Defending June Cleaver

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Photo Credit: Photo of Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver) with Tony Dow (Wally Cleaver) and Jerry Mathers (Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver) from the television series Leave It to Beaver, 9 July 1959, ABC Television: We hope/Wikimedis Commons/PD US no notice

In light of my book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, that came out last week, I wanted to revisit one of the most iconic TV characters of the 1950s.

It recently came to my attention that, while the name June Cleaver conjures up very specific images in the minds of many Americans (of an older generation, especially), not everyone knows who June is. June was the mom on the family television show that aired between 1957 and 1963 called Leave It to Beaver. The show was about a typical American suburban family of the 1950s and encompassed all of the stereotypes we associate with the post-war nuclear family: a father who has a good job and is the undisputed “head of the family,” a mother who epitomizes the feminine mystique, and two smart, good-natured kids (in this case, two boys, the younger of which is nicknamed Beaver and forms the central character of the series). The show was a huge hit in the Occupation: Housewife era because it offered Americans who were recovering from the horrors of World War II exactly the kind of life they wanted — stable, family-oriented, and prosperous.

June Cleaver was exactly the kind of woman Betty Friedan would have considered the poster child for the feminine mystique (interestingly, Friedan never mentions June, though that may be because the show was still running at the time of the book’s publication). Her role in life is that of a housewife and mother and she has no desire do be anything beyond that. Her life revolves around her husband, two sons and her house, which is always immaculate and polished. She even presents the kind of 1950s housewife in the advertisements, complete with high heels and pearls, which she wears even when she’s doing housework.

But, just as with many television and film characters, there is more to June than meets the eye. One of the most interesting scenes of Beaver finds June arguing against the rather myopic opinions of her young son, Beaver, about women and intelligence. The scene is fascinating because Beaver, probably about eleven or twelve here, brings forth some of the views in the 1950s that Friedan outlines in her book, The Feminine Mystique: that intelligence for women wasn’t an issue because they only had to get married and have families, and if they did work, they had “jobs” (and highly feminized ones at that) and not “careers.” June counters this by reminding Beaver that, nowadays, women can have careers and their intelligence is as good as any man’s. It’s significant that the episode aired in 1960, when women were beginning to wake up to the fact that the post-war image of the feminine mystique might not be serving them well as individuals.

Photo Credit: Photo of Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont as June and Ward Cleaver from the television series Leave it to Beaver, 15 September 1958, ABC Television: Crakkerjakk/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice  

June also was a match for her husband, Ward. If June was the poster child for the 1950s woman, Ward epitomized a lot of what American men were expected to be after World War II: ambitious, strong-willed, and forceful. He’s in no way a bully but let’s just say, we know where The Beaver got his opinion of women in the previously mentioned episode, as this clip tells us. Although June defers to Ward in most important decisions in the show, she doesn’t do so meekly. She has her own opinions and voices them.

And just a word about June’s pearls and high heels. These things were part of what made June Cleaver an icon and also won the character a lot of criticism from the second wave feminist movement, because, they reasoned, women were not dolls to be on display all the time. But, as Barbara Billingsly, the actress who played June, points out here, there were actually very practical reasons for both the pearls and heels. She wore the necklace to hide a hollow in her neck that was causing an unseemly shadow on film, and the high heels were because, throughout the six years Beaver aired, both actor Jerry Mathers (who played The Beaver) and Tony Dow (who played older brother Wally) grew, as boys do, and both became quite tall. So she had to wear the heels to keep up with their growth spurts!

You can check out more about how women lived in post-World War II America in my new book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, here.       

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The Problem That Has No Name

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Photo Credit: Silhouette of woman’s face in a question mark, uploaded 9 February 2019 by Mohamad Hassan: mohammad hassan/Pxhere/CC0 1.0

This month, I’ve been talking a lot about Betty Friedan and her book, The Feminine Mystique, because the ideas in that book were an inspiration for the stories in the new edition of my first book Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. How that came to be, I go into in the Forward of that book.     

I was first exposed to Friedan and her ideas in graduate school. I took several courses in feminist theory and feminist literature, and one of our textbooks gave a snippet from Friedan’s book. The passage was one that appears in a lot of college materials on feminist theory: The Problem That Has No Name. 

This might seem like a convoluted and abstract idea but, in fact, Fridan breaks it down into an entire chapter in her book. Writing articles for women’s magazines in the 1950s, Friedan had an opportunity to visit with many suburban housewives, and her talks with them revealed how these women, who were supposed to be living the American Woman’s Dream had, in fact, a problem — a big problem. Their lives weren’t such a dream. In fact, each woman felt “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that … [she] struggled with … alone” (Friedan, p. 1). In other words, many of the suburban housewives Friedan met expressed the same uncertain feeling that something wasn’t quite right with their lives, that, though they were living in comfort and ease, something was missing, and that missing something caused them to be unhappy, dissatisfied, and unfulfilled.

That snippet during my graduate studies made an impression on me, and I have since read Friedan’s book. I’ve been impressed by how comprehensively she looks at the way in which so many American institutions (including magazines, schools, advertisers, and the medical establishment) had created such a powerful ideology about what women should be and their road to happiness in mid-20th century America.

The key to Friedan’s feminine mystique was that it wasn’t just about the stereotype of the 1950’s happy housewife embodied in 1950’s television shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. It wasn’t just about an ideal of what all women, young and old, should strive for. It was about the mind play, the idea that a woman’s destiny to serve others (husband, children, community) should be her purpose in life, and if she did achieve this goal, she would find contentment. 

But as Friedan discovered, many of these women who, for intents and purposes, should have been happy, weren’t. And they felt guilty about it. They felt they let their families down, and they felt there was something wrong with them. They tried to blot out the problem by immersing themselves in more housework or more committees or by taking sedatives. They shifted the blame sometimes to their husbands or their children or some other outside source. Worst of all, many tried to ignore it. In short, they did everything but deal with it. 

This is, in fact, a part of how the second wave feminist movement began. It started with the feminist “consciousness raising” groups. The idea was to encourage women to discuss problems and issues related to women by connecting them to their own lives, so that they felt not only that they weren’t alone, but that they could also seek guidance together. There is a great consciousness-raising scene in the 1975 film version of The Stepford Wives, a dark comedy about the suburban housewife. Despite its tongue-in-cheek reference to this idea of women getting together to discuss their problems, the scene contains a lot of truth, especially in the way it depicts the suburban housewife’s narrow world. I talk a lot about this in my blog post about the 1950s housewife as well.

The women in Lessons From My Mother’s Life live in the 1950s and early 1960s and are subject to this same kind of snow job about how their lives should make them happy and fulfilled. But they each come to realize they suffer from The Problem That Has No Name. They come to see their lives, for all the glossy veneer, isn’t what the women’s magazines, advertisers, doctors, and psychiatrists tell them it ought to be. They don’t wait for the women’s movement to raise their awareness and give them options. They examine their own psychological reality and make their own options.

If you’d like to know more about Lessons From My Mother’s Life, coming out in March 2020, then you can click on this link.     

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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