Personal History: Life in the 1970s as 2 Women Lived It

Reader responses to a look back at the August 1976 issue of Good Housekeeping.
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My article "A Trove of History As 1970s Housewives Lived It" explored an old issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, in hopes of gaining insights into a particular subculture from a bygone decade. Many readers responded by sharing their own memories of the mid-1970s. Two of the notes struck me as particularly interesting. One reader described her life in rural Minnesota (below is a condensed version):

I generally try to think of the good times I had with friends and my grandparents, but with my parents and with the issues of the day, things go to dark places pretty quickly. I grew up in a very small town, in what an English teacher from the Cities (St. Paul/Minneapolis) called a Scandinavian Ghetto. We had the same culture that our immigrant great-grandparents brought over from Sweden and Norway... Same language, same customs. When 1970's Norwegian or Swedish authors wanted to write a story about [the turn of the century], they would come to our area and talk to the old timers. To this day, the King and Queen of Sweden visit our area, and actually stay in our dinky little hotel off Highway 8... amazing. 

In the 1970s, there were still a lot of family farms and hobby farms, although they were disappearing. Our local school had the elementary, junior high and high school in one building. There were 40 people in my class. You grew up a little quickly because 7th through 12th grades were all together in the same part of school... By 15, generally speaking, you had been introduced to both sex and drugs.

In a lot of families, mothers worked outside the home, so that they could earn money for sheets, towels, bed spreads, women's hygiene, clothes and other things. If your mother didn't work, she was probably a doctor's wife or you were very poor and probably a Baptist or Church of Christ... women's place was in the home. In my parent's and my grandparent's generations, kids "came along"... in the days before birth control you didn't choose your family size or have much of a choice about whether you wanted kids or not. In some families, like mine, your parents could be brutally honest about whether they wanted you or not, or whether they would have preferred all boys instead. Of course, this was also the era of ERA, which women paid attention to, but men did not. My mother and grandmother wanted me to go to college and get a good job, so they told me straight out never to get married, to never depend on a man for financial support and for the love of god, don't have children. To reinforce this, they refused to teach me how to cook.

Cleaning, everyone had to do that, you have to take care of your house, but do NOT get trapped in the kitchen. Being a housewife was NOT what they wanted for me, and there was a LOT of discussion, amongst the women in the family, that they weren't valued as much as the men. So, to finally tie this in with the Good Housekeeping interview with Betty Ford: reading that some rich politician's wife, who'd probably never done a lick of hard labor & had a nanny to help with her kids, say that "homemakers were of value" was at once pandering, and I don't know how to say this, but it was frustrating, maddening and simply not true. Life in the country, down on the farm, was not brown-sugar-bubbling-in-the-homemade-apple-crisp sentimental, it was hard work from about 4am to after midnight.

Kids in my school were expected to do farm work before school, to go to school and do well, to participate in school activities, to have a part-time job, and to do farm work after school (or, whenever we got home from activities & before doing homework.). Your parents told you that you could sleep when you were dead. When I worked as a waitress in a local restaurant, farmers would come in about 2pm for coffee and sweets. They were often missing fingers, hands or even an arm; they might have a bad limp: all the result of farm accidents. You could ask them straight out what happened, it wasn't impolite, and they'd tell you the whole gory story. Blood and guts all over the place, and they might even raise their shirt to show you what else had happened. So, in light of all this, fashion was jeans, flannels, sweat shirts, work boots. Sturdy stuff that would take blood, sweat, grime, and tears and tears. A woman might work so she could buy a flowy dress, but there really weren't many places to wear it. And I don't think anyone would be caught dead in a plaid vest and slacks, not terribly practical as well as a little showy. If there was a picture of Betty Ford in the Good Housekeeping article, she was probably wearing nylons. We couldn't really get those in my area. Since only the town had sidewalks or paved roads, heels were difficult to wear as well.

But the patterned sheets? My grandmother mainly had strong, sturdy, white cotton sheets which could take a beating in the washing machine and which could tolerate the bleach and harsh detergents she bought. Her washing machine was the kind where you put the water in yourself, and, to rinse, you had to feed the sheets manually through a wringer. (Okay, I considered telling you horror stories about body parts getting caught in the wringers: I don't believe my grandmother's wringer rolled both ways. Nope, don't want to go there.) There was no such thing as a permanent press or delicate cycle. Sheets and clothes were dried on a clothes line. In winter, the clothes line was in the basement. It wasn't until the early-1980s, when she got a fully automatic washer and dryer, that she could indulge her fancy for all the patterned poly-and-cotton blend (fairly delicate) sheets. Her linen closet just exploded in color and pattern. It was almost a celebration.

As for dinner parties? Well, you socialized with your extended families and had pot luck dinners. Smorgasbords. If you look at 1970s Lutheran church cookbooks from my area, you'll find recipes like "Potato Salad for 100 people." Weddings were "catered" by the women of the family.My great-aunt's daughter annouced she was getting married, so the women of the family just got together -- automatically, they weren't asked by anyone -- and figured out who would do what for the reception food. We would spend days sitting around the kitchen table peeling eggs and potatoes, dicing vegetables, buttering rolls... and then you'd get to the real work of making hotdishes, frying chicken, roasting meat, making pies, bars and cookies; and bringing up home-canned pickles from your cellar and making traditional breads. It wasn't until I got to college that I heard women talk about how much money they were going to "spend" on catering their wedding ... Really? You pay for food? You pay OTHERS to make the food? Ewww. So, anyway, to tie in with the Good Housekeeping article: no dinner parties with outsiders, and not a lot of rules about where the salad should be. I have a Betty Crocker's cookbook from 1971, which shows you how to decorate your side salads and roasts... it was a pretty big deal to gussy up a bowl of potato salad with flowers of radishes. As my grandmother said "you eat with your eyes first."

I also remember that divorce was... simply not done. A man who leaves his wife for a younger woman? Big eyes. A politician's wife TALKING about the subject? Out LOUD? Quite a difficult thing. My great-aunt's son got a divorce from his wife because she kept having girl babies. He wanted a boy. So, he got his girlfriend pregnant, she had a boy, so... he divorced his wife. Needless to say, the women of the family shunned him, even his own mother. He moved out of town, while his ex-wife was still invited to family functions. Men might not value women, but by God, that didn't mean the women tolerated it. Talk about THAT, Betty Ford!

There was also the oil crisis in the 1970s. We lived in a converted log cabin. The log cabin part was built in 1857, before Minnesota was even a state, and the rest was added on in the 1920s. The 2nd floor, where the bedrooms were, didn't have any insulation in the walls. With the exorbitant cost of heating oil, my step-dad kept the thermostat at about 60 degrees; but it didn't matter upstairs. Wind blew through the walls. I slept under 20-40 blankets in winter and I was still cold. Years later, in my college dorm room, I discovered, to my delight, I could turn the heater up to 100 degrees in winter: no more layers and layers of heavy blankets that kept me nearly immobile all night. Of course, my fellow, suburban dorm mates didn't understand my simple joy of heat in the winter... I mean, I really had grown up in a different world, and I'd almost given up explaining it to them.

The 1970s were also the start of the concept of health food, at least in Minnesota. My mother embraced high-fiber like some sort of religious dogma. She added wheat germ to her cottage cheese and bought wheat bread. She banned sugar. Margarine was healthier, supposedly, but we couldn't get over the weird texture or taste. We stuck with butter. Of course, California was all things new and different and GOOD. My mother was pretty enamored. Until, of course, the Patty Hearst thing. 1976. A California jury convicted her? A young girl who was kidnapped, raped repeatedly, beaten, shoved in a closet ... and she was convicted?

The feeling deep down in our bones was that there was something fundamentally WRONG in California, that the people had lost all proper feelings, humanity, perspective, common sense. When Reagan came to power in the 1980s, part of the Minnesota **hatred** for him (especially where I grew up) was the lingering... to use the same word, feelings about that case. No one ever spoke about it. No one would ever actually ADMIT that. Also, we knew that even if you worked hard, you could be poor, financially speaking; and Reagan was all about magic money.

My mother had a subscription to Good Housekeeping, but a lot of it was frankly foreign to us. Short hair for women? Okay. Let me put this in perspective for you all. In college, I had a friend who was a lesbian. She was from a small town in North Dakota. She told me once that the stereotype of lesbians was that they wore their hair short, wore no makeup, wore sweat shirts and jeans ... she asked me, "does that seem familiar to you?" And I had to think about it. Finally dawned on me. Just about every woman I grew up with looked like that. My grandmother, all her sisters, my mom ... my friends. Short hair was a sign that you were a married woman & didn't have time to futz with it on a daily basis. That's all it was.

By 1976, when I was 13, I changed. I had inherited my father's bipolar disorder. My mother realized it, but didn't tell me or get me treatment. And in that area, in those small towns, you didn't go to a doctor unless you were practically dead. Or, you know, you'd just sliced your finger off or your arm was dangling by thread of skin because of a farm accident. I remember describing my symptoms to my local doctor, a description worthy of DSMV in fact, who told me to get out of his office.

He just threw me out. Quit acting like you're acting, just get some sleep, toughen up. My biological father, who was from a wealthier family and quite well-educated, ended up in the hospital twice a year, for 6 to 12 weeks, to 'treat' his mental illness. We couldn't have afforded that. So I sort of understand why my mother didn't tell me, IF we couldn't afford the 'treatment' ... but she should have been more understanding when I turned to alcohol to get through the manias. I bring this up because the Good Housekeeping of the 1970s would not have dared talk about this subject. You might read Good Housekeeping and feel some nostalgia for what you think was a simpler time, but my 1976 was a bit more real, a bit more turbulent and a bit darker. And I've written all this just to get that point across.

Another reader was 7-years-old in 1976, and offered a few memories:

  • Most women sewed clothing to save money. Unlike today, it was much less expensive to purchase fabric than finished clothing.  In 1976, most girls in my fairly rural community harangued their mothers to make them a Holly Hobbie dress.  
  • 1976 was the year of the bicentennial, and it was considered a very big deal to get a bicentennial quarter, with a 1976 logo on the back.  Our lunch money came in coins, and most of us tried to get our parents to take us to McDonald's, where we could get a lunch money holder we could wear on wrists like a watch. 
  • I was considered a somewhat dangerous oddity, because my mother had gone to college (this was unusual in my community) and because I planned to go. I was freakishly bright, which was difficult to take in a boy, but almost intolerable in a girl, and many people spent a lot of effort trying to convince me that women were incapable of learning science and mathematics. 
  • Malls were a brand-new concept. We would go sit in Santa's lap at these huge new shopping centers. Kids would start heading out to the mailbox, starting in October, looking for the J.C. Penney, Sears and Montgomery Wards Christmas catalogs, which were filled with toys.  The more affluent would ask their parents for some of the items (in my community, most of us knew without asking that the most expensive things were out of range), and the less affluent kids, with no hope of getting those toys, would take the catalogs and dream.
  • There were no co-payments on our health insurance or our prescriptions, but cancer was rarely survivable, and treatment usually required travel to a distant city.  There were no CT scans or MRIs. Parents were not allowed to stay overnight with their children in the hospital, no matter how upset they were.
  • Meat was very expensive, and it wasn't as common to eat it as the main course every day.  Macaroni and cheese and soups were common. They might have meat in smaller amounts. Cheap potted meat, cheese, bologna and peanut butter sandwiches were more common than ham or turkey in a kids' lunch.
  • Things like shampoo bottles were frequently made of glass. 
 
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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