Bidding Betty Goodbye- The Happy Homemaker R.I.P.

Betty Draper Mad Men

Bye Bye Birdie – Mad Men’s Betty Draper

Like another Sally Beth, I too had to eventually bid my own Betty goodbye.

Though thankfully my own mother would live decades longer than Mad Men’s poor Betty Francis, as a teenager I witnessed the beginning of the slow demise of the happy homemaker.

Under the glare of the Women’s Movement, I watched as the job my own mother Betty and millions of her generation had performed devotedly suddenly become devalued.

1950s Housewife and liberated New Girl

During this period these women had seen all their own rules about love sex marriage, femininity and child rearing, overturned. They could hardly act as wise guides to their daughters as the gap was becoming too wide.

Scrutinized and trivialized the happy homemaker was characterized as trapped in a menial service job for which she didn’t get paid. Receding in relevance, she was replaced by the new liberated career girl.

Paradoxically in trying to liberate women and bring them the respect and opportunities they deserved, 1970s feminists devalued women’s traditional roles.

1970 sounded the death knell of the idealization of the Happy Homemaker.

The job a generation had diligently trained for became obsolete. Marriage let alone motherhood was not a high priority for the woman’s libber.

Happy Homemakers

Housewife Happy

Though Betty Francis, the former model turned mom was no model Mother, she was the epitome of the ideal mid-century housewife.

Beguilingly feminine in her cascading, stay-fresh bouffant dress nipped to a tiny waist, she went about her household tasks smiling like she hadn’t a care in the world.

And why not?

It was to be a life of self polishing ease, of no rubbing, no scrubbing, no waxing, no buffing,with twice the shine in half the time; a wash and wear world of no stretching, no stooping, no bending, and absolutely…no complaining.

Mrs. America

Vintage ad 1960 Housewife in Kitchen

The mid century housewife knew in her heart- because all the magazines confirmed it to be so – that love, marriage and children were The career for women

The real Mad Men of Madison Avenue would have us believe that no one was the beneficiary of the cold war culture of casual carefree living more than the housewife of the 1950’s and 60’s.

The most envied woman in the world was the Post WWII American…yet easy going with never you mind freedom. That was the new Mrs. America.

All manner of unparalleled ease from cleaning products to appliances promised the happy homemaker a life transformed, a life so carefree you could do as you please. So undemanding, it was a world of child’s play, so easy it turned routine into fun.

In her smartly tailored shirtwaist dress and Playtex Living Cross Your heart Bra, what gal wouldn’t want to achieve this new ideal- a Lady Clairol Colorful Cold war world of carpools, cookouts, cream of mushroom soup casseroles, and catering to contented children and happy-go-lucky husbands.

Mrs. Consumer

1950s family

The happy homemakers life would be a carousel of Kodacolor memories

Her life was magical this bewitchingly new American housewife.

“Mrs. Housewife” advertisers boasted “your judgment and testate helped make Americas standard of living the highest in the world.

Her home is her castle. Snug within it she basks in the warmth of a good mans love, glories in the laughter of healthy children glows with pride with every acquisition.

For the up to date mid-century American housewife and helpmate, pretty and perky dressed in a festive apron and a fresh coat of pretty in pink lipstick, it was a life of comfort and convenience, flameless, frost-free, touch-tone, push button ease.

Brains and Brawn

sexist vintage ad happy husband and wife at table

Setting a table fit for a king

With everything so automatic no wonder she looked to a man to be in control. Despite this life of ease, she seemed often to be a damsel in distress waiting to be rescued by Dudley Do-Right.

For a successful marriage it was important that the proper cold war corporate wife understand the tensions of her husband’s job as breadwinner. When it came to who was in the driver’s seat there was no question who was in charge.

New Frontier Fantasy

vintage illustration housewife arranging flowers

A beautiful floor with no waxy build up was a clear reflection of your skills as a homemaker. Vintage Glo-Coat advertisement

With their gleaming Ipana smiles the  happy homemakers asked nothing more of others than to refrain from scuffing up the shine on their freshly Glo Coated floor.

Though the atmosphere of the early 1960s was one of infinite challenges, women were still chained to their Electrolux vacuum cleaners chasing dirt, debating the well-worn topic of ring around the collar and exchanging the latest busy day Jell-O recipes while men joined the Peace Corps to save the world.

While others were out marching for Civil Rights in the 1960s fighting the break the color barriers hermetically sealed housewives were cheerfully living a colorfast world obsessed their wash n wear laundry was not white enough.

The Feminine Mistake

vintage photo 1950s housewife and birdcage

Now I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

As discrepancies began to appear, the New Frontier would pave the way for Feminism as happy housewives were discovering how unhappy they really were.

During the cold war, the culture of containment was not just a foreign policy but applied to women and their identities as much as it did to the Soviets. Women were to contain their aspirations, their appetites and their bodies

In a world rampant with wars rioting and male entitlement these happy housewives may have been smiling but more than likely they were numb from Miltown or Valium.

The problem that had no name was quietly being spoken about, in beauty parlors, and suburban kitchen across the country
Like underground nuclear testing, anger was to be buried underground, beneath the surface, but the fallout was soon to appear.

Before the decade was out, women would become as agitated as their miracle two agitator washers.

The End of Camelot

housewife angst doing housework

The New Frontier years of Camelot came to a crashing halt and turned out to be just one more fairy tale.
It wasn’t long before the spell was broken and we realized not everyone would love happily ever after like Cinderella.

The only shining white knight coming to the housewives rescue would be the Ajax White Knight galloping into her suburban neighborhood destroying dirt in his path with his magic lance.

Lib it Up

Womens Lib Card

Vintage greeting card 1970

By 1970 everyone was rapping about the new liberated woman and her newly raised consciousness.

Suddenly Happy Housewives with their smiling glowing faces shining with pink pancake makeup in harmonized shades keyed to match their appliances, were like those same retro appliances, replaced for a newer model.

Nuclear Family meltdown

The single gal exploded on the scene knocking the married housewife off her pedestal. Ads proclaimed “It’s your time to shine baby and we don’t mean pots and pans.”

The nuclear family detonated along with our notion of marriage and motherhood. As if hit by a strong dose of radiation the familiar 50s nuclear family in the media had mutated into monstrous families as June and Ward Cleaver were replaced by Lilli and Herman Munster.

Baby Bust

Parenting and partnering were not priorities for the newly liberated lady. An article written by Betty Rollins published in 1970 in Look magazine said it all: “Motherhood:Who needs it?”

Earth mothers were “in”. 1950’s suburban mothers were “out.”

Happy Homemaker R.I.P.

With the bewitching speed and ease of Samantha Stevens twitching her nose, the job a generation of women had trained for was suddenly obsolete by the 1970’s. Along with their bras, women’s libbers threw out the American housewife and June Cleaver got kicked to the curb.


You Might Also Enjoy

How to Spot a Feminist

Can Betty Draper Tune in With the Now Generation


Copyright (©) 2015 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved




  1. Laura Carpenter

    I had the same experience as you with my mother living for many more years, thank God. But this episode certainly resonated with me. This was such a thoughtful, well-written and researched blog today. It really recalled my dear mother so clearly, it’s as if you interviewed her. She kept such a beautiful home. She made such delicious meals. She was a wonderful mother and I know she was the perfect wife for the department head my father was at whatever university he was teaching. Way back in the late 50s, early 60s, I remember them going out to supper and dance and she was dressed in a gorgeous powder blue cinch waisted dress that flared out– she looked like a princess.
    But she had been working on her PhD in English at the Univ of Chicago when she and Dad married. Naturally she dropped that and never picked it up again. When I was in HS I often heard her say she was like a bird in a gilded cage. There was no question she loved my father and us but her help in seeing that I accomplished my goals outside marriage before she passed away was, I believe, a way of fulfilling herself.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think your Mothers story is so touchingly typical of that generation. Here was a generation of young women who were college educated ( unlike most of their own parents) and yet dove into domesticity with the same determination they would have given to a job. Though grateful that my mother was always there for me, I wonder what it would have been like had she pursued her ambitions. I think our generation rejected the self sacrifice that life involved. Like you I know my mother was immensely proud of me, and perhaps vicariously basked in the glow of some of my accomplishments.


  2. I certainly saw this pattern with both of my grandmothers and my own mother… my parents just about fainted when I declared that if I made more money than a man, he should be thankful that I was bringing in more cash for us to share, instead of giving it up to raise his children.
    I think it’s interesting, too, that my mother and my grandmother on my dad’s side were both highly educated university women, with exceedingly sharp minds, but they gave it up to raise children. My mother has said multiple times that it is important for a wife to be willing to give up her career, if her career makes her husband feel jealous or insecure. This is unfortunate for both the wife and husband, as the wife becomes captive to his income, and he becomes captive to work, as there is no one else to work if he needs to take a sick day or vacation.
    Anyway, a well written article.


  3. I don’t think the Happy Homemaker was ever named Betty. I think her name was June Cleaver. The question arises. Was she ever the Happy Homemaker? I am pretty sure that by 1970 she had sent the Beave and Walley off to college, divorced the heck out of Ward and started her catering business. Forget protesting or burning her bra, she was way too busy for that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. samitakaur1974

    Reblogged this on myideasaremine and commented:
    usually a woman is so busy looking after her family that she forgets to look after herself


  5. Love this! Sad but true…sad because an obligation to family should make one feel satisfied; true because self-sacrifice is never satisfying. Children are like sunflowers, they are false riches. They come through us, they are not of us, and as much as we oblige and self sacrifice we don’t own their outcomes. Love and be loved is the best we can do.


  6. Sally, you always have the gift of telling a complete tale and managing to make important yet poignant points while entertainingly referencing so much of the universal pop culture. Like Daisy on the Bicycle-Built-For-Two of the 1890s, the Gibson Girl in her shirtwaist of the new century, the Flapper, Rosie the Riveter, the Mid-Century Modern Mom has become an archetype. You have managed in this piece to capture every bright spot and darker shadow of her existence. This is history, entertainment, psychology and wit at its best.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: