For you Bill Bryson fans out there, I have not yet read At Home, but the allusion is there. From my understanding, Bryson’s book is about home life in Victorian England. And since home life for American women in the 1950s was closely related to home life in the Victorian period, I figure I can borrow the title.
During World War II, women had been urged in droves to enter the workforce and take manufacturing jobs. The war effort rested on the work of these “Rosies” who built airplanes, parachutes, weapons, ships, you name it. They built it all. And then the soldiers came home.
As soon as the soldiers began coming home, the propaganda ads started singing a different tune. Instead of Katharine Hepburn telling women to go become scientists, advertisements started using female doctors to tell other women that their place was in the home. After living through two emergencies in the 30s and the 40s, women were finally sent back into their homes.
While at home, women were expected to take up the roles of mother and homemaker. Suburbia blossomed, and family structure became more and more uniform throughout the middle class. Women were wives, mothers, cooks, housekeepers — everything that they had been during the height of the Victorian period, with just as much restriction in their clothing.
The Victorians are famous for corsets that morphed and deformed the torsos of women, but the corset came back into fashion in the 50s. Breasts were a big deal; they had to be big and high and oddly pointy (a shape that breasts just aren’t). Skirts and dresses fell at that awkward place about mid calf. With the discovery of artificial pearl growth, pearls became less expensive and an important sign of status. High heels were a must.
Because people could afford to live on one salary in the 50s, middle class wives didn’t need to work. They were able to stay at home and be wives and mothers, if they so desired. Of course, if the middle class wife wanted to be in the work force, that was nearly impossible. Public opinion was staunchly against working women. Mothers especially needed to be in the home.
But what about today? I’d be quick to say that we are far removed from the Victorian mentality of separate spheres, but are we really beyond the societal push to keep mothers at home? Recently, I read “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department, left her high-powered government job in DC in order to be at home with her teenaged son more often. During the two years that she worked in DC, Slaughter’s son began getting in trouble in school, so Slaughter made the decision that she was more needed in her family than in her government.
Throughout the op ed, Slaughter debunks the belief that women today can “have it all” — the job, the spouse, the children, and some time to do something else on the side — and shows how women today aren’t that much better-off than we were in the 50s. She goes through a sequence of half-truths about career life and family life, explaining how “it’s possible if you marry the right person” and “it’s possible if you sequence it right” are dangerous assumptions that largely don’t pan out for most women. Women are no longer stuck in the home, but many women with children have to face the choice between advancing professionally and staying at a lower-level job in order to spend time with their children.
Whether or not our popular understanding of men’s roles and women’s roles have changed since the 50s, workday schedules and school schedules have not. As life span and general health into old age increases, people have more years during which they can advance professionally, but promotions are still tracked on the same time frame that they were in the 50s. Even though video conferencing technology and the internet make working from home highly possible and possibly more efficient, companies still value time spent in the office over time spent actually working. Slaughter pegs these unchanged systems as key stumbling blocks for mothers advancing in the workplace. She also challenges the current value system in the United States that puts professional advancement over the pursuit of happiness. Even though our conscious minds are far from the ideology of women at home in the 50s, our work culture is still deeply rooted in that tradition. It’s a tradition that needs to change before mothers and fathers can truly balance career life and family life without feeling like something is missing from one or the other.