Though it sounds like an oxymoron, June Cleaver was trending on twitter yesterday.
Once again Donald Trump invokes the Suburban Housewife that lily-white mythical creature that once roamed America’s sub-divisions dressed in heels and pearls. The Americanus Suburban Housewife circa 1947-1975 was a Caucasian, carpool driving, Campbell soup casserole-cooking, catering to everyone’s needs-but-her-own female that has been extinct for over 45 years.
It is a genus I know well because I am descended from one. Though I am a woman who lives in the suburbs of Suffolk County, my lifestyle cleaves drastically from June Cleavers in Mayfield. Nor does it bear any resemblance to my own mother who happily lived out that post-war suburban dream that sprouted up in a field of potatoes in Long Island. The newly built homes were as homogeneous as its residents, where the same meatloaves were cooked in identical Amana wall ovens, and the African American cleaning girls all came on Thursdays.
Never was the notion of the idealized suburban housewife more potent or more seductive than in mid-century America. Like most girls growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I was fed a generous serving of sugar-coated media stereotypes of happy homemakers who were as frozen and neatly packaged as the processed foods they served their cold war families in their split level homes. It’s clear that Donald Trump dined on these same clichés and still feasts on them.
To believe all the advertisements and articles in the oversize glossy magazines my mother subscribed to, her life was magical. This new American suburban homemaker was the most envied girl in the world. Smart…yet easy-going with never-you-mind freedom; that was the new Mrs.Homemaker! There was freedom to choose from a dazzling assortment at the abundant supermarkets and shopping malls. Food Fair, Green Acres, Roosevelt Field, all beckoned, all within easy driving distance in her new automatic transmission Plymouth!
Hers was a carefree world of no scrubbing, no scraping, no polishing, and no diversity. In a consumer culture of unlimited choices, the suburbs offered only one brand of the American family. But no one seemed to notice.
Tucked within those colorful magazine pages that captivated me as a child, the periodicals promised the modern mid-century housewife would find exactly the right information that would give her the knowledge to excel in her role as a suburban wife and mother. Glancing at her favorite magazines only seemed to confirm what Mom knew to be true.
“Yes,” she read in a 1958 issue of Family Circle, “for today’s homemaker her home is her castle….Snug within it she basks in the warmth of a good man’s love…glories in the laughter of healthy children…glows with pride in every new acquisition that adds color or comfort pleasure or leisure to her family’s life.”
“And, she’s always there! She’s an up to date modern American suburban housewife.”
Stuck forever in 1958, this is the image that seems to play in an endless loop in Trump’s head when he envisions the suburban housewife. He clings to these once-cherished beliefs forged during the post-war years where myths were churned out as rapidly as they did Chevrolets.
In the midst of all this happy homemaking, some quiet rumblings among some unhappy housewives across the country began to be heard by the fall in 1960. Good Housekeeping tapped into this vein of unhappiness with a September article: “I Say: Women Are People Too.”
The author of the article was Betty Friedan, a 39-year-old freelance writer from N.Y. suburbs. Friedan was asked to assemble a booklet for her Smith college class 15th reunion in 1957. She sent out questionnaires expecting to be inundated with cheerful stories about successful careers and young families. Many classmates responded with tales of depression and frustration. It was Friedan’s first clue than many thousands of women shared her own dissatisfaction.
The Smith questionnaire inspired her to undertake a detailed examination of what she called “the problem that has no name” The Good Housekeeping piece sprang from this research. She had started a book manuscript by Oct 1960. The book entitled The Feminine Mystique wouldn’t be published until 1963. For many women, the problem that had no name was buried as deeply as our missiles were underground but would cause the same explosion when years later they were released. It would begin the slow death knell for the suburban housewife.
Trump never took note. He was too busy picking up chicks.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.