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Women at Home

What was the real job of the "stay-at-home" mom?

Traditional Women’s Roles

After the Second World War, into the 1950’s, and continuing until the beginnings of the feminist movement in the 1960’s, women were strongly encouraged to maintain the functions and tasks that were seen to suit the feminine standards best.  For the decade before the war, and centuries previous, North American women were typecast into the role of mother and wife.  This role was seen only done properly by women, and should be taken on by women with the greatest of pride.  “When a woman marries a man she is all full of high purposes.  She actually looks forward with pleasure to the idea of getting his meals and mending his clothes and having her own home and keeping it spick and span.”1 This is the advice written to men, by a man in the late 1930’s on “How to Stay Married.” Upholding and enforcing these household beliefs and ideals pre and postwar are how such strict roles as mothers and wives became such a staple principle of return to normalcy postwar

Many historians have commented throughout time, women equal housewives. When the men returned from Europe and the South Pacific after WWII, the fastest way to go back to the “way things were.” Was to recreate this equation, having the women desert their partially liberating stints in the workforce, and tend to the houses they were about to fill with children.  Why? Simply because this was, what women did best.  For hundreds of years it has been understood that, “Roughly speaking, in most households the husband is the provider or bread-winner. . .”3 By fulfilling this convenient arrangement and having women take on a non-virile role in daily, postwar life,  the balances of customary living were slowly returned.

In the 1950’s women were given clear positions within the home.  A “homemaker who grew up in the fifties and early sixties, at the height of women’s indoctrination into a narrow conception of the role of the homemaker”4 learned these prescribed roles from a young age.   These roles and understanding of each sex’s expected jobs and duties help to reinforce the ‘way it had always been.’  The economy in North America was once again booming, peace had been returned to overseas, and it was understood that the only distraction should be the Cold War threats; not the notion that women might want a change from the systems that society already understood and accepted so well.  It was commonly understood that women found this image of the perfect wife and mother to be satisfying. “. . . Women could ‘find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.’”5 This misconception took hold of North American society, mass media, and young women as well, perpetuating the “feminine mystique” to continue for over a decade.  “In those years the concept of “housewife” remained unquestioned, and women’s accepted role was in the home.”6 With all the change and fear about to hit North American it was necessary to keep as many of the prewar systems in tact as possible.  By women being inclined to maintain and exemplify the traditional mothering and nurturing (non-threatening) roles, this helped paved the way the return to normalcy.  

<>There were incidences though, where women went against these traditional views of women.  Women who continued to work at “men’s” jobs, or those who did not choose the mothering/ wifely role were seen as against the desperately desired norm, and against North American society itself.  The unwed mother was something to be read about in a magazine confession article.  It was not something a women would admit to openly though. “Indeed, single pregnancy was so markedly stigmatized in postwar America that most women did what they could to cover their tracks.”7 Going against the grain of postwar society norms was seen as immoral and punishable.  Many films of the era make this point evident.  “Beyond the Forest” sees a woman, Rosa, who wishes to not keep the home herself or provide a family for her husband come to a tragic end after an abortion.  The Film Noir shows the moral standard of the times: Breaking the roles is a punishable offense.  Women who presented opposition to postwar normalcy, by not accepting the delicate ideals of a women’s role in the house and family, were threatening to the male driven society, and had to be isolated or removed, so that the customary living standard could be returned after the Second World War.
1950's Ideals: What Women Were Supposed to Know
Cooking Terms and What They Mean
Can a new wife prepare her husband the meal he expects when he gets home?  This instructional video will help her prepare the meals just like his mother used to.
Easy Does It
How does the "fairer sex" do it? This video shows how new inventions are making it easier for fragile women to do their daily chores.


Rachel Leslie  
History and Film 200
Fall 2004