Most women did not work when I was growing up.
My Mother is on the far left
Today, this seems too strange to be true, especially to young women. Having to work was not a good thing, not a desirable state. Only about 30% of women worked outside of the home in 1950. Women were happier at home. They took time to make their homes a haven, to garden, to arrange flowers, and to cook good meals. ( They were always healthy because the markets were not yet flooded with sugary food full of preservatives.) These meals were served in the dining room. Often the father said Grace before dinner. The TV was NOT on during the meal. Phones were attached to the wall. In most houses, they were not answered during dinner except to take a message.
Women who worked had to do it to survive. They were widows or “spinsters” and a few divorced women. An unlucky few were deserted by their husbands. We felt sorry for them because we all knew that being supported and allowed to stay at home was better. It is so interesting that the whole concept has been lost. There was a tiny minority of unwed mothers who kept their children and worked to support them. Almost everyone agreed that working outside the home was only for survival. Lately, I mentioned this to my granddaughter, who reacted with a passionate reply, “Well, I would have wanted to work in order to have my independence!“
Women were expected to marry a good provider, a man who could support them and their future children. It was bad luck to fall in love with a man who was poor or whose prospects were poor. However, some women did marry a poor man for love with varying degrees of success. Sometimes, marriage to a good woman was all it took for that man to struggle his way up the ladder. Other times, it was a disaster.
The change in attitude was beginning to happen when I was in high school in the late 50s. We were asked to describe our job of choice on an information form. It was one of many questions. I wrote that I wanted to get married and have children. That was a rare answer. Most of my friends named a job they wanted. They filled this form with some thought. They knew that it was considered more intelligent and more modern to name a profession. However, in those days, our choices seemed limited by the few jobs available to women other than teacher or secretary. We could be a lawyer, a doctor, a professor, or maybe something in the entertainment or scientific fields. These pampered girls all wanted to seem modern and intelligent, so they picked a profession. But the moment most of them became wives, their idea of a “job” went out the window.
In those days, it was generally believed that being a mother was a good thing. Marriage meant children. It was extremely rare to find a person who did not want children. And staying at home to raise your children was the very best way to give them a good start. There was no debate about this. Children were a part of married life. And raising them at home was the norm.
In fact, the example of Russian women putting their children in “daycare” systems was horrifying. They were raised essentially by strangers, by the state. This reminded us of how lucky we were to live in the USA. I still remember the feeling of relief that we did not encourage such behavior in this country. And my heart hurt for those Russian women who had no choice but to work in order to buy bread. We never thought of them as working for a feeling of independence and self-confidence. That was not part of the equation. And I am pretty sure the Russian women would have quit in a minute if they could have.
When Khrushchev came on an official visit to the USA in 1959, he was taken to an American Supermarket in California. He was astounded. There was nothing like that in the USSR. The idea of a store with plenty of food of every sort all in one place caught his interest. A single large store with no lines and no shortages of anything was unbelievable to him. Some people say it changed his ideas about communism. Some of his children and grandchildren ended up living here in the USA.
Here in the United States, women began to work outside their homes because they wanted more consumer items. For one thing, a second car was suddenly something they wished for. Initially, having a single car was a miracle. They were happy to share it. But gradually, everyone wanted their own set of wheels. By the late 50s and early 60s, working was almost becoming a status symbol. I am pretty sure that some women who would have preferred to be homemakers were forced into the workplace by peer pressure. And, of course, the desire for more and more things, gadgets, trips, and emblems of their success drove them to earn money.
Women whom I knew personally worked at different levels. The household help included primarily women as maids and cooks. Nurses were almost always women in the 1940s and 50s. But there were others, like my mother’s best friend, who had never married. She worked and may have been part owner of a company that had an answering service for businesses. Another working woman was my best friend’s mother, who had a column in the Washington Post. She was a journalist who married late and had only one child. She liked working. Then there was the incredible Claire Booth Luce, who was a great friend of my parents. She was Ambassador to Italy when we were living in Luxembourg. She was also a successful playwright, congresswoman and author. So, I knew that there were many varieties of working women.
Claire Booth Luce with Winston Churchill
When women stayed at home, the total expenses were less because there were fewer temptations to spend money. Television was free once you bought the machine. Telephones were relatively inexpensive unless you had many lines and instruments. Many of the expenses that people consider essential today were simply not part of daily life. Insurance was minimal as there was no medical insurance. People did not carry credit card debt either. Cash was used for most purchases. I used to have a charge account at several large stores. We did not use credit cards, but there were private credit arrangements with individual stores. Many, many different bills came in at the end of the month. Visa and Mastercard did not begin until 1966. These days, many people get ONE bill from a credit card, and if they cannot pay it in full, they pay off some of it. But the interest is terrible. So, they end up having a difficult time getting out of debt.
Some of the happiest couples I know are single breadwinner families. Sometimes, it is the man who is the stay-at-home parent. When I first heard of this, it seemed odd, but later, it became apparent that it worked well for some couples. Whatever works!!! If one parent is at home, it is good for the children.
The world has changed in so many ways that it seems almost unrecognizable to me. I believe that the loss of the family structure is tragic. Women should be able to work if that is their passion. But no one should be pressured to work at a job just because society demands it. And single family homes are a problem, not a solution. Marry the father of your child, preferably before you have one. Adopt a less expensive lifestyle and live within your means. A home with a man and woman doing the things they do best worked smoothly before. I believe it could again.
Copyright©. 2023 Bonnie B. Matheson