Mention the history of womanhood, motherhood, feminism, families, or anything of the sort in America, and you’re bound to have someone mention the 1950s. In the post-war, baby boom era, an incredible retreat to the home was seen across the Unites States. Marriages skyrocketed, many women returned from the workforce to being housewives, allowing their husband to become the breadwinner in the home. The birthrate grew to unprecedented heights. Employment in the late 1940s was high. Wages for unskilled workers were great. This was all a perfect recipe for a lot of nuclear families to have a comfortable home and the means to raise multiple children on one income.
Perhaps no other popular portrayal of this quintessential idealized home is as enduring as “Leave it to Beaver.” And the ideal 1950s woman and mother is embodied in the character of Beaver’s mother June Cleaver. She was never on screen without pearls, high heels, a dress. She was always at home, there for her children.
To get a sense of Cleaver’s Character, you can watch the first 2 minutes of this video:
In this clip, we see the idealized 1950s home in white suburban America. Dad comes home from work in his car. Dinner is waiting for him. Dad is in a suit. Mom is in a dress. Dad is kind but stern with the boys who broke the window. He does the disciplining. Mom is there to soften things up, saying, “Let’s see if my lamb chops will help.” She does the nurturing.
In 2016 America (particularly Mormon America) there are many who believe that a woman’s “proper place” is in the home. Her “proper role” is a domestic home-maker, cookie-maker, and love-maker to her husband. She ought not to look outside the home to become a breadwinner, because her . And she ought to feel fulfilled in her pursuit of accomplishing the daily tasks of a child-bearer.
But for many Americans, the “ideal” 1950s lifestyle is not possible. Incomes are not always enough to take care of the children. Desertion and unwed mothers and absent fathers are present. The divorce rate has risen since then. Yet, so many people still look back at the “traditional” family of the 1950s and
It seems that Jerry Mathers, who played Beaver, mentioned this “ideal” 1950s lifestyle and said, “Now people always say, ‘Now, no one could live like that!’ No one could except Barbara…not that the character was based on her, or that she tried to follow it, but that that was the real Barbara Billingsley.”
But was it the real Barbara Billingsley?
Leave it to Beaver ran from 1957-1963. Before the show began, Billingsley had already been through a divorce. And the first 2 years of the show, she was a single mother of two children. She did remarry in 1959, but would continue to work outside the home. It seems that though Billingsley believed and said that June Cleaver was “the ideal mother,” she recognized a need to adapt her own situation out of necessity.
Even Billingsley herself seems to have projected the image of the 1950s “perfect housewife” on herself. She once said, “I think the character [of June Cleaver] became kind of like me and vice versa. I’ve never known where one started and where one stopped.”
This quote reveals, perhaps, just how much white American women in the 1950s wanted to be seen as an ideal mother. Billingsley compares Cleaver, a stay-at-home mom, to herself, a working mother. She seems to want to prove to others that she was similar (or almost identical to) what she calls “the ideal mother.”