Women shouldn't work.. Women should be happy and fulfilled raising kids and tending to their husbands. Women should keep a clean house. Women should cook well-balanced meals. Women should . . .
Let's talk about it!
Selling the Happy Housewife
Marketing efforts of the 1950s sold the idea of a "happy housewife" as one that is efficient, spends money wisely, makes food from scratch, always keeps the house clean, and make it all look effortless. Oh, and does this all while looking GORGEOUS!
And the promotion of this pristine domestic image and women who were fulfilled as housewives was pushed from all angles. Women's magazine featuring household products. The process of employment. The MRS degree. Banking rules. Assumptions and judgements. Television shows.
Buying Your Way to Perfection
Food was sold as one of the main ways that women could fulfill (or fail to fulfill) this idealized image of domesticity. By shopping and cooking, women could live this ideal of femininity. Women could be 'perfect' housewives by purchasing and cooking the 'right' foods and the 'right' products.
Women could be 'perfect' housewives by purchasing and cooking the 'right' foods and the 'right' products.
And advertisements for household goods and food targeted women. Housewives could meet the needs (and wants, and even things you didn't know waswanted) of the household through the latest appliances, fast/convenience foods, and cooking and serving balanced meals.
It was the duty of women to know what was needed and to get it. And it was the duty of advertisers to tell women what they needed.
For example, in this Swanson TV Dinners ad, wives-mothers are the target of the ad. The husband is coming home and excited to see the dinner, sure, but the wife is the one the ad is talking to. She is the one carrying the food and presenting it to her husband as he gets home from work. She is the primary figure in the ad, the red of her dress capturing our attention and aligning it with Swanson's logo. The colors show the advertising alignment of purchasing Swanson's with being a happy housewife.
She is the one who is responsible for dinner. The ad even says in the text that the dinner's will " come in handy when Dad's 'substituting' in the kitchen, when the teenagers take over the cooking..." The household's food is her domain. Anyone else in the kitchen cooking is temporary. AND even if they are in the kitchen, don't worry, the happy wife-mother already took care of it by purchasing Swanson's. So even on days when she is "off-duty," she's still responsible for dinner.
These frozen dinners are designed to help housewives who need to save time, don't want to worry about the clean up or prep. By purchasing this TV dinner, for example, the wife-mother can continue her duty to feed the family a balanced and tasty meal even "on so many busy days."
The Impact of the 1950's Housewife
The image of the 1950s happy housewife and the societal pressure to conform to an unachievable domestic image did a great deal of harm to women's mental and emotional health. Both in the 1950s and to present day.
Scholars have examined the impact from Betty Friedan's acclaimed book The Feminine Mystique (1963), which critiques the societal pressures on women during the post-war period, to more recent books like K.C. Davis's How to Keep House While Drowning (2022), which tries to undo some of the impact of society's narratives on perfect wives-mothers and the 'spotless' household.
However, many scholars have and still continue to place an emphasis on the experiences of white, college-educated women when they examine housewives in the 1950s and the impact of that image on women today. And they omit the experiences of women of color, women who had to work, women who wanted to work, single women, LGBTQIA+ women, women with disabilities, widows/widowers, etc. Including the women of color who frequently were employed in the white middle-class households to help keep this myth alive.
Even the scholarly examination of this time and this mythology about housewives is targeted to the very women it depicted! For more about marketing and gender roles, check out Duke University's online exhibit: From Housewife to Superwoman: The Evolution of Advertising to Women.
This month we are exploring food in the 1950s in The Round Table, our virtual museum and member community. Join us as we explore the decade from fads to fast foods, school food to the suburbs, and technology to television.