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.


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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 3 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.

      Liked by 1 person

  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.

    Liked by 1 person

  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 2 people

  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

    Liked by 1 person

  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.


  7. sdaven5191

    The one thing – I think – that has always bugged me the most about the era of “Womens Liberation,” having come of age in its very midst — High School Class of 1975, “M.R.S. degree” awarded exactly one year later — was that it seemed their primary purpose was not to run rough-shod over the men, or the choices we made (available ones only) by their mothers, but to open the previously thoroughly, and hermetically sealed doors of opportunity and choice to both men AND women.

    But, in doing so, they somehow revoked their original purpose of creating expanded choices for women, by making it very difficult for women who *actively chose* marriage and motherhood as their goal in life, to do so without being made to feel as if they had commited an unspeakable, unpardonable sin, as well as letting down their whole sex, if not their whole generation. If creating more choices for women was their goal, I think they really dropped the ball on that one.

    For many young women, entering the educational as well as the job market on an equal footing with men was precisely what would have provided them with the accomplishments and fulfilment they were seeking. And for many of THEM, even though many doors remained, for a time, firmly closed at worst, or only slightly ajar at best, they were able to find their way through at other access points, or create their own. But, the young women who really wanted the more traditional roles, because that was truly what they wanted for themselves, and the families they wished to help create, not because they had been brow-beaten, brainwashed or hypnotized into believing that it was their true purpose in life, were made to feel very loudly and pointedly that by doing so they were seen as “traitors to the cause.” NOT that they were doing precisely what the Women’s Liberation Movement was fighting so hard for – the opportunity for women to have free and open choice to pursue whatever it was that would give them the most satisfaction, be the most creative, offer the most benefit to society, and give them the highest sense of self-fulfilment. Whether that meant in the kitchen, the nursery, or the carpool; in the operating room as the surgeon OR the nurse OR the Surgical Technologist; the Classroom as the student or teacher; or the Board Room of some corporation, large or small. CHOICE was supposed to be the goal – but the choice of the individual, not the ones that might be decided upon as acceptable by “the organization!”

    I struggled very hard with that myself, not wanting to deny myself the benefits of bring able to make my own choices because that’s what I was capable of doing and wanted to do; but also not wanting to be seen as or “branded” as some kind of traitor to myself, to other women like me, and to the many others who had been, and still were, fighting to get all of us the ability to make those choices. I finally decided that if I failed to make my own call and pursue it with all that was in me, THAT would be the ultimate “let down” to myself, and all else involved. I wasn’t able to do it the first time until I had been married for over 16 years, and had two children in middle school, but I made the opportunities, worked incredibly hard for a year and a half, and graduated on the Deans List, already having a full time job waiting for me to begin after a week of “R&R” from working myself to a frazzle from January of 1991 to the end of July of 1993! At which time I began a brand new career that helped provide for all of us for over 16 years, until I was injured on the job, and two subsequent surgeries, with a year of physical therapy were not successful at rendering me capable of performing all my job duties any longer.


    • In the past several decades women have had to navigate the often conflicting messages about what a successful woman is. The second wave feminists of the women’s movement did not hold much stock in the stay at home traditional mom. Those strident expectations have lessened considerably and there are more options open for women to choose what is possible for them.


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