Housewife Confidential

A tribute to the old-fashioned housewife, and to Erma Bombeck, her champion and guide
More

My mother's copy of The Settlement Cook Book (1948 edition) begins, as cookbooks used to, with instructions on the proper way to run a household. To air a room: "Lower the upper sash of one window and raise the lower sash of an opposite window." To remove a glue stain: "Apply vinegar with a cloth." There are sections on the feeding of infants and of invalids: "Use the daintiest dishes in the house. Place a clean napkin on the tray and, if possible, a fresh flower." My reaction to these household rules—and especially to the daily schedules for small children, which suggest thrilling mini-narratives of carefully lived days, of cooked cereal at seven o'clock and diluted orange juice at nine o'clock—is in the nature of avidity. The way a lonely man in a motel room pores over Playboy, I pore over descriptions of ironing and kitchen routines; I have never made a solution composed of one part bleach and nine parts warm water, but the idea of such a solution and its many practical uses—wiping down an emptied refrigerator once a month, sanitizing a kitchen sink—commands my riveted attention. The notion of a domestic life that purrs along, with routines and order and carefully delineated standards, is endlessly appealing to me. It is also quite foreign, because I am not a housewife. I am an "at-home mother," and the difference between the two is vast.

Consider the etymology. When a woman described herself as a "housewife," she was defining herself primarily through her relationship to her house and her husband. That children came along with the deal was simply assumed, the way that airing rooms and occasionally cooking for invalids came along with the deal. When a housewife subjected herself and her work to a bit of brutally honest examination, she may have begun by assessing how well she was doing with the children, but she may just as well have begun by contemplating the nature and quality of her housework. If it had been suggested to her that she spend the long, delicate hours between three and six o'clock squiring her children to the array of enhancing activities pursued by the modern child, she would have laughed. Who would stay home to get dinner on? More to the point, why had she chosen a house so close to a playground if the children weren't going to get out of her hair and play in it? The kind of childhood that many of us remember so fondly—with hours of free time, and gangs of neighborhood kids meeting up after school—was possible partly because each block contained houses in which women were busy but close by, all too willing to push open a window and yell at the neighbor boy to get his fool bike out of the street.

But an at-home mother feels little obligation to the house itself; in fact, she is keenly aware that the house can be a vehicle of oppression. She is "at home" only because that is where her children happen to be. She does not define herself through her housekeeping; if she is in any way solvent (and many at-home mothers are), she has, at the very least, a once-a-month cleaning woman to do the most onerous tasks. (That some of the most significant achievements of the women's movement—specifically liberation from housework and child care—have been bought at the expense of poor women, often of poor brown-skinned women, is a bitter irony that very few feminists will discuss directly, other than to murmur something vague about "universal day care" and then, on reflex, blame the Republicans.) The at-home mother defines herself by her relationship to her children. She is making sacrifices on their behalf, giving up a career to give them something only she can. Her No. 1 complaint concerns the issue of respect: She demands it! Can't get enough of it! She isn't like a fifties housewife: ironing curtains, shampooing the carpets, stuck. She knows all about those women. She has seen Pleasantville and watched Leave It to Beaver; she's made more June Cleaver jokes than she can count. (In fact, June Cleaver—a character on a television show that went off the air in 1963—looms over her to a surprising extent, a sickening, terrifying specter: Is that how people think I spend my time?) If she has seen Todd Haynes's sumptuously beautiful recent movie, Far From Heaven, she understands and agrees wholeheartedly with the film's implication: that being a moneyed white housewife—with full-time help—in pre-Betty Friedan Hartford, Connecticut, was just as oppressive and soul-withering as being a black man in pre-civil rights Hartford. The at-home mother's attitude toward housewives of the fifties and sixties is a mixture of pity, outrage on their behalf, and gently mocking humor. (I recently received a birthday card that featured a perfectly coiffed fifties housewife standing in a gleaming kitchen. "The smart woman knows her way around the kitchen," the front of the card said. Inside: "Around the kitchen, out the back door, and to a decent restaurant.")

The at-home mother has a lot on her mind; to a significant extent she has herself on her mind. She must not allow herself to shrivel up with boredom. She must do things for herself. She must get to the gym, the spa, the yoga studio. To the book group. (She wouldn't be caught dead setting up tables and filling nut cups for a bridge party—June Cleaver! June Cleaver!—but a book group, which blends an agreeable seriousness of purpose with the kind of busy chitchat that women the world over adore, is irresistible.) She must go to lunch with like-minded friends, and to the movies. She needs to feed herself intellectually and emotionally; she needs to be on guard against exhaustion. She must find a way to combine the traditional women's work of childrearing with the kind of shared housework arrangements and domestic liberation that working mothers enjoy. Most important, she must somehow draw a line in the sand between the valuable, important work she is doing and the pathetic imprisonment, the Doll's House existence, of the housewife of old. It's a tall order.

From the archives:

"The Mystique of Betty Friedan" (September 1999)
She helped to change not only the thinking but the lives of many American women, but recent books throw into question the intellectual and personal sources of her work. By Alan Wolfe

In a recent Los Angeles Times article the Hollywood producer Lynda Obst decries the tendency of upper-level female studio executives to quit their jobs once they become mothers; she implores, "Doesn't anyone remember how painfully poignant it was to grow up with a brilliant mother stuck in the suburbs with nothing to do?" This, of course, is the politically correct attitude about such women. The general idea, implied in countless nitwit books and articles and in a variety of popular movies, is that shortly after President Truman dropped the big one on Nagasaki, an entire generation of brave, brilliant women—many of them enjoying the deep satisfaction of doing shift work in munitions factories (the extent to which the riveters' lot is glorified by professional-class feminists who never set foot on a factory floor is shameful)—was kidnapped by a bunch of rat-bastard men, deposited in Levittown, and told to mop. That women in large numbers were eagerly, joyfully complicit in this life plan, that women helped to create the plan, is rarely considered. To be a young woman during the war years was to know that many of the boys from your high school class were overseas and, perhaps, that several of them had died there. It was to have a steady, often unspoken fear that a future including children and a husband and a household—women used to be unconflicted and unashamed about wanting these things—might not be in the cards. For it all to change on a dime—for the men to come home in vast, apparently unscathed numbers, and for there to be the GI Bill and GI mortgages and plenty of good jobs for returning servicemen (remember, these were women who had experienced childhoods in which there were not enough jobs, in which it was highly possible for a family to be ruined)—must have been a relief beyond measure. That women, en masse, reconsidered their plan in fairly short order—The Feminine Mystique was published within twenty years of VJ Day—also gets scant mention. The postwar housewife era, whether one views it with horror or nostalgia, was short-lived.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In