Occupation: Housewife

It seems very strange that I didn’t put everything together until I was cleaning out my parent’s safety deposit box after their deaths. The bank clerk handed me the little card they had filled out, probably just after their marriage in 1950. My parents had just bought a car and then a house in the Chicago suburbs and then added a dog, named Gerry after my grandmother. Twelve months after their marriage my older brother Ralph Jr. was born. The only missing piece in this 1950s tableau was a safety deposit box at the bank to store the deed to the house, insurance policies and other testimonials to their settled life. The bank card recorded their names, ages and address. But then I noticed two lines that called for both of their occupations, which in my mind had no relevance unless someone was bold enough to admit they were a safe cracker. My parents had dutifully filled in the information; my father’s backward slanted writing said Salesman, there was no surprise there, but I stared at my mother’s loopy handwriting. She had confidently written out: Housewife.

In the fifty five years that our lives overlapped, I never thought of my mother as a housewife – she was a mother first and foremost, but beyond that she was smart and clever, an athlete who taught all her children, including her daughter, how to throw a tight spiral football, a musician who wrote musicals for grade school children, an energetic volunteer for a residential home for troubled boys. I looked at the word “housewife,” and wondered if my mother had embraced this identity in the first dreamy years of her marriage, or if she already beginning to chafe against the suffocating pigeon hole of the post war 1950s.

In 1963 Betty Friedan published the book, The Feminine Mystique, which detailed the widespread unhappiness of married women, even though many were living in great material comfort with new appliances, cars and televisions, all of which were supposed to make their “jobs” easier. Friedan railed against the editorial policies of woman’s magazines, all helmed by men, which reinforced the notion there was no greater destiny for women than to glory in their own femininity and procreative talents. Essentially women were defined by their husbands and their children, but had no identity of their own. Friedan wrote:

“ Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands good-bye in front of the picture window, depositing their station-wagonful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor. They baked their own bread, sewed their own and their children’s clothes, kept their new washing machines and dryers running all day … Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their only fight to get and keep their husbands. They had no thought for the unfeminine problems of the world outside the home; they wanted the men to make the major decisions. They gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: “Occupation: housewife.”

My mother fell exactly into Friedan’s demographic. She graduated from college in 1949, and in the sliver of time between college and marriage she worked at a secretarial job arranged by her father. In contrast, my mother’s older brother, just returning from the World War II, smoothly transitioned to a job working alongside his father in the stockbroker business. I doubt that my grandparents or my mother ever considered for a moment that, aside from her gender, she was just as qualified as her brother to join the family business. As Friedan points out, even though more women than ever attended college in the 1940s, college was merely a placeholder and a training ground for marriage. Housewife it was. She became Mrs. Ralph Brown.

There was a toy closet in our family playroom, jumbled with board games, dress-up clothes, tambourines, maracas and other rhythm instruments. At the top, just out of reach of small children, there was a small shelf where I discovered a carefully hidden copy of my mother’s college thesis titled, “The Boot and Shoe Industry in Colonial America.” I didn’t appreciate that I had unearthed a treasured relic of her long-ago intellectual life. I remember sharing it with my brothers, and we liked to tease my mother about this seemingly trivial topic, so far removed from her more visible identity of changing diapers, changing the papers at the bottom of the mynah bird’s cage, endless carpooling, laundry chores, and just overall coping with a household of six children.

One time she did take me aside to defend her thesis, explaining that she had used colonial census reports to track the locations of those listing shoe repair as their occupation. She noted the westward movement of these tradesmen and concluded that their arrival in a community was a surrogate measure of a stable dividing line between civilization and wilderness. I began to see my mother in a new light, utterly impressed by her creativity and ingenuity. In college, I often thought of that paper and wondered if I could repurpose it for one of my own classes.

There were other hints. My mother frequently entertained at birthday parties with custom-made song parodies. Some lucky housewife received the following serenade:

What happened to all that priceless precious knowledge
That I learned at Vassar College?
Now I spend my day washing floors with grime and grit,
And sinks filled with old toothpaste and slimy spit.

I remember her dressed in her “in the trenches” outfit of a baggy pair of faded shorts and a comfortable collared T-shirt, standing at the yellow kitchen telephone singing the ditty to her friends. She laughed uproariously as she pronounced the alliterative “slimy spit” with disdain mixed with wonderment that her life was so far from that of a TV role model like June Cleaver, who baked and did housework in pearls and high heels. In the early 1960s, there were no role models for working women on TV; in our affluent community, there were very few women who worked. I don’t recall any women standing on the train platform with the other men waiting for the 8:00 AM commuter train to Chicago. There were perhaps a few mothers who worked locally at part-time jobs, but the implication was that this reflected poorly on their husbands’ rock-solid identity as the wage-earner.

This was just the dilemma that Friedan dissected. Why would a woman succumb to a salaried job, when she seemingly had a life of leisure (aside from those child-care duties, of course)? In our community, once the children were in school, women could have lunch with their friends, play tennis, shop, plan parties. How could a woman possibly say that this wasn’t enough, why would she want to “work” if she didn’t have to?

My mother surely knew that being Mrs. Ralph Brown was an exceptional privilege. After all, her husband had provided her with a big back yard that came complete with a swimming pool and a tennis court, but Friedan was right, she couldn’t help it. She wanted more, she wanted the identity and pride that came with a paying job, she wanted to contribute to the family budget. A school teacher was a possibility, but even in my grade school, all of my teachers where either widowed or single. A self-employed realtor was probably the most logical option, one where a woman could pick and choose her own hours and still maintain her primary identity as a housewife. Mom told me that had wanted to be a realtor, “I’d be good at it too, I know I would,” she said, and I agreed. But my father had nixed the idea. It was just too threatening. What would his in-laws think if their daughter went to work? Was he not a good provider?

Like generations of women before her, my mother focused on volunteer work, using her talents for music to work directly with disadvantaged children, and then organizing kick-ass rummage sales and other fundraising activities. But I think that Mom still itched to have her own career. Given her marital constraints, she threw herself into a series of largely successful cottage industries. She wrote musical plays for grade schoolers and song books for senior citizens, all advertised with homemade flyers. Everyday she would peer out the window, anxiously waiting for the mailman, triumphantly hold up the orders she received, carefully package them and then hustle up to the post office to send them off on the same day.

I looked at my mother’s efforts with a mixture of admiration for her constant stream of ideas and schemes and bemusement at their quirkiness. Her oddest project was a Spanish-English dictionary titled Olé!, specifically designed so that housewives could communicate with their landscaping crews – a perfect reflection of her surburban life of sweeping shade trees overhanging crisp well-manicured lawns. Who else but my mother could think of the following phrase for her specialty dictionary? “Please don’t mow the lawn near the tennis court while I am playing.”

My father never showed any particular interest in these projects – Mom even told me that he had never asked to read one of her plays. I think that my father looked at her efforts as non-threatening hobbies, while for her they were the only acceptable path to a distinct self-identity. She could be Fan Brown, not Mrs. Ralph Brown. However, here is where I have an issue with Betty Friedan. While Betty might have been dead-on regarding women’s frustrations, there was no corresponding dissection of the frustrations of the confining provider identity that was thrust upon husbands. My father started out as a pig iron salesman traveling throughout the Midwest, presumably under tremendous pressure to meet his sales quotas, and at the same time facing the looming possibility of being redeployed to the Korean War.

One of the items that emerged from the storage in my parents’ attic was a collection of yellowed and fragile letters written on hotel stationary from his days on the road – the LaSalle Hotel in South Bend, Indiana, Hotel McCurdy in Evansville, Indiana or the Hotel Gilbert in Fairmont, Michigan. A consistent theme runs through these letters. From the Whitcomb Hotel in St. Joseph, Michigan, Dad wrote, “There is something about a hotel room with its four pictureless walls, the single bed, desk and chair and the worn out rug that promotes loneliness.”

hotelsEventually, Dad became a very successful printing salesman, and while he traveled less frequently, he spent three hours a day in brutal rush hour traffic driving back and forth from Chicago. Like my mother, Dad injected humor into what must have been a repetitive and dispiriting chore. He regaled us with his careful categorization of all the nose-pickers he had spotted; there was the digital upper-thrust, the discretely wandering thumb, the probing side-winder and the post-extraction roller. However, while he idled in traffic and fretted about sales figures, he must have also thought about my mother’s schedule. Yes, she would do the laundry and carpooling and dinner would always be waiting for him after his evening cocktail, but he also knew that Mom’s flexible schedule accommodated daily games of tennis or lunch with friends. He must have been jealous. I think both my parents were trying to deal with the gap between expectations and reality in their own way. The difference was that my father knew the working world was going to be tough, while my mother was just discovering the undiluted domestic bliss of a housewife was an empty promise.

As a teenager, I was too self-involved to consider whether my mother’s determined efforts at self-employment were a cautionary tale or whether she was a role model. She never sat me down to say “Don’t make the same mistakes I did.” How could she? How could she admit to the disappointments in her privileged life? After all, she had been blessed with a husband who was a “good provider” and six children she adored. However, despite her steady cheerfulness and determination to find intellectual satisfaction within her small confines, I think her frustrations seeped into my subconsciousness even at an early age. It is 1958 and there I am, a 6 year old in my kindergarten class picture defiantly wearing pants and suspenders.

class picture

My class had been asked the provocative question, “What Would You Like to Be?”

My answer already reflected resignation to the limited options for women and the ambivalence of Occupation: Housewife.

I replied, “I guess I’ll be a mother.”

This early skepticism has served me well over the decades as I implicitly absorbed the lessons of my mother and approached motherhood warily. I wanted both a family and a wage-earning career of my own. I also thought of my father and the exquisite pressure he must have felt to be that good provider. I realized that in a dual-income marriage provided flexibility. If either my husband’s or my job was not going well, we could get by on a single salary while one of us took some time off to regroup. And with both of us working – me as a physician, my husband as a financial planer – well, now that provided the rationale to split all that dreary housework right down the middle. Oh, I think I hear my husband is puttering in the kitchen and making dinner, time for me to fold the laundry and put it away.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters. Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem. Scroll down for answers.

1940s college women might have ******* to a career and a Room of Their Own

But the feminine mystique suggested that these desires were overblown.

Society ******* the housewife’s life as the paragon of undiluted domestic bliss.

With a husband, children, and a suburban home, a woman should find nothing amiss.

To be unhappy amid all her material comforts, how could she possible dare?

But it was this very guilt that contributed to her existential *******.

You see, all those *******, laundry and mindless chores came at quite a cost

A woman’s intellectual energy slowly dissipated and then was totally lost.










Answers: aspired, praised, despair, diapers

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