The Happy (Heh) Housewife Heroine

Chapter Two: The Happy Housewife Heroine
Or, “Et tu, Ladies’ Home Journal?”

One of the most disturbing things Friedan points out in chapter two of TFM is how neck-snappingly fast the feminine ideal changed from the plucky, independent, individualistic, working New Woman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the subdued, dependent, conformist and home-bound Happy Housewife of the 1950s. She suspects the media is to blame. (Turns out lady mags were screwing us up long before the invention of Photoshop.)

McCall’s, Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Home Companion—Friedan found that in all of these, from the ’30s to the late ’40s:

  • Articles got more servicey (sound familiar? 10 Discreet But Raunchy Ways to Whatever the Whatever Out of Your Man in Public at Home Tonight/Tomorrow/Forever in 7 Dresses He Will Love and What He Is Thinking Every Minute While You’re Doing It)
  • Font and photos got bigger (all the better for our tiny brains to read you with, my dear)
  • Fiction got flimsier, and featured fewer working girls
  • The editorial focus shifted from the larger world and ideas to the home and things, specifically things that could be advertised and bought

As a magazine writer, Friedan was privy to some of this editorial decision-making. She overheard a lot of well-informed, thoughtful opinions like this: “Our readers are… not interested in the broad public issues of the day. They are not interested in national or international affairs. They are only interested in the family and the home…. Humor? Has to be gentle, they don’t get satire. Travel? We have almost completely dropped it. Education? That’s a problem…. You just can’t write about ideas or broad issues of the day for women.”

Friedan even pinpoints the article she believes started the whole glorification of the Happy Housewife. It appeared in the March 1949 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal and, ironically, was written by female career journalist Dorothy Thompson. Thompson chided a reader who wrote in that she felt embarrassed to be “just” a housewife, reminding the letter-writer that the work she did in the home was of real financial and social value. If she wasn’t vacuuming her floor, starching her husband’s shirts, and roasting her own chicken, after all, wouldn’t her husband be paying someone else to do it? Besides, “great men have great mothers.”

Friedan finds Thompson’s response offensive and erroneous. I like to think of myself as on the feminist’s side, so forgive me for asking in a tiny, scared voice, but isn’t there some truth to Thompson’s response? Is this not STILL the great debate of the two-income family today—whether it’s maybe more economical for one parent to stay home when childcare is involved? For a while, my friend’s husband made less than their nanny did. Perhaps therein lies the difference between Friedan’s world and ours: I said “husband” in that last sentence. Today, the dilemma is relevant to both sexes, and we’re staying home because we can’t afford not to as much as we’re going to work because we can’t afford not to. The 2000s! Fun!

Also, what’s with the assumption that household tasks are all boring and mindless? I don’t relish emptying the dishwasher or folding laundry, but I know I’m not the only woman who’s ever found joy in cooking or a mildly irrational satisfaction in a clean bathroom. I much prefer dusting to spreadsheets. Friedan makes an important distinction in TFM between jobs and careers (one out of three women during the time were working, she notes, but not toward a career). Even a career, however, does not always imply an invigorating life of ideas. Yes, Friedan wanted women to at least have the chance to aspire to a fulfilling and stimulating career, but there’s also this and this.

In which case, doesn’t feminism really come down to choice? It’s what makes you happy, not what makes “Woman” happy—and whatever that is is irrelevant to your femininity. Here’s hoping this is the great inheritance of the Third Wave: that women are not seen as a homogenous category to be discussed in anthropological generalities but as individuals. Stop me if I’m stating the obvious here, because I feel like I am. Dear God, I hope I am.

Friedan ends Chapter Two arguing, basically, that women were, in a near-literal sense of the word, brainwashed by the Mystique—that it was so powerful they forgot (or, worse, never knew) they possessed brains. She’s pretty convincingly laid out at least part of the how (the media), but she’s still hunting for the why: why society let it happen and why women let it happen. Next chapter: The Crisis in Woman’s Identity.

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