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Social Status of Housewives During the 1950s

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In this essay, I will be exploring what factors affected the social status for the ‘ideal housewives’ in the 1950s. I will be considering the working woman, housing situations, comparing the US to the UK housewife, education and also the evolution of academic thought on the status and importance of housewives and women in society. These factors will enable me to make a clear judgement on the social status of housewives and therefore I will be able to analyze, which of these factors had the largest effect on how they were viewed and how they compared to others in society. Housewives in this time were seen by many to possess a lower social status as their contribution towards society was not necessarily recognized as much as it should have by the general public. This leads to the belief that the 1950s was a hard time for housewives and indeed women across the globe and not just in the United Kingdom and the United States. However, from my research that I will present in this essay, the social status of housewives became higher because key intellectuals started to recognize their contribution to the wider community and also gave legitimacy to a social group that could be seen as being devoid of respect.

During this period, women had the expectation and responsibility of being the primary caregivers, along with maintaining the household using housekeeping and home management skills such as cooking, cleaning and childcare. Housewives were thought of as the backbone of the household and this was seen as their contribution to a fundamentally patriarchal society. Women were often stereotyped and therefore confined to the household. Anything and everything they did must have been approved of by the man of the house, or in accordance to his happiness and preference. This idea could have stemmed from the notion that women were seen as second class citizens, thus empowering men and integrating the expectations of the ‘ideal woman’ within society. Herbert Hoggart was a British literaturist and sociologist who is prolific when looking at studies of British popular culture. Within these studies he mentioned that the mother “was the pivot of the house … she, more than the father holds the family together” (Hoggart, 1957: 37-44), the subtext was that such women were also the pivot of the ‘traditional’ working class identity. This view gives a more favourable representation of how housewives were viewed by intellectuals in society, especially when saying that women were more important than men in the household context. Of course, from using our contextual knowledge of this period, this is not always the view of the general public and that housewives were still very much restricted. Although housewives may have been viewed as important in the household, their contribution towards society was not as prolific as men due to their very nature and their lack of influence on the wider community.

Furthermore, women were legally defined as property, otherwise known as a ‘chattel’. This meant that from birth women were owned by their father and were ‘given away’ at marriage to the husband and so they became the husbands property and responsibility, which again reinforces the idea that men held ownership over them. Women were considered to be predominantly sexual objects with one of their key responsibilities being to reproduce and create offspring. There was therefore a dependency on their male counterparts. The ideal woman was seen as “the quintessential white, middle-class housewife who stayed at home to rear children, clean the house and bake cookies” (Meyerowitz,1944). This statement somewhat reinforces the ideals that were assigned to women in this post-war era. Betty Freidan was perhaps the first to identify the concept of the ‘ideal woman’. Within her book ‘The Feminine Mystique’, Frieden can be quoted as saying “women could find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love. It denied women a career or any commitment outside the home and narrowed women’s world down to the home, cut her role back to the housewife” (Freidan, 1963). Again, this gives the impression that women were somewhat limited because of preconceived ideas about what they were capable of and also how they functioned, combined with certain biological predispositions. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that these views are false, but these were commonly held views of the time, and therefore we can analyze, that women, more specifically housewives, were in fact limited in their social status because of misled preconceptions and deeply sexist views.

During the post-war era in the United States of America some of the population started to leave the cities and moved to the newly developed suburbs. The suburban life would have been seen as tempting, peaceful and the perfect place to raise a family, especially after a time of such uncertainty and instability. The suburbs had a sense of community, mutual help and support for housewives. Carol Freeman recalls the community of women in her suburb near San Diego: “It was a warm, boring, completely child-centered little culture. We sat around in each other`s kitchens and backyards and drank a lot of coffee and smoked a million cigarettes and talked about out children. There was some competition, yes, but mostly we were young mothers and we were learning from each other`s children, too, so that we were able to get away some” (Brett Harvey, 2002: 116). However, being a housewife often left women unsatisfied and lonely, sometimes even being diagnosed with ‘housewife syndrome’. Housewife syndrome became a diagnosis in both the UK and US, as doctors found that housewives were complaining about symptoms of fatigue and unhappiness and they wanted to categorize them. This led to womens’ magazines developing articles called ‘Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped’ or ‘The Mother Who Ran Away’. These articles were to start to raise awareness of the ‘afflictions’ that housewives were experiencing in their every-day lives, hence prompting other female writers such as Betty Frieden to inspire second-wave feminism. The notion of second-wave feminism was to create a more equal social platform for women and to break down the idea that only women could be the primary caregivers and that they had much more to offer society than previously thought. Women started to recognize that they were more than just property and that they should be entitled to a higher status than just an object of property for men to preside over.

The post-war labor shortage meant that the 1945 Labor government had to persuade women to work (Susan Carruthers, 1990: 247-54). During this time women were encouraged to work in the industrial factories to help with the war effort. Women still worked at home alongside their part time employment. During this time, women discovered that they were ‘able’ to carry out these duties usually seen as a man’s job and feel a sense of fulfillment and achievement. When men returned home from the war, women were then encouraged by the government to give up working and return home in the UK. A major factor that contributed towards the idea of ‘housewife syndrome’ was that it was post Second World War and when the men who had fought in the war did come home, they were seen to be the breadwinner and ‘brought home the bacon’ to the household rather than the woman. “Any change in the nature of the female roles thus automatically affects the home, the economy, the school, and perhaps the definition of who we are as human beings” (Chafe, 2007: 224). This view suggests that actually housewives did indeed have a more profound effect on society and therefore were more important than previously thought. A few weeks before the war ended a survey was conducted in 228 factories by the A.E.U and showed that two thirds of women intended to stay working if they could, post-war. In 1947, the number of working women in gainful employment was 18%, but this number rose to 33% by 1957. This was said to be because women felt more purpose with part time work and also had more disposable income to spend on things they desired and also for the household to improve efficiency in their day-to-day tasks. This is supported by a survey overseen by Rowntree and Lavers ‘Poverty and the Welfare State’, which discovered that working class wives who worked were better-off in terms of their well-being and also their entire household income. During the survey the women were asked why they worked and most of them admitted that it was “in order to buy things they wanted (as opposed to needed) and also for the pleasure of meeting other people instead of being cooped up in their homes all day” (Ruth Adams, 1975: 177).

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According to the 1949 Royal Commission on Population, between 1900 and 1950, the birth rate in Britain dropped from 28.2 births per thousand to 16.2, showing that women were taking on more external responsibilities in the workplace and paid employment. The drop was seen to be ‘deliberate’, especially with the encouragement of the use of and acceptance of contraception within society. The number of family planning clinics expanded from 61 in 1938 to 400 in 1963. In 1958, the Church of England began to accept family planning within the Christian marriage ‘rules’ which further encouraged the use of them. Working class women of the 1950s mainly used contraception as a defence against unwanted pregnancies and therefore economic insecurities and instability within the household. “People do not want large families and large families are firmly associated in their minds with poverty, hardship and the lowering of standards” (Eliot Slater and Maya Woodside, 1951: 151). Having contraception readily available increased the sexual independence and professional career options of women. The contraception pill was available from approximately the late 1950s, which encouraged women to take control of their sexual independence, giving them an opportunity to start to have a choice in their reproductive life and therefore not having pure dependence on men.

Judie Hubback, a British analytical psychologist and sociologist noted that graduate wives had more children than non-graduates, during her private survey ‘Wives who went to College’. “The average fertility of those, who obtained first class degrees in distinctly higher than that of women with other classes of degrees. It does look as if higher education had not led them to restrict their families as other women of approximately the same social class and income. On the contrary, higher education seems to be associated with higher fertility” (Judith Hubback, 1957). Although modern thought is that of educated people may actually have less children, these finding is obviously contradictory and is interesting when analyzing the correlation between education and number of children. However, with the benefit of modern science and biological studies, to suggest that intellect is linked with higher fertility is clearly false. Academic ability and fertility have no clear scientific link and that perhaps educated women were better informed about childcare and had the resources to raise children and therefore ad more children rather than just being ‘more fertile’. When further scrutinizing this statement, larger families were linked with financial strain and instability and therefore more with the lower classes, thus suggesting that actually this was not the case and that higher educated, and therefore higher status women were having bigger families and perhaps contributing more to society. Moreover in 1908, the famous neurologist and father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud theorized the idea known as ‘On the Sexual Theories of Children’. This contained the theory that is broadly referred to as ‘Penis Envy’. This is thought to be during a girls certain stage of development, she experiences anxieties upon the realization that she does not have a penis, and therefore strives to compensate by attempting to be equal with men. The anxieties manifest within the psyche of the girl and are transformed into the wish for a man, and sometimes a baby. Although this a theory that was surmised in the early 1900s, it still resonated through to the early 1950s. Freud was famous for oversimplifying and sexualizing the human mind and therefore promoting the idea that women were not much more than sexual objects and much of their decision making was predetermined by certain stages of development. The desire to have a child for a girl was theorized by Freud as a girl being jealous because she did not possess a penis. This again reinforces the patriarchal nature of the time and fed into many more theories on female dependence on men and therefore not having the capacity to do anything other than domestic tasks and provide children for their husbands. This theory provided by Freud is of course very outdated but shows the attitude towards women and therefore can be seen as lowering not just their social status but also somewhat degrading them as human beings. Both of these studies are too simplistic and try and make tenuous links between certain traits and biological facts. They are, however, useful when analyzing the attitudes towards women and housewives and show that they still were subjugated to specific stereotypes.

In May 1950, there was an advertisement in Modern Woman magazine. It is clear that the Сaucasian woman is seen to be carrying out tasks of the housewife; dressing, bathing, feeding, taking care of the children and welcoming guests into her home which were all seen duties of the ‘ideal housewife’. Each illustration is laid out in a timeline of the woman’s day, showing that whatever the activity entails the clothing will remain un-creased and tidy. Her hair is neatly groomed and she seems confident and happy in her actions, the color of her well-dressed outfit is also reflecting her confidence. She is dressed ‘prim and proper’ which links to the text of the advertisement, “look well-groomed always”. The font is clean, tidy and easily legible which links also to the well-kept woman’s style. The bold font ‘tested’ evokes a sense of trust within the brand to customer which is what they are aiming to achieve. The font used for the word ‘Tebilized’ is very straight, linear, which relates to the uncreased, precise, well ironed lines of the clothing. The use of light blue throughout the advertisement reflects traditional values. Royal blue is usually seen as a masculine color, which is why the woman wearing the color reflects confidence and strength. Green is usually used to evoke emotions of health, wealth and harmony which the ideal woman would strive to achieve within her family life.

Another example, the hit TV show in the 1950s, ‘I Love Lucy’. This TV show is in itself a very interesting analyses point due to the fact that it is about a struggling housewife who is unable to establish an external working life and therefore reverts to a life of household management. The actress that plays Lucy, Lucille Ball, was a very successful actress, and therefore contradicts the very storyline she portrays. Lucy is wearing a chequered shirt and a skirt, her hair is done up, out of her face, perfect for the busy housewife that will be doing chores around the house. Within this picture, the characters are talking about the money they have found and what to do with it. Lucy looks somewhat shocked and does not know quite what to do, whilst the male counterpart looks as though he is delivering a proposition to her and is the one with the ideas. It also shows the husband handling the money, which could suggest that the husband is the one with the fiscal responsibility rather than the wife, which again reinforces a stereotype of the period.

To conclude, it is clear from the evidence provided that housewives in the 1950s had a certain set of responsibilities and preconceived ideas about what they were expected to do. This can be supported by the advertisement and photograph that I chose to analyze because they show a specific but widely approved stereotype of what the ideal housewife should be in the 1950s. For instance, the advertisement shows a pristine woman that is unphased by her busy schedule, and so her clothes are too with the help of the product on sale. ‘I Love Lucy’ is also a prime example of stereotyping in society, especially in this photograph where the man is handling the money, suggesting that the male part of the household should be the one to deal with money as women did not necessarily possess the understanding of money management. In a patriarchal society, women were looked down upon and therefore their social status was degraded because of this. I have used these certain academic sources both in my research and my analysis to elaborate upon my argument and also support the idea that the social status of housewives was affected by both academics and also by promotion through research and advertising. Sociologists and intellectuals such as Betty Frieden and Herbert Hoggart started to recognize the social contribution that women, and most importantly housewives, provided and that inspired and developed the movement of second-wave feminism. Although it comes as no particular surprise to me that housewives, and indeed women were viewed in this way during this period of time, I was surprised to find the recognition that a lot of academics have given to how important they are as a social group and their contribution to society. Though housewives did have a perceived lower social status, they contributed towards society so heavily that their social status started to benefit, and with the provision of the relevant statistics we can see that women started to be accepted in the workspace and also housewives were respected more in society as the 1950s went on. Women in general started to have the recognition they deserved when it came to their overall contribution in a social context and this boosted the status of not just housewives, but also working women as well.

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Social Status of Housewives During the 1950s. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/social-status-of-housewives-during-the-1950s/
“Social Status of Housewives During the 1950s.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/social-status-of-housewives-during-the-1950s/
Social Status of Housewives During the 1950s. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/social-status-of-housewives-during-the-1950s/> [Accessed 5 Feb. 2023].
Social Status of Housewives During the 1950s [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2023 Feb 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/social-status-of-housewives-during-the-1950s/
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