Role of Women

The Way it Was for Women in the 1950s

The Happy Homemaker
The Happy Homemaker

When I commented on the women’s march in a previous post, I promised to write about the way it was when I was a young mother in the fifties. So here goes:

Because it’s hard to see the water we swim in, let alone remember it accurately more than 50 years later, I decided to do a little research. I consulted A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and America Women at the Dawn of the Sixties by Stephanie Coontz , and I was shocked by what I learned; it was worse than I remembered:

“In 1952 when Sandra Day O’Connor entered the job market after having graduated second in her class at Stanford Law School and served on the prestigious Stanford Law Review, she received only one offer from all of the major California law firms to which she applied. They would be happy to have her as a legal secretary; they did not employ women as attorneys.”

Laws varied from state to state, but here’s a sample of egregious legal measures and policies  that discriminated against women in the fifties:

  • In many states“ Head and master” laws affirmed that the wife was subject to her husband.
  • A wife had no legal right to any part of her husband’s earnings or property during their marriage (true in all states and the District of Columbia).
  • Only four states granted a wife the right to a separate legal residence.
  • In some states a wife was required to take her husband’s surname. A woman who did not change her name on her driver’s license could have it revoked until she did.
  • Five states required women to receive court approval before opening a business of her own.
  • Banks and credit card companies discriminated against single women. If a single woman with her own credit card got married, they insisted that her husband become the legal account holder.
  • Some states allowed husbands to mortgage their homes or dispose of jointly held property without consulting their wives. In issuing a mortgage or a loan, a wife’s income was taken into consideration only if she was at least 40 years old or could present proof she had been sterilized.
  • No laws prevented employers from firing female employees if they married or got pregnant or from refusing to hire married women at all or women whom they did not consider “attractive.”

There’s lots more, but you get the idea. But what was arguably worse than codified discrimination was the unstated cultural expectations that were imposed on women.

I know it’s difficult for women today to understand just how forceful these expectations were, or that all but a very few stalwart women accepted them.

The pervasive assumption was that a woman could only achieve her personal identity through the role of wife and mother. A woman was universally expected to be totally wrapped up in the welfare of her husband and children and in the care of the home. She was passive and supportive of her husband, She did not threaten him by being too knowledgeable or assertive. If she did not experience joy from cooking, cleaning, providing clean clothes and a tidy house, there was something neurotically wrong with her.

This. of course, did not make most of us happy, but it was not until 1963 when Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique awakened women to the source of their discontent and women were included (as an afterthought) in the Civil Rights Act, that the fight for equal rights took shape.

Although a lot of progress has been made since the fifties, the fight is not over.

It seems to me that the closer we get to achieving equality of the sexes while still enjoying the delightful differences between them, the harder the task is. In my opinion a laser-like focus on offending policies and parties will have more effect than all-purpose whine-ins, like the recent pink-hat, red-dress marches, which as far as I can see do little more than satisfy the participants that they’ve done something meaningful and clever.

To Be Continued: My personal story.

5 thoughts on “The Way it Was for Women in the 1950s

  1. Ah yes, the good old days. I am taking a short course now on “The Fifties”. Everyone in the class was an adult during the decade. The text is David Halberstam’s book, “The Fifties.” You are right when you say it is hard to remember how “not good” it was. Of course some of us were lucky to marry a feminist before his time. (Like Herb) I do remember always feeling that I was falling short because I didn’t really like cooking and cleaning, and let’s not even mention sewing. I guess we owe a lot to “The Movement” even though I didn’t burn my bra then and won’t wear a pink pussy hat now. But I am glad that my daughter thinks I was a good role model for her own liberation.

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