The XX Factor

Housewives Didn’t Live in Bliss in the ’50s

The conservative argument for 1950s-style gender roles goes something like this: Under a system where men worked and women stayed at home, women were amply rewarded for sacrificing the financial and social rewards of working outside the home with devotion from their husbands and gratitude for their hard work as mothers and domestic artists. But as Stephanie Coontz demonstrated Sunday in the New York Times , this wasn’t so. In fact, the misogyny of the era was far more wholesale than that. Women were expected to stay home and look after children, and their reward for doing that was to be told that they were “vipers” who did a terrible job. There was no such thing as winning for women; you were a failure from the moment that the doctor said, “It’s a girl” to your mother, who was also considered a stifling, emasculating harpie who made her children neurotic. Housewives’ lives actually improved after feminism made work outside the home an option, because the leverage the option of work gives women means they can demand a little more appreciation for the work they do at home.

Coontz focuses on how women’s work as mothers was denigrated in the mid-20th century, but it’s also worth noting that housewives were also abused as incompetent at their other tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, and running errands. The narrative was less, “Women do this work because they’re better at it,” and more, “Women do this work because it’s beneath men’s greater abilities.” The bumbling husband who gets lost in the kitchen and has to be rescued by his hypercompetent wife is a modern advertising trope, but in the ‘50s and ‘60s, you were far more likely to see bumbling housewives rescued by products than women competently setting men straight on domestic chores. In advertising, women were failures in the kitchen , behind the wheel of a car , and in the bedroom . In one of my favorite examples, you see housewives portrayed as too stupid to even handle the basics of making a cup of coffee. Women were considered so exasperatingly stupid at everything-even jobs that were considered women’s work-that a favorite trope of the mid-century was showing men so fed up they took women over their knees and spanked them . In fact, the most popular sitcom of the era, I Love Lucy, was built around the struggles of a housewife whose stupidity keeps getting her into scraps, which resulted in lectures and yes, even spankings from her husband , who basically treated her like an overgrown child.

The notion that traditional roles constitute a bargain between men and women, where he gets one sphere of competence and she gets another, is simply historical revisionism in response to feminist pressure. The reality is that putting men in charge of women means nothing more than that men are in charge of women.