100 Years of Identity Crisis

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This flier, published in the early 20th century, takes the argument of the separate spheres and the post World War II generation (that women belong in the home) and uses it as an argument as to why women belong outside of the home as well.

Photo Credit: Women in the Home flier, created by the Woman Suffrage Party of the city of New York, 1897-1911, Library of Congress: Picryl/Public Domain Certification

“[A]s the Victorian culture did not permit women to accept or gratify their basic sexual needs, our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings, a need which is not solely defined by their sexual role.” (Friedan, p. 77)

I’ve been talking a lot in the last month or so about two historical concepts related to women and gender that were the inspiration for many of the stories and themes in my upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life. They both come from Betty Friedan’s 1963 ground-breaking book, The Feminine Mystique. The first is what Friedan called “The Problem That Has No Name,” an unidentifiable something that was wrong with the 1950s housewife whose life was supposed to be so fulfilling and so perfect. I wrote about that here. The other was the idea of the feminine mystique, an idealization of women in which their only destiny was as wives and mothers, which I discuss here

While I was reading Friedan’s book, I had a sense of déjà vu, like “um, haven’t I seen this stuff before?” In writing the stories in Lessons, it hit me why the characters were so familiar to me. It’s because the idea of the feminine mystique reminded me of the idea of the separate spheres I discussed a while back in this blog post. You might recall this concept (which originated in the 18th century but gained ground in the 19th century) was about women and men belonging in separate areas of life: men in the public sphere (politics, finance, law, etc) and women in the private sphere (home, church). The idea was that each gender fulfilled his/her destiny within that limited sphere and any man or woman venturing into the other’s sphere was considered improper at best, an abnormality at worst (like the New Woman caricatures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where women were pictured in bloomers, smoking cigarettes, and standing over their poor, overworked husbands while the men washed the dishes wearing aprons). 

Similarly, women of the 1950s, especially American suburban housewives were told by everyone and everything around them that their one identity in life was as an ultra-feminine wife and mother and their place was in the home. But, like their Victorian sisters, they felt uneasy about this and that something was wrong with this picture. Friedan, who compares the  the 1950s housewife and the feminine mystique to the Victorian woman and sex, notes: 

“The image of a good woman by which Victorian ladies lived simply left out sex. Does the image by which modern American women live also leave something out, the proud and public image of the high-school girl going steady, the college girl in love, the suburban housewife with an up-and-coming husband and a station wagon full of children?” (Friedan, p. 24)

It is, in fact, what the ideal left out that encouraged the women’s suffragist movement to gain more support in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eventually leading to legislative changes, specifically, the ratification of the 19th amendment in America in 1920. It was also partly Friedan’s ideas about the feminine mystique and The Problem That Has No Name that led to the second-wave women’s movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, sparked by slogan “the personal is political” which completely overturned the concept of the separate spheres by insisting there were in fact no separate spheres. Both were equal in weight for both genders.

Some of the women in the stories from Lessons have to contend with not only the feminine mystique and The Problem That Has No Name, but also with the antiquated idea of the separate spheres. For example, in “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan’s husband-to-be, a medical student, teases her about her desire to see “something cultural” during a weekend visit to San Francisco. Culture was considered the public sphere in the 19th century and Susan’s attempts to enter it earn her well-meaning fiancé’s doubt and mockery nearly one hundred years later. 

To read more about Susan and the other women in the stories, you can buy Lessons From My Mother’s Life at a special preorder price here. If you’d like to read more about another character, Leanne, you can read this blog post.        

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Era of “Occupation: Housewife”

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Photo Credit: 1950s happy housewife in the kitchen cooking, uploaded 24 May 2011 by Ethan: SportSuburban/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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.

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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