Harriet’s Harriet Nelson became the epitome of how women should be and act. Women’s magazines like Women’s Day and Good Housekeeping not only carried advice for housewives, but included fiction focused on the housewife heroine. Guides like the one mentioned in this article told women how they should treat their husbands like gods and take care of their children so that no one could blame them if their kids turned out less than perfect (a very popular thing, thanks to Freud). Lest women realize (as many did, according to Friedan) they were more than just a cleaning machine and a servant to their husband and kids, advertisers glorified housework to the point where women would believe the world would fall apart if they didn’t retreat into their homes and bake a cake every day.
Putting this in historical context, it’s easy to see where the obsession with selling women on the idea that their only worth was in their housewifery skills came from. As I mentioned above, women were going out into the work force, some for the very first time, during World War II when workers were needed, and male labor was scarcer. After the war ended, the expectation was that women would retreat from the work force to make room for men returning from the front. In addition, the psychological atmosphere of post-war America was one of a return to a life of stability, conformity, and traditional roles. All of these gel with the idea of women taking care of the home and making their life’s work “Occupation: Housewife.”
Being a housewife, in and of itself, is something to be proud of, since it takes a lot of thought, skill, organization, prioritizing, and patience. In our modern sensibility, we know many women would be proud to write on the census blank “Occupation: Housewife.” But the difference between housewives today and housewives seventy years ago is that today’s housewives, for the most part, are not being told their worth lies in how sparkling they can wax their kitchen floor, or how many of their kids’ soccer games they attend.
And therein lies the problem: The 1950’s housewife was made to feel as if this was all she ever would accomplish. Even if she had other aspirations and dreams, they were only trivial compared to her “real work” as a housewife. Friedan points out, “[N]o matter how elaborate, ‘Occupation: housewife’ is not an adequate substitute for truly challenging work, important enough to society to be paid for in its coin…” (p. 294).
My upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, features many 1950s and early 1960s housewives who would put “Occupation: Housewife” on the census bureau questionnaire. Some would do it gladly (such as the young bride-to-be in the story “Fumbling Toward Freedom”), and some more reluctantly (such as the heroine of “Mother of Mischief”). But all the protagonists, whether current or future housewives, recognize their worth lies in something more than cleaning, washing, and picking up the kids from school. They feel, like many of the subjects Friedan spoke with who were the inspiration for her book, that something isn’t quite right, that the picture-perfect images of housewives that glare out at them on their TV screens, glossy women’s magazines, and billboards are incongruent with who they are. This moment of epiphany is what drives many of them in the stories.
Get more information on Lessons, coming in March 2020, here.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.