After having it sit on my desk for a month, I finally got a chance to sit down and read my* former graduate assistant’s dissertation on how British Victorian women and their families are represented in literature (That’s the oversimplified version of the topic; It is very scholarly which is why she is now Gretchen M. Frank, Ph.D.!) As I was reading her review of what other scholars have said, a phrase from a sentence jumped out at me and made me think of criticisms often thrown at me regarding the mid-20th century pressure to conform and be the perfect housewife:
…the difference between an ideal that can never be reached and the lived experiences that fall short of ideological expectations (Frank, 2014).
I’m not going to deny that there was tremendous pressure to conform to an ideal placed on midcentury women. There was. But the lived reality–the full spectrum of how women responded to that pressure–is very different and diverse than what the media would have us believe. For example, the conventional wisdom is that almost all married women were housewives and didn’t work outside the home. Well, that isn’t true. While the number of married women who made up the workforce in 1960 was still in the minority, the fact that approximately a third of married women were in the workforce should be a large enough number for us to sit up and take notice. Sadly, it doesn’t. They are invisible. Which is strange to me because in my early 1960s childhood reality, women worked outside the home. Both of my grandmothers worked. In fact, my maternal grandmother had her own business–she owned several beauty parlors, as they were called back then.
I think two of the reasons these working women are invisible is because they didn’t conform to the “ideal” and because they were limited to “pink collar” jobs. Even today, women in these types of jobs struggle to receive the recognition and respect they deserve.
So, why am I telling you all of this? Because as we read the texts from our midcentury mentors, we have to remember that they are describing the “ideal,” “the aspirational,” not the norm. We have to be careful to remember that we are not seeing the everyday reality but are only seeing glimpses of those things that inspire us to become the women we want to be.
Will we ever reach midcentury perfection? Of course not! And it is unhealthy to think that The Land of Perfection really exists. But we can certainly enjoy the sights and sounds on our journey to live a glamorous midcentury lifestyle!
* Gretchen wasn’t my graduate assistant. She was the graduate assistant for programming of which I am the team leader. Even though she was technically a student employee, she felt more like a colleague and we miss her tremendously.
Frank, G.M. (1984) Discourses of the Nineteenth-Century Family: Reading British Victorian Women and Their Families Through Communicative Representation (Unpublished doctoral dissertation <as of the date of this posting>). Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois.