‘Only’ a housewife?

1950s housewife

A recent History Theatre production in St. Paul — Gloria: A Life — focused on Gloria Steinem and other famous females leading the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

It also touched briefly on their predecessors, the women of the 1950s who were housewives and stay-at-home moms, a la June Cleaver of TV’s Leave It to Beaver.

Juxtaposed with the feminists of the day and Gloria Steinem (who is still with us today at age 85), the June Cleavers of the world appeared naive and shallow, leading such bland and boring lives. This perception was strengthened as the feminist movement took hold. 

It made me wince. 

A very bright, well-educated young woman I knew then — who surely could have had a fulfilling career in business — believed her children should have their mother at home, so she chose instead to become a housewife. She almost apologized to me, as though this was something to be ashamed of. 

Because the feminist movement opened the door for women to make inroads in nearly every field, it has served — perhaps inadvertently — to devalue the role of housewife. Being a “homemaker” today is perceived by many women to be old-fashioned. In some circles, it’s no longer socially acceptable — even embarrassing. 

While watching Gloria: A Life, my dear and beloved late husband Earl also came to mind. 

A proven champion of social justice, Earl supported the women’s movement. Yet, ironically, Earl — who was considerably older than me — also was one of its perpetrators!

Earl, and the other members of his “Greatest Generation,” were practitioners of the patriarchy that goaded women into seeking change. As Earl’s wife, I lived with this way of thinking. 

Earl was head of the household. He simply never took to sharing home chores, even after he’d retired from work. I eventually gave up trying to get him to do anything more than make the bed. 

Two of Earl’s daughters-in-law, who were committed feminists, could be very icy to him at times. The wife of his eldest son Jack actually became the family breadwinner, leaving Jack home to raise their two daughters. The wife of his second son Rick once wondered aloud to me if Earl had ever changed Rick’s diapers when he was a baby. (Earl’s first wife was his sons’ mother, so I don’t know.)

And so I came away from Gloria: A Life wondering: Has feminism overshot its objective? Certainly not all women want to set the world on fire; many are simply not cut out to do so. Instead of being stigmatized for staying at home, they should be recognized for making
the appropriate choice for them. 

How would Earl have reacted to the play? He couldn’t very well look away from the criticism being heaped on men like himself that was portrayed on stage. Would he have argued with some of it? Certainly! Would his social conscience be reawakened, goading him to pitch in and further the feminist cause? I’ll never know! 

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to [email protected].