Is She a Person or is She a Wife? Domesticity and Identity in the 1950s

Sometimes things are difficult to identify. Just ask these men who auditioned to play Jerry Seinfeld on broadway:

Many historians have noted an important movement in the 1950s concerning women’s identity. The movement I am referring to is the decline of the woman’s role as a “producer” in the home, and her switch to playing the role of “consumer”. We look back on this decade and see advertisements aimed heavily at persuading housewives that they need certain products to maintain their femininity and value as domestics. The home became a place of leisure, rest, and refuge for the family rather than a place to work, create, and contribute to the family economy. Thus, many corporations and marketers saw women as their primary consumers.

In my search for sources, I came across an incredible link between the “average jane” and the commercial marketer. It’s a book by a few social psychologists. It’s called Workingman’s Wife: Her Personality, World and Lifestyle

What is it?

Workingman’s Wife is an analysis of the lives and identities of American women in the working class. It is an attempt to describe what she experiences, feels and thinks. It is an attempt to explain why she does what she does. The authors have sought to understand the inner-workings of her mind and reveal it to commercial marketers. These marketers are then supposed to capitalize on and appeal to these women’s needs, aspirations, anxieties to sell their products.

Who wrote it?

Lee Rainwater, Gerald Handel, and Richard P. Coleman: two professors of sociology and one of marketing wrote the book. Each of them is white. Each of them is a male.

When was it published?

1959

Why is it Important to learn about?

Analyzing this book as a primary source from the 1950s will help the reader understand perceptions, stereotypes, and assumptions about women and their prescribed gender roles in the 1950s. A little bit of irony in the fact that this book is written by men highlights the ways in which the “proper” role of a woman in the 1950s was socially constructed.

What is remarkable and audacious about this work is that it is, in essence, an attempt to discover and determine the innermost desires and consciousness of an entire class of women. Each of the 239 pages are essentially dedicated to defining the 1950s working class woman.

Revealing Elements of the Book

Let’s start off with something basic about the book: The title. The authors of this book have chosen to define these women not by who they are, but how they relate to another individual. Their very identities seem to be confused with who they relate to. They are wives to a husband – not women ages 19-24 in households making “x” amount of money per year in the United States.

This identification of women as wives and not individuals might be an indication of the prejudices of the authors. They make many strident statements about women’s attitudes toward motherhood and wifehood. Note the title. Not only do the authors set out to define the young working class housewife’s experience, concerns and anxieties, but also her personality. wife

It seems that the personality of the American working class woman is one that cannot exist without support. Their personalities are leeches, parasites to the domestic life and domestic, nuclear family relations. These male professors encourage marketers to appeal to “the working class wife’s need to constantly secure herself in the affection of others, to reassure herself that her husband and her children love her, and that other significant persons do, too.”

Women’s personalities are self-sacrificing: “Often, middle class women displace their own desires for a reputable neighborhood onto a concern over their children’s social development.”

Prejudices about women’s innate desires being completely domestic are rampant throughout the book. The preface, also written by an educated white male, says, “The authors of this book, I believe, have examined the most conservative members of our society. Within the women are imbedded the deep and enduring values of our culture. They carry the central and largest core of our conscious and unconscious life.

Tin Can Accounting

These sociologist’s prejudices are further revealed in their attitudes toward the intelligence of the “workingman’s wife”. They says that because these women are “not given to abstract thinking” they tend to “rely upon gimmicks such as envelopes, serious drawers, or tin cans to help them in budgeting their disbursements.

It’s interesting that today’s New York Time’s best selling “financial wizard” Dave Ramsey prescribes “envelope system” as an effective solution to managing family finances and spending. Is Dave Ramsey “not given to abstract thinking”? Most would regard him as a great financial advisor.

Children & Motherhood

I’ll let these citations speak for themselves. “[The workingman’s wife] has some tendency to regard children as though they were a combination of animated toy, stuffed animal, and a sparkling bauble.”

“Since she spends a good deal of her day in the kitchen, the housewife likes it to seem homey and cozy.” …”portray [kitchen appliances] in a setting which involves some of these more emotionally satisfying images.”

Men Know what Women are Thinking

One of the most revealing (and often comical) themes within this book is a “stream of consciousness” format that the authors come back to. They will make a generalization of women’s attitudes toward something (i.e. children, husbands, religion) and then they will write a few paragraphs of what they have concieved as the common dialogue in the workingman’s wife’s head.

Anxieties & Tension

Despite all these problems with prejudice, stereotype, and sometimes downright chauvinism, the authors do recognize anxieties women have about reconciling their domestic duties with the rest of society’s demands. They know women’s roles are “highly restricted.”And they believe the changes of “the outside world” have “invaded the innermost recesses of their personalities, their unconscious privacies.”

“They share their anxieties with all of us.” says one author. “They cannot know whether their world is hell bent for heaven or hell bent for hell.”

 


Rainwater, Lee, Richard P. Coleman, and Gerald Handel. The Workingman’s Wife: Her Personality, World and Life Style. New York, New York: Oceana Publications, 1959.

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4 thoughts on “Is She a Person or is She a Wife? Domesticity and Identity in the 1950s

  1. I thought it was interesting and crucial that you pointed out how white men were the ones who wrote this book on behalf and for women–something not uncommon for 1950s America or even America today. More bothersome, is that these authors portrayed the women of this era as dependent and superficial–further promoting the toxicity of the culture in which they lived.

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  2. I enjoyed your section headings. They were helpful. Like Aly, I was struck that (surprise, surprise) this text was written by men. Not allowing women to be emotionally independent or free to express their true feelings to the extremity that we did in the 1950s set The United States back quite a bit, in my opinion. When men expect that, any show of emotion from a woman is seen as dramatic and excessive.

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  3. I too thought the section headings made it easier to follow along. The difference between men and women and the term “what is appropriate” is very interesting. I think it’s toxic that women are to be faced with judgement for showing certain emotions. I think it would be interesting to see how this idea applied to men. Women are dramatic, but men are supposed to be emotionless, why? Why is it so bad if a man cries? Why is it so bad that women show too much emotion. It seems both sexes try to polarize the other just to make the genders very specific and an increase in gender roles.

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