Women of the Fifties: Were They All Unambitious?

Sarah Glazer looks back at her own memories of the fifties

As a child of the 1950s whose family didn’t own a TV, I loved watching cowboy westerns whenever I visited the home of my male cousins. But as soon as Leave it to Beaver came on--a popular comedy about an idealized suburban family--my cousin switched channels. His mother had declared that we were NOT ALLOWED to watch that program.

Even at the age of 8, I saw the irony of the prohibition.  Shoot 'em up westerns were appropriate children’s fare, but an anodyne sit-com like Leave it to Beaver was not? At the same time, I instinctively grasped the reason: Beaver’s mother, June Cleaver, was a lovely housewife who mainly stood around in an apron and seemed to have lots of time to read magazines on the couch.

She was totally different from our mothers. My mother was a writer; she would emerge from her typewriter looking tense, having smoked a rare cigarette to calm her nerves. My aunt was getting a PhD in archaeology in an era when women were having a hard time breaking into that field. My cousins spent much of the summer parked at our house while their mother was off digging excavation holes in the hot Mexican sun.

So what was the true life of women in the 1950s? Was it the housewife in the apron who wanted nothing more than to care for a husband and her children? Or were the '50s a time when women were starting to have careers?

This question came up recently at our Salon for women writers in London, where our guest speaker was journalist Rachel Cooke, author of Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties—a book profiling women who had important careers in England during that era.

As Cooke observes, Mad Men has given us a '50s image of a “compliant, smiling creature who knows little or nothing of sex, and stands no chance of getting to the top of advertising or any other career.”

But fifties women weren’t all unambitious, prudish or obsessed with baking, Cooke points out. Women comprised 30 percent of Britain’s workforce in 1956. And the British women profiled by Cooke achieved prominence against all odds, including lawyer Rose Heilbron and archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes.

At the same time, women faced enormous obstacles. In England at the time, a woman could not take out a mortgage in her own name. She had to produce a marriage certificate in order to be fitted for a diaphragm.

Virginia Nicholson, author of Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in the Second World War, pointed out that the deprivation of the war years in England meant that women—and men—yearned for domesticity and felt a nostalgia for the period between the world wars when families had not yet been sundered by battlefields and death.

I was struck by how important that yearning was upon reading President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous 1953 speech on the “Chance for Peace,” warning of the dangers of a growing arms race with the Soviet Union. In the victory shared by Americans and Russians at the end of World War II, Ike spoke of “all these war-weary people” who shared a common goal for the post-war period: “the only fitting monument--an age of peace.”

The Nazi horrors perpetuated against my Polish Jewish cousins were yet another reason to be focused on having babies. For young Jewish women who had survived the near-death experience of the camps, the big question after the war was whether their bodies had been so damaged by starvation and abuse that they would be unable to bear children.

My mother told me how our Jewish camp survivor cousins, upon arriving in New York City, had reprimanded her newfound taste for modern, natural wood furniture. Eating off a bare wood table? There should be a TABLECLOTH and a BOWL OF FRUIT as a centerpiece!

These symbols of domesticity were the true hallmarks of civilization in their eyes. And indeed what could be a more triumphant answer to Hitler’s plan of Jewish extermination than to produce a healthy family that would live on, with tablecloths yet, producing future generations?

At my Salon the other evening, the discussion of fifties women quickly turned into an impassioned debate about whether women are once again choosing domesticity over careers—re-channeling all their education into raising the perfect children instead of work. And whether that is a defeat for women.

But I’d argue that women still don’t have a free “choice.” As sociologist Pamela Stone discovered in Opting Out?-- her interviews with career women who dropped out--an important reason that women quit careers and head home is that their employers make it impossible to continue once they have children or stigmatize them for doing so.

And trying to care for one’s children remains one of the single biggest threats to economic survival for working women at the bottom of the ladder. As the recent Shriver Report points out, those women are often only one sick child away from losing their job and falling into poverty. Indeed, one-third of American women are now living at or near the brink of poverty.

As women scholars start to take a second look at the fifties, we’re finding the picture is more complicated that we once thought—both then and now. As women, we’re still struggling between the dual pulls of work and family because society continues to make it so hard to have both.

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Comment by Cardyn Brooks on January 26, 2014 at 1:52pm

Thanks for sharing your experiences, Sarah, and for starting a discussion that's also relevant to the current debate about access to contraception and its impact on women's health, employment trajectories, and families' economic stability.

 

Television in the 1950s (before my time, but thank you, Nickelodeon), especially Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best, projected sanitized ideas about what makes a perfect nuclear family. Delusional propaganda? Those projections totally dismissed the truth about working poor, working class, and lower middle class families, where whether or not to work outside the home wasn't an option for wives and mothers, but a financial necessity.

 

Humans are inquisitive and ambitious by design. Since women are female humans... From Eve to Cleopatra to Margaret Sanger to Amelia Earhart, women have always taken risks to satisfy their needs to learn and to discover and to invent. Maybe one day soon we'll no longer feel obligated to justify ourselves or to apologize for engaging in these pursuits.

Comment by RYCJ on January 23, 2014 at 7:56am

I have to give it to Women! And especially to women who nurtured/nurture families. Without them there might be little need for the ambitious careers, because there'd be no people to use the services or products, as people first have to come from "somewhere."

And oh, I loved Leave it to Beaver, and still do... like the Brady Bunch, Bewitched, the Cosby Show, Everybody Hates Chris, and a number of other 'extra cozy' family shows showing all those 'little' things that tend to get overlooked about women, mothers, and family.

Comment by Brit St.Clair on January 21, 2014 at 3:11pm
Interesting post! I am struggling with this right now...home or career...my kids are four and ten months, I'm 32. Writing gets so little of my focus these days. To make things difficult, I find myself drawn to waldorf education, but private school isn't feasible financially, which leaves homeschooling. I have a friend who homeschools and makes it look beautiful - her kids bake bread and knit and sing songs. (I know it wouldn't be a song and dance the whole time, don't get me wrong, it just all looks so peaceful and nurturing.) However, the thought of all that time during the day to write and do my own thing once the kids go to school sounds amazing, dreamy. I definitely feel as though I have to decide between focusing on a career and raising kids in a way that seems ideal. As of now, I don't know which path I'll choose.
Comment by Kathryn Meyer Griffith on January 21, 2014 at 2:40pm

I, too, grew up in the 1950's-1970's. I never liked Leave it to Beaver UNTIL I grew older and then watched it for nostalgia. As a child I knew our life was nothing like Beaver's family. My mother had seven children (I was second oldest) and we never had much money. Dad was a salesman. My mom never looked, acted, felt like Beaver's mother. I thought of that show as pure, but nice, fiction.

I grew up wanting just the opposite of my mother's life and wanted to be someone, with her encouragement. An artist, a singer, a writer. I remember in the 1970's, married to my first husband, and with a child of my own that I longed for the freedom to write; to do and be exactly what I wanted...and not be a married woman with a child with all the responsibilities that entailed. Inwardly, I was always fighting with those two paths. I remember once seeing a PBS show on some famous woman writer who left her family to be a writer - to have the time to just write- and wishing that I could do the same thing.

I'm so glad those days are past. My family/young mother days are over and I'm old enough, retired, and can do what I want...write all I want, whenever I want. Heaven. I think women have always and will always have that inner fight with themselves...to have a family, husband and children or to just be free to be themselves and do what they want. To have a career. I believe it's a burden most of us women will have to carry. Forever.

Comment by Maria Olivia Perez Patiño on January 18, 2014 at 6:25am

Sarah, your article brings many memories!  In the late '50's, my family acquired a TV.  It must have been second-hand or a 'hand-me-down' because all we saw were blurry and grayish images.  A few years later, I saw "Leave It to Beaver".  I enjoyed watching it at the time.  To my young, naïve eyes, the family gave me a view of a different world.  It was in my adult years that I wondered, "What woman in her right mind cleans and cooks wearing high heels?"  I tried it.  Did not work!  When watching TV cooking shows, I ask myself the same question:  what woman cooks in her best clothes, wearing jewelry and heels and long hair!  When I see the celebrity cooks/chefs touching their long uncovered hair, and then touching the foods they are cutting and cooking, I cringe.  But I digress.

Perhaps what held my attention in "Leave It to Beaver" was the mother's apron!  You see, my mother wore aprons too.  Aprons of all colors and styles!  At home and at work.  My mother worked as a waitress.  Some restaurants were famous City tourist places, such as "Mi Tierra" and "Casa Rio" (this one by the San Antonio River).  Each restaurant had its own preferred apron.  My mother took great pride in washing, starching and ironing her aprons. At times, we'd do this for her.  I can still see her, putting on her waitress uniform and holding her carefully folded apron or wearing it.  She then walked or took the bus (and/or both).  Was my mother 'unambitious'?  No way!  She had ambitions!  Her priority was her children.  So, she worked long hours to provide for us.  She worked many years to save for a down payment on our first house.  A single parent (divorced), she was very independent. Later, she and my Dad (my second and beloved father) worked very hard to make this a reality.  ...Today, at 87 years of age, my mother still seeks to retain some of her independence despite illnesses.  I wonder, what did my mother think if she ever watched "Leave It to Beaver"?

I am Hispanic and am not ashamed to have enjoyed family shows like "Leave It to Beaver".  While unrealistic in many ways, they gave me a secure and happy feeling and, although I was not conscious of this, their stories gave me something to strive for and imagination to weave my own stories.  I retained my language and culture and learned some values from TV along with the values from my mother.  And, I still treasure the floral pinafore apron my mother sewed for me after I married.  Thank you, mi mamacita!

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