How to Be a Good Wife
(According to a May 13, 1955 article in Housekeeping Monthly) ©
According to the article, it seems pretty straightforward. All one has to do in order to be considered a “good” little wifey is:
-Spend an eternity planning so as to have a gourmet dinner on the table when the king of t he house arrives from work (that’s assuming he even HAS a job to go to):
-Rest, so as to be “refreshed” when he arrives (but in all seriousness, how does one rest while marinating meats and chopping vegetables and baking something for dessert all day?);
-Be “gay and interesting” (because a gourmet dinner isn’t enough, he apparently requires a damn floor show, too);
-Clear away the clutter (because god forbid the house look like anyone actually LIVES in it); for his arrival;
-Prepare and light a fire (because he apparently works hard enough to afford to put you in a mansion with a fireplace);
-Prepare the children (good luck with that, you won’t manage to cook, clean the house, rest and be fresh, and have some entertainment prepared for him AND chase toddlers around the house to get them washed and dressed, you could maybe do ONE of those things, but not all);
-Be happy to see him (well, I suppose if he came straight home without stopping at a bar or a strip club or other place that’s going to cost us money we don’t need to spend, I would be happy to see him);
-Show him you desire to please him (because his secretary, intern, and four assistants at work haven’t all been waiting on him hand & foot all day);
-Listen to him (because he just LOVES the sound of his own voice, and you should, too);
-Make the evening his (because he thinks EVERYTHING is his).
It’s easy to laugh at this preposterous list in 2022, and to insist that we’re modern women, and as such, we’ve moved past such rigid patriarchal nonsense.
And we ARE modern women, most of us working full time and/or going to school while raising a family. But we haven’t moved past this patriarchal nonsense, at least not to the point we’d like to think we have.
This article was printed in 1955. My own mother was almost ten years old when it was printed. I don’t know that she read it, and I’m inclined to think not. My grandmother came here in 1937, wore traditional Italian black her entire life (yes, even in Brooklyn, NY), and was unable to read at all, so it’s unlikely she bought a women’s magazine. Nevertheless, this idea of 1950s American housewifery (and that’s all it is, by the way, an IDEA, nobody’s life was actually the way the article insisted it ought to be) was held up as the ideal, was what my mother, and other women of her generation, were told they should be. And if they were anything less than what they were told they should be, well then, they had failed.
My mother didn’t wear traditional Italian black and cook all day like grandmother. No, Mommy had been to “secretarial school”, and she wore those 1980s suits with the enormous shoulder pads. She looked like some demented linebacker in those suits, and I never understood why she needed such monstrous shoulder pads in her clothes to types things and answer phones. She worked full time, at various secretarial jobs over the years.
My father worked full time as well. He taught biology. They both worked full time. And because my father taught high school, he was home in the afternoons. Which meant that he could have made like a fifties housewife and had dinner on the table when she came home. But of course he didn’t.
Mother worked all day and then came home to cook dinner, clean the kitchen, help with homework, and get me and my sisters bathed and into bed. While father came home and sat himself in front of the TV. On Saturdays, she got up at the crack of dawn and cleaned the whole house. Sundays she made full Italian Sunday dinner, which means she was cooking all damn day. Because “housework” was and still is very much a woman’s job.
The funny thing is my mother took absolutely no enjoyment in the cooking, cleaning, washing, or any of it. In fact, she actively disliked it. Every night she would tell us how she hated to cook, but she did it for us (us being me and my sisters). I don’t think mother wanted to have children in the first place. My parents married in September 1971, and I (the eldest) wasn’t born until July of ‘77. Mother would often tell the story of how the gynecologist insisted she was barren when she failed to conceive immediately after marriage, and then, nearly six years later, she was shocked to go back and find out she was five months pregnant...she claimed to have thought, at the ripe old age of 32, that she was going through menopause, when in fact she was pregnant with yours truly. I’m here, so obviously she kept me...too Catholic for abortion.
She kept me, but she went back to work less than a week after my birth...ask her about that and she’ll tell you she “couldn’t stay home and do nothing”, that she missed the hustle and bustle of her work. And she had both my sisters (who are NOT twins) before my fifth birthday. So there she was, pulling double duty, so to speak...working full time and being a full time “housewife” who cooked, cleaned, raised children. While my father worked from nine AM to three PM, came home, and watched TV until he fell asleep in front of TV.
Not only did father not help with the housework, he would often point out that mother was...well, not good at any of it. she would burn dinner and he’d make a comment about how she didn’t know how to cook, because her mother (a good little wifey) did everything...and it’s true, grandmother never left the house, all she did was cook, clean, and wait on grandfather like a geisha. Which meant that mother wasn’t expected to do any of that while living at home. Father would say that while living with her parents, mother would behave “like a man”, would sit down to eat without preparing anything, that she didn’t learn her place as a woman, and having not learnt her place, was unwilling to accept it as an adult.
Because it’s not just the women of my mother’s generation who grew up with the ideal of the fifties housewife held up as a shining example, it’s the men, too. Father married a woman who worked full time (and made more than he did), and yet he was angry because she didn’t wait on him the way his mother waited on his father. My uncles married women who were better-educated and made more than they did, but threw temper tantrums when those women wouldn’t move fast enough to pour their wine.
Father is a “fifties guy” who liked things the way they were back then. He thought mother to have been aping male behavior when she lived at home and didn’t help her mother with the housework, because he thinks it’s perfectly acceptable male behavior to not help with the housework. Mother actively dislikes housework and childcare, and yet, she taught the three of us (all female children) that no matter how educated we became (and we all three have graduate degrees, all three have careers), the business of housework would be our “other” job, whether we liked it or no. That to live on, and (god forbid) feed one’s family takeout, and/or hire someone to clean the house, is to have failed as a woman.
So you see, we haven’t moved past that idea of the “fifties housewife” being held up as the shining example. I’d love to say that old idea will die with my parents’ generation, but it won’t.
My sister is better-educated, works longer hours, and earns DOUBLE what her husband does, and yet she’s the only one in that house driving carpool, cooking dinner, cleaning the house on Saturdays...her husband doesn’t watch TV, he goes on his little golf weekends. My sister’s eldest child, my niece, wants to be a “mom” when she grows up, wants to drive carpool, cook, clean the house, and do “activities” with the children and she seems to think suburban motherhood is the only career available to women. She knows mommy has an “office job” somewhere, but thinks it’s perfectly normal that mom does housework and dad golfs. I’m unmarried, and childless, and my niece very often asks me what I do all day...she doesn’t understand how I manage to fill my days without a husband and children to cook and clean for. I work full time, of course, and I do keep my house (I’m the only one living here, so I do the cooking and the cleaning), and I’m quite busy, in fact...no husband and no children doesn’t automatically mean I sit and twiddle my thumbs all day everyday. I have things to do. The things I do just don’t happen to fall within that ideal of 1950s womanhood...an idea that’s alive and kicking, and actively being passed down to the next generation (my niece and others in her age group).
So no, we’re not the modern women we like to think we are, and no, we haven’t moved past the patriarchal nonsense.
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