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Reconstructing Suzy Homemaker

Discussion in 'The Home Front Woman' started by MrsH, Jul 1, 2012.

  1. Angus Forbes

    Angus Forbes One of the Regulars

    ^^ This was my experience, too.
  2. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    In case the above is not clear, my issue is with the way the past is presented in the media - often slanted for a certain agenda, or written by people who don't know what they are talking about.

    If I offended you, I apologize. That was not my intention at all.
  3. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    This brings up another easy-to-overlook factor and that is the sheer number of children running around in the fifties. This was after all the baby boom generation. Every house seemed to have 2, 3 or more children in it. When we went out to play we were never alone, there was always some kind of group. If anyone got hurt or in trouble it took only a minute to run to the nearest house and get someone's mom.

    Today with all the moms away at work and an average of less than one child per marriage, and a lot less married couples, no wonder suburban streets look deserted. Maybe it's not such a bad idea to keep the kids inside, out there it is a lot lonelier than it used to be.
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2012
  4. Previous to the 1950s, many people in the US lived on farms, nearly a third of the population during the early 1930s. (That's compared to less than 2% today in the US.) On a farm, there is a lot of work, and when it comes to certain tasks, they just have to get done. Prior to the 1950s, there was gender based work, but it was not as strongly divided as it was portrayed in the 1950s. Men helped with the washing. Women helped with the milking. They had to. Although you had 2/3 of the U.S. population living in cities and towns (not on farms), the farming sector was a large enough part of society to influence the general culture.

    Then you get the 1950's, a period (in the U.S. at least), where you had a generation of returning soldiers that needed jobs and a generation of women who had realized they could do just about every job men could do because they had done them. Young unemployed men are restless. Part of what fueled companies (and government's) desire to portray the "magical housewife" was to put the women in their place: out of the workforce. Combined with fewer home-based or family-run businesses, this meant that women were more and more removed from the workplace, especially in traditional male jobs. (Its important to note that because of the baby boom, women, particularly married women with children, made significant strides in keeping their nursing and school teaching jobs, just because there were so many children.)

    Then you get these companies pushing products and labor saving devices. So suddenly it was not good enough to clean your home once a year with the whole family pitching in (where the term "spring cleaning" comes from), but you have to do it every week. Which of course, your husband can't help with because he's got a commute and a full time job. Suddenly your clothes have to be clean everyday and you have to iron your sheets.* And all sorts of stuff that companies pushed to give women more busy work- which, of course, keeps the women from getting restless. Or so they thought.

    What I'm getting at is that the image of the 1950's housewife was carefully calculated and constructed to be impossible to meet. I strongly believe that a segment of society was extremely fearful of the women's liberation movement that started with the suffrage movement. The sad thing is that they won enough that many people think that all women back then were that image.

    (*Note: There is nothing wrong with cleaning your home every week, wearing clean clothes everyday, or ironing your sheets or even wanting to do these things. There is something wrong with making women feel inadequate as people if they don't have a spotless house or ironed sheets.)
  5. RE: the car thing, my grandmother (who was very much a 1950's housewife) would drive my grandfather into work once a week, do the grocery shopping and other shopping (back then, it meant multiple stores) and then pick my grandfather up from work at the end of the day. My grandmother drove most of her life. (They lived in a rural area with no public transportation).

    The U.S. Baby Boom (roughly 1947-1964) is defined as the period of time when the birthrate for women of child bearing age was at or above 3.0 children. Before that time I believe it was below 2.5. You had two generations of women (the WWII generation and the generation which came to age after the war) caught up in "baby hysteria." So lots and lots of babies.
  6. Angus Forbes

    Angus Forbes One of the Regulars

    For what it's worth I would like to offer another opinion about women being pushed out of the workplace after WWII in order to make way for men returning from the war. Just about everybody was glad that the war was over, and that the men had come home safely at last (at least most of the men in the USA). Many of the jobs vacated by women were just not all that much fun anyway -- working a punch press, light assembly, riveting parts together, packaging and shipping, and the like. Mostly, for people working at that level, jobs were a crock and a pain then, just as they are now. All that I am saying is that a lot of the women that I knew were happy to be out of the workforce, and had never bought into the myth of "the magical workplace" as the holy grail of human existence.
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2012
  7. There was a sharp division between middle-class and working-class women during the postwar era. Working-class women had worked long before the war, and they continued to work after -- the Suzy Homemakerification of culture had a lot less to do with them than it did with the middle-class. Many of these women had worked in manufacturing long before the war -- the entire electronics industry, for example, was dominated by women on the assembly lines, as were the textile trades. Here in Maine, the fish canneries were always staffed by a predominantly-female workforce. None of this changed after the war.

    Last edited: Jul 4, 2012
  8. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    I disagree with the idea that there was some kind of campaign to keep women out of the work force in the fifties. Quite the opposite. Women working in factories and other traditional male jobs was commonplace during the war years. Once the war was over women quit these jobs with a sigh of relief and got married. Same as after WW1.

    What was different was that in the fifties women were encouraged to work after marriage. I know that among my older relatives, at that time, it was a disgrace if the wife worked. It meant the husband could not support his family and was most likely a drunk, a bum, or a cripple. Going to work, taking in washing, or renting out rooms to boarders were the last resort.

    In the fifties this all changed. Suddenly there were women executives and professionals, and the 2 income family was fortunate because they could afford the new tailfinned car, the new split level house, automatic washer and dryer, and all the other luxuries denied the old fashioned stick in the mud families.
  9. Again, this was all sharply divided along class lines. Women were very common in the manufacturing sector before, during and after the war. All that changed during the war is that *middle class* women went into industrial jobs.

    There were many female executives before the war as well. The broadcasting and advertising industries had a great many women in significant positions during the 1930s -- radio, especially, had a very significant female representation in the executive suite, and most of those women were married.
  10. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    There was kind of a drought of new families during the depression because a lot of people simply could not afford to get married, set up a home and have children. Then during the war years so many young men were overseas. When the war ended there was a boom in marriages followed by a baby boom. Millions of people wanted nothing more than for things to get back to normal and have a normal life.

    Then somehow during the sixties and seventies getting married and raising a family went out of fashion. So now the baby boom generation looks like some kind of anomaly where it can easily be explained by the social, economic and political forces of the times.
  11. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    Lizzie you are right as usual. I don't mean everybody thought or acted a certain way. Was just pointing out how some people thought and acted, perhaps I put it too strongly.
  12. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    I'm also leery of conspiracy theories in spite of being a conspiracy buff. I prefer to explain things as being the result of self interest, laziness, conformity, short sightedness and stupidity whenever possible.

    A lot of advertisers had something to gain by pushing their products by any means they could dream up. Advertising then made no more sense than it does now. You can read old magazines and watch old TV shows and it might seem they are all pushing a certain agenda. But it may be they are following the path of least resistance, basically chasing each others' tails instead of thinking up new ideas.

    There was a lot of criticism of advertising, conformity, suburbia and all the other shibboleths of the time. Look up "The Hidden Persuaders" "The Insolent Chariots" and numerous other works.
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2012
  13. This is one of the things Stephanie Koontz makes plain from hard statistics in "The Way We Never Were." Far from being a longstanding, graven-in-stone American cultural tradition, the hubby-goes-to-the-office, wifey-stays-home-and-bakes, 2.5 kids nuclear family was a relatively recent development -- and was never as all-dominant as popular imagery made it seem. Then as now, there were plenty of divergences from what the media sold to us as "the norm." I strongly recommend Koontz' book to anyone who wants to seriously understand the history of American family structure and womens' role in it.
  14. I'm willing to bet that a lot of people who cared to force the Suzy the Homemaker image for nefarious reasons (be they selling goods or strictly reinforcing gender roles) would say that they didn't consider women of color/working class women to be women or women "worth" forcing into the mold. (Although, if they could sell a few products I'm sure they wouldn't have minded, but heaven forbid they use a woman model who wasn't a middle class white.)
  15. The middle class had the money to spend -- why waste time targeting people who weren't able to indulge in conspicuous consumption? The Boys From Marketing have never believed in wasting time on the riff raff -- how often do you see a working-class family in *today's* ads?
  16. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    Maybe the people who were making the products and creating the advertising were themselves middle class consumers and just assumed that everyone else would respond to what they themselves liked. Marketing and consumer research were in their infancy.
  17. The "image" and what it meant to be working class is vastly different today than it was in the 1950s. Back in the 1950s being working class was closer to being what "middle middle" class is today: you could afford to go to the doctor if you really got sick, you could put food on the table, you might even own a home or a small business, etc. Now being working class means that you're living in poverty for the most part, qualifying for a few governmental benefits but missing the mark for those that would substantially improve your lifestyle and health. That's one of the reasons why the working class is increasingly called the working poor- the only thing that differentiates working poor from non-working poor is if they hold a job or not. Being "middle class" (truly middle class, not upper middle class or anything like that) means that you can afford to pay all your bills in today's society. The upper class hasn't changed at all; some of their faces have changed, but they still hold an ever increasing portion of wealth.

    I'd pretty much argue that most of the families shown on TV and advertising are actually upper middle class. I've rarely seen a movie or TV show that actually shows a home that a true middle class individual could afford to live in, much less own. And if the marker of middle class is being able to afford your own home or apartment, then they are definitely not showing middle class individuals.
  18. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    ^^ You have a point. In the fifties the president of a manufacturing company typically made 7X what his (unionised) employees made. Today the CEO and top executives of a major bank can make 1000X what the typical worker makes.

    The factory worker of the fifties and sixties, had what would have been considered a middle class lifestyle before the war.
  19. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    In the sixties a unionised worker with a skilled trade, and some seniority, could own his own split level bungalow in the suburbs, drive a new car, have nice vacations and even a bass boat.
  20. I was born in 1949, my brother in 1942. We lived in Seal Beach California. We had a tiny 3 bedroom house on a block full of similar houses built after the war when there was a housing shortage. My father owned a dry cleaning store and my mother was a homemaker. When I was little we only had one car, so the whole family would go grocery shopping with my father driving. Later, my mother got her own car so she could do the shopping herself. The first year she smashed up an old wooden radio that was in our garage and accidently tore down the little stand that held the Green Stamps at a gas station. Everyone chuckled about "women drivers". She wore dresses pretty much all the time. Pants were only for working in the garden or maybe fishing. She carried gloves when I was really little but I don't recall any hats. Later the gloves were given up too. She said in Chicago hats and gloves were still "mandatory" but it was more relaxed in California.

    The bras back then separated your breasts. What company said "they lift and separate"? My mother tried to avoid showing any cleavage. She only wore powder and lipstick, though my aunts wore eye makeup. She gave herself home permanents. She did her own fingernails. She did not leave the house without girdle and stockings. She had an everyday girdle and a heavy duty one for more formal occaisions (they were very rare -weddings and such). It was really funny to watch her get into it! She wore house dresses at home, cheap cotton dresses usually colorful with a busy pattern (more practical to hide any spots). She made breakfast and packed our lunches. We ate lunch inside the classroom-no cafeteria. An older boy came around with a wooden box filled with milk at lunch time. We paid our milk money once a week I think.

    The Helm's bakery truck came to our street once a week , we always got doughnuts in summer-a big treat. We of course didn't see him when we were in school. He would park and lift the side of the truck to make an awning. All the trays were made of shiny wood and held fresh breads, cakes, doughnuts and cookies. It smelled wonderful.

    My mother spent the day cleaning and cooking We didn't have a dryer, so the wash was hauled out to the backyard in baskets and hung on the clothes line. Then everything was taken down and hauled back in. A lot of bending and carrying. She ironed everything! Sheets, undershirts, my father's cloth handkerchiefs, all the clothes. I know because in later years I had to do it and hated it. Sometimes there were good old movies on TV on Saturday and we would plan to iron when the movie was on. She loved the tear jerkers. Otherwise we weren't allowed to watch tv until after 4:30pm even in summer. There was only one tv and kids rarely got a vote. I was allowed to watch Roy Rogers every Sunday, but had to sit through "Face the Nation" with Walter Kronkite I think it was, which came on before it. It was soooo boring!

    Kids did not ever play inside unless they were sick. We were all literally thrown out of the house after breakfast, and only allowed back in for lunch and then we came in for dinner and stayed in on school nights, but stayed out til dark in summer. There were about 10-12 kids on most blocks so there was always someone to play with. We weren't allowed to leave our block without an adult or an older kid. In my parents' childhoods, every family had at least 6 kids so there would be about 100 kids on each block. They felt sorry for us only having 12 kids to play with, but always reminded us that the only toys they had was roller skates, plus my mom had a doll. When we caught the measles and mumps we took turns going to each other's houses, so that we all had it at once and got it over with, (and the mothers got a break!). We never ate fast food except on special occaisions such as being at Disneyland.

    I don't recall ever going to a restaurant until I was about 10. We weren't poor but my parents got married during the depression and did not waste money. My mother always wore an apron around the house. (but not pearls!) She would have every day aprons (cotton) and fancy aprons if people were coming to dinner (crisp organdy ones with little decorative pockets) The fancy aprons were recieved as gifts. She would talk to the neighbor ladies, but never played cards or drank coffee with them that I recall. She didn't play any sports. When I was about 7 she started helping out at my dad's store and my brother was in charge of me and dinner. He did ok taking care of me but at least once a week he'd forget to put dinner in the oven. So now I see that my mom got us off to school, worked at the store, prepared the next day's meal so that it only had to be put in the oven, washed dishes, did all her regular chores. Looking back I'm surprised she didn't have us do more, but she felt they were her jobs.

    But then as now, every family was a bit different. All the families on my block owned their own little businesses but one. In that family, the man was a grocery store manager, and his family got to go on vacations, none of the rest of us did. (one of the drawbacks of owning your own small business) That family did the traditional driving in the station wagon across country vacations. The rest of us were envious. My family never went on a vacation.

    I could obviously go on and on (uh, I think I did just go on and on didn't I!). Did you have any question I missed? I have photos I could post as well If you want.

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