Family historian and scholar Stephanie Coontz is on point about feminism rescuing the 1950s housewife. I taught Sociology of the Family for 6 years. The 50s for women were far from a Golden Era. Rather they were quite oppressive. Happy, happy Mother's Day folks!
May 7, 2011
When We Hated Mom
By STEPHANIE COONTZ
ONE of the most enduring myths about feminism is that 50 years ago women who stayed home full time with their children enjoyed higher social status and more satisfying lives than they do today. All this changed, the story goes, when Betty Friedan published her 1963 best seller, “The Feminine Mystique,” which denigrated stay-at-home mothers. Ever since, their standing in society has steadily diminished.
That myth — repeated in Suzanne Venker and Phyllis Schlafly’s new book, “The Flipside of Feminism” — reflects a misreading of American history. There was indeed a time when full-time mothers were held in great esteem. But it was not the 1950s or early 1960s. It was 150 years ago. In the 19th century, women had even fewer rights than in the 1950s, but society at least put them on a pedestal, and popular culture was filled with paeans to their self-sacrifice and virtue.
When you compare the diaries and letters of 19th-century women with those of women in the 1950s and early 1960s, you can see the greater confidence of the earlier mothers about their value to society. Many felt they occupied a “nobler sphere” than men’s “bank-note” world.
The wife of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sophia, told her mother that she did not share her concerns about improving the rights of women, because wives already exerted “a power which no king or conqueror can cope with.” Americans of the era believed in “the empire of the mother,” and grown sons were not embarrassed about rhapsodizing over their “darling mama,” carrying her picture with them to work or war.
In the early 20th century, under the influence of Freudianism, Americans began to view public avowals of “Mother Love” as unmanly and redefine what used to be called “uplifting encouragement” as nagging. By the 1940s, educators, psychiatrists and popular opinion-makers were assailing the idealization of mothers; in their view, women should stop seeing themselves as guardians of societal and familial morality and content themselves with being, in the self-deprecating words of so many 1960s homemakers, “just a housewife.”
Stay-at-home mothers were often portrayed as an even bigger menace to society than career women. In 1942, in his best-selling “Generation of Vipers,” Philip Wylie coined the term “momism” to describe what he claimed was an epidemic of mothers who kept their sons tied to their apron strings, boasted incessantly of their worth and demanded that politicians heed their moralizing.
Momism became seen as a threat to the moral fiber of America on a par with communism. In 1945, the psychiatrist Edward Strecher argued that the 2.5 million men rejected or discharged from the Army as unfit during World War II were the product of overly protective mothers.
In the same year, an information education officer in the Army Air Forces conjectured that the insidious dependency of the American man on “ ‘Mom’ and her pies” had “killed as many men as a thousand German machine guns.” According to the 1947 best seller “Modern Woman: The Lost Sex,” two-thirds of Americans were neurotic, most of them made so by their mothers.
Typical of the invective against homemakers in the 1950s and 1960s was a 1957 best seller, “The Crack in the Picture Window,” which described suburban America as a “matriarchal society,” with the average husband “a woman-bossed, inadequate, money-terrified neuter” and the average wife a “nagging slob.” Anti-mom rhetoric was so pervasive that even Friedan recycled some of this ideology in “The Feminine Mystique” — including the repellent and now-discredited notion that overly devoted mothers turned their sons into homosexuals.
For their part, stay-at-home mothers complained of constant exhaustion. According to the most reliable study of all data available in the 1960s, full-time homemakers spent 55 hours a week on domestic chores, much more than they do today. Women with young children averaged even longer workweeks than that, and almost every woman I’ve interviewed who raised children in that era recalled that she rarely got any help from her husband, even on weekends.
In the 1946 edition of his perennial best seller, “Baby and Child Care,” Dr. Benjamin Spock suggested that Dad might “occasionally” change a diaper, give the baby a bottle or even “make the formula on Sunday.” But a leading sociologist of the day warned that a helpful father might be suspected of “having a little too much fat on the inner thigh.”
Not surprisingly, these social norms led to widespread feelings of inadequacy and depression among stay-at-home mothers. “The female doesn’t really expect a lot from life,” a mother told pollsters from Gallup in a survey in 1962. “She’s here as someone’s keeper — her husband’s or her children’s.”
Study after study found that homemakers had lower self-esteem than women who took paid employment, even when it came to assessing their skills as parents. They experienced higher levels of stress and greater vulnerability to depression than women with paying jobs. And they had few legal rights: wives had little protection against abusive husbands, and only eight states in 1963 gave a homemaker any claim on her husband’s earnings.
Contrary to myth, “The Feminine Mystique” and feminism did not represent the beginning of the decline of the stay-at-home mother, but a turning point that led to much stronger legal rights and “working conditions” for her.
Domestic violence rates have fallen sharply for all wives, employed or not. As late as 1980, approximately 30 percent of wives said their husbands did no housework at all. By 2000, only 16 percent of wives made that statement and almost one-third said their husbands did half of all housework, child care or both.
Most researchers agree that these changes were spurred by the entry of wives and mothers into the work force. But full-time homemakers have especially benefited from them.
From 1975 to 1998 men married to full-time homemakers increased their contributions to housework as much, proportionally, as men whose wives were employed. And from 1965 to 1995, homemakers decreased their own housework hours more than did wives in dual-earner families. As a result, most stay-at-home mothers now have shorter total workweeks than their husbands.
There also seems to have been a significant shift in the relationship between depression and homemaking. Stay-at-home mothers still recount more feelings of loneliness than working mothers. But in a new Council on Contemporary Families briefing paper, the sociologists Margaret Usdansky and Rachel A. Gordon report that among mothers of young children, those who were not working and preferred not to have a job had a relatively low risk of depression — about as low as mothers who chose to work and were able to attain high-quality jobs.
Mothers who want to work outside the home but instead are full-time homemakers, however, have a higher risk of depression. This is a significant group: in 2000, 40 percent of full-time homemakers said they would prefer to be working at a paid job. So telling women who want to work that they or their children will be better off if they stay home is a mistake. Maternal depression is well known as being harmful to children’s development.
These findings suggest that it is time to stop arguing over who has things worse or who does things better, stay-at-home mothers or employed mothers. Instead, we should pay attention to women’s preferences and options.
Feminism has also fostered increased respect for men’s ability and desire to be involved parents. So we should also pay attention to expanding men’s ability to choose greater involvement in family life, just as we have expanded women’s ability to choose greater involvement in meaningful work.
While stay-at-home mothers may not have the aura of saintliness with which they were endowed in the 19th century, it’s indisputable that their status and lives have improved since their supposed heyday in the 1950s. On this Mother’s Day, it’s too bad that nostalgia for a golden age of motherhood that never existed still clouds our thinking about what’s best for mothers, fathers and their children.
Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College, is the author of “A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.”