One of the most enduring images in British popular culture is that of the 1950s housewife, the ‘perfect’ wife and mother, blissfully devoted to caring for her husband and children. Images of the 1950s housewife were prevalent in mass circulation magazines of the day, most notably Woman and Women’s Own. Here the happy wife was depicted in her bright modern kitchen, surrounded by her adorable children and looking fabulous despite the demands of housework and childcare. So ubiquitous is this image that the popularity of vintage clothing and accessories, most notably the distinctive products sold in Cath Kidston shops, can be directly traced back to the romantic ideal of the contented 1950s housewife.
It may come as a surprise therefore to learn that in the 1950s housewives’ associations vigorously rejected this vision of the ‘perfect’ wife. The Mothers’ Union, Women’s Institutes and Townswomen’s Guilds were traditional women’s organisations with memberships of hundreds of thousands of wives and mothers. Although they championed the role of the full-time wife and mother these groups challenged the view that women should only be interested in the domestic and think only about the needs of their husbands and children. The Mothers’ Union warned women ‘not to make an idol out of domesticity’ and that it was wrong to suggest that a woman’s main aim in life was to find a husband. The Townswomen’s Guild spurned the image of the happy housewife arguing that ‘the frilly little woman, pottering at home’ did not accurately represent the real experiences of wives and mothers.
So if housewives’ associations objected to this ‘false’ portrayal of the 1950s housewife how did they envisage the lives of their members during these years? Instead of glamourising domestic work the Mothers’ Union, Women’s Institutes and Townswomen’s Guilds provided practical and emotional support to help with the everyday struggles experienced by most wives and mothers. This included advice on childcare, relationships and housework. Members were also provided with the opportunity to meet other women outside the home and to engage in social, leisure and educational activities. At the national level housewives associations campaigned for a wide range of reforms that would enhance the lives of women and ensure that housework was recognised as a skilled and professional occupation. These demands included better housing, access to healthcare and adequate social welfare payments to wives, mothers and widows.
Perhaps most revealing is the fact that housewives’ associations in the 1950s accepted that increasing numbers of mothers would seek paid work outside the home. Unlike the typical portrayal of the housewife in women’s magazines where a wife ‘works from nine to five and whips up apple pie…sets children to rights and her hair for a Saturday night out’ (Woman, 27 April 1963), housewives’ organisations discussed and debated at length the practical ways in which women could balance domestic and paid work. Mothers who wanted to engage in paid work and care for their families were not condemned as ‘bad mothers’. Instead ideas such as after school care, holiday clubs and flexible working hours were researched and investigated and pressure was brought to bear on both government and employers to facilitate the growing numbers of mothers going out to work. In pursuing these campaigns traditional housewives’ organisations demonstrated that they valued all work undertaken by women, both paid and unpaid.
In providing a public voice for housewives in the 1950s, housewives’ associations debunked the idea that being a wife and mother was the be all and end all for women. Instead it was argued that women as wives, mothers, workers and citizens had a major contribution to make not only to family life but to the life of their communities and nation. The work that housewives did and how they felt about their lives could not be represented by a single image in a popular magazine. So once and for all let us consign the stereotype of the ‘1950s housewife’ to mythology.
Dr Caitríona Beaumont
London South Bank University