The search for a new feminine ideal in the 1960’s, from the newly emancipated American woman to the feminist 

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The identity crisis of the “housewife” in the late 1950’s: looking for a new role in society

I’ve tried everything women are supposed to do – hobbies, gardening, pickling, canning, being very social with my neighbors, joining committees, running PTA teas. I can do it all, and I like it, but it doesn’t leave you anything to think about- any feeling of who you are. I never had any career ambitions. All I wanted was to get married and have four children. I love the kids and Bob and my house. There’s no problem you can even put a name to. But I’m desperate. I begin to feel I have no personality. I’m a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bedmaker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I? (Friedan, 1997: 64).
I ask myself why I’m so dissatisfied. I’ve got my health, fine children, a lovely new home, enough money. My husband has a real future as an electronics engineer. He doesn’t have any of these feelings. He says maybe I need a vacation; let’s go to New York for a weekend. But that isn’t it. I always had this idea we should do everything together. I can’t sit down and read a book alone. If the children are napping and I have one hour to myself I just walk through the house waiting for them to wake up. I don’t make a move until I know the rest of the crowd is going. It’s as if ever since you were a little girl, there’s always been somebody or something that will take care of your life: your parents, or college, or falling in love, or having a child, or moving to a new house. Then you wake up one morning and there’s nothing to look forward to. (Friedan, 1997: 65).
I seem to sleep so much. I don’t know why I should be so tired. This house isn’t nearly so hard to clean as the cold-water flat we had when I was working. The children are at school all day. It’s not the work. I just don’t feel alive. (Friedan, 1997: 65).
The main question is why all these intelligent women, who studied, who were capable of the greatest accomplishments, decided to remain at home and limit their worlds to the family life? The ideology of the “perfect housewife” kept women from developing all their potential and from knowing the world outside the house and the family. The consequences of this “golden cage” were felt all over the country. An increasing number of frustrated and overpowered women were a threat to the image of perfection that this social ideology wanted to impose. Women no longer has an identity, they were lost between the dishes, diapers and their husbands. They were “the wife”, “the mother”, “the housewife”, their own identities were a reminiscence of the past, of a time when they knew who they were and what they wanted in life: a family, a “perfect” family. This desperate search for a husband was every young woman’s goal. After finding a husband and founding a family they could live the “American Dream”; but they no longer knew who they were, what they wanted or what they liked. Young women approaching adulthood were constantly submersed in this powerful inducement to early marriage, but their insecurity about themselves and about what they wanted in life was also a very important part of this premature decision.
They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted a professional career, higher education and political rights – the independence and opportunities feminists had fought for some decades earlier. Then American girls began to get married in high school, colleges built dormitories for married students: by the end of the fifties, the United States’ birthrate was overtaking India’s. Where once women had two children, now they were having four, five, six; women who once had careers were now making careers out of having babies and being the “perfect” housewife. On the subject of women’s isolation and on the ideal of the suburban family, Friedan insists: In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self- perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their stationwagons full 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. They changed the sheets on the beds twice a week instead of once, took the rug-hooking class in adult education, and pitied their poor frustrated mothers, who had dreamed of having a career. Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful home, 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 men to make the major decisions. They gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: “Occupation: Housewife. (Friedan, 1997: 60) In August 1953 two shocking news exploded in the American Press: the USSR had detonated a nuclear bomb and Dr. A. Kinsey’s report on female sexuality. It seems absurd to give equal weight to these two events, but both news generated the same level of anxiety among the public. According to Kinsey and his staff, 62% of American women acknowledged masturbating, nearly 50% of them had sexual intercourse before marriage and 26% admitted to maintaining relations with other men than their husbands. These revelations caused a major reaction in American society, especially because it demonstrated the difference between the ideals of sexual conduct and the behavior of real men and women. Even if Kinsey’s report instigated objection and disapproval, it was an important way to accept women’s sexuality; the very fact that female sexual behavior was a subject worth of scientific studies was remarkable in itself.

The need for a new role

In a decade that E. Kaledin characterizes as “affluent, fabulous, crucial, fearful and wasteful”, (Kaledin, 1984: 218), American society continued to diminish women into their roles as mothers and housewives; even if education was highly recommended to young women, its intention was never to develop a refined and competent generation. Instruction and sophistication were essential to find a good husband and to raise healthy and educated children. According to B. Friedan, the idea that intelligent and prepared women were presumed to stay home was an incredibly waste of talent. To ignore the complexity of 1950’s women is to risk a more complex view of American feminism; if the society of that period reduced and did so little to reinforce women’s strengths, their combat must be seen as a much important and stronger statement.
By 1962 the plight of the trapped American housewife had become a national issue: dozens of magazines, books, educational conferences and TV shows were devoted to the problem. However, many people still did not know that this problem was real, those who were facing it knew that all the cheering and kind words would not change a thing and that, in fact, they were somehow drowning the problem in unreality. A bitter feeling was beginning to be felt by American women: they were admired, envied, pitied, theorized until they were sick of it and no real solution was offered. They received all kinds of advice from the growing number of marriage therapists and psychiatrists, but no other road to fulfillment was offered: they had to adjust to their housewife role. Most did it and adjusted to their role and ignored the problem as long as they could: it was a giant mass of women that were suffering in silent. It is no longer possible to ignore that voice, to dismiss the desperation of so many American women. This is not what being woman means, no matter what the experts say. For human suffering there is a reason; perhaps the reason has not been found because the right questions have not been asked, or pressed far enough. I do not accept the answer that there is no problem because American women have luxuries that women in other times and lands never dreamed of; part of the strange newness of the problem is that it cannot be understood in terms of age-old material problems of man; poverty, sickness, hunger, cold. The women who suffer this problem have a hunger that food cannot fill. It persists in women whose husbands are struggling internes and law clerks, or prosperous doctors and lawyers; in wives of workers and executives who make $5,000 a year or $50,000. It is not caused by lack of material advantages; it may not even be felt by women preoccupied with desperate problems of hunger, poverty or illness. And women who think it will be solved by more money, a bigger house, a second car, moving to a better suburb, often discover it gets worst. (Friedan, 1997: 71).
It was no longer possible to blame the problem on loss of femininity, to say that education and independence have made American women less feminine, even if therapists and scientists had pointed out that the explanation for women’s frustration was the fact that they had become “unfeminine”. But the problem could not be explained by this theory, since the majority of these women had lived their whole lives in the pursuit of the greatest feminine accomplishment: a perfect family and a beautiful house. They were very “feminine” women – in the usual sense – but they still suffered from the problem.

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“There’s something missing”: from women’s individual crises to the collective awareness of their common condition

“Easy to say”, the woman inside the housewife’s trap says, “but what can I do, alone in the house, with children yelling and the laundry to sort and no grandmother to babysit?”(Friedan, 1997: 463). It was easier to women to live through someone else than to look who they really were and what they wanted in life; it was frightening to realize that the answer to the question “Who I am?” was much more complex than “mother” and “housewife”, but the more difficult thing to know was that the answer was inside themselves. They could spend years on the therapist’s couch trying to adjust to their “feminine role” and looking for a way to be fulfilled with their roles as mothers and housewives, but the problem was still there; every hour, every day, they were still looking for their real aspirations and true personalities When a society asks so little from women, as was the case in the fifties, every woman has to listen to her inner voice to find her identity and ways to develop it. She must create, out of her needs and abilities, a new life plan, appropriate to the family and home that have defined femininity in the past with something that will allow her to cultivate a new perception of herself and of her capacities, her capacities to be more than a housewife and a mother. Women were starting to realize and to face the problem that had transformed their idealized lives into empty fantasies. But once they had faced it, without much real help from experts and therapists, many of these women asked themselves who they really were and started to find out their own answers. Once women began to see through the myths of the “feminine mystique” (Friedan, 1997) and realized that neither their husbands nor their children, nor the things in their houses, nor sex, nor being like all the other women, could give them happiness, the search for the solution was much easier than they had anticipated. B. Friedan talked to many women who lived this transition and, through their testimonies, it is possible to realize how the awareness of the problem and the search for a solution were unique for each woman.
I used to work so hard to maintain this beautiful picture of myself as a wife and mother. I had all of my children by natural childbirth. I breastfed them all. I got mad once at an older woman at a party when I said childbirth is the most important thing in life, the basic animal, and she said, ‘Don’t you want to be more than an animal?’ You do want something more, only you don’t know what it is. So you put even more into housekeeping. It’s not challenging enough, just ironing dresses for your little girls, so you go in for ruffly dresses that need more ironing, and bake your own bread, and refuse to get a dishwasher. You think if you make a big enough challenge out of it, then somehow it will be satisfying. And still it wasn’t. I couldn’t seem to control this feeling that I wanted something more from life. So I went to a psychiatrist. He kept trying to make me enjoy being feminine, but it didn’t help. And then I went to one who seemed to make me find out who I was, and forget about this beautiful feminine picture. I realized I was furious at myself, furious at my husband, because I’d left school. I can’t think what I was trying to do with mu life before, trying to fit some picture of an oldtime woman pioneer. I don’t have to prove I’m a woman by sewing my own clothes. I am a woman, and I am myself, and I buy clothes and love them. I’m not such a darned patient, loving, perfect mother anymore. I don’t change the kids’ clothes top to bottom every day, and do more ruffles. But I seem to have more time to enjoy them. I don’t spend much time on housework now, but it’s done before my husband gets home. We bought a dishwasher. (Friedan, 1997: 465)

Table of contents :

1. The American woman in the 1950’s: from the “ideal woman” to the “woman in crisis” 
1.1. The American Way of Life” and women in the 1950’s
1.2. Building the ideology of the “ideal woman” as “housewife”
1.3. The identity crisis of the housewife in the late 1950’s: looking for a new role in society
2. The search for a new feminine ideal in the 1960’s, from the newly emancipated American woman to the feminist 
2.1. “There’s something missing”: from women’s individual crises to the collective awareness of their common condition
2.2. The revival of a Movement and the development of Egalitarian Feminism
2.3. The Egalitarian Feminist Revolution
2.4. The rise of Radicalism: “Women’s Lib”
2.5. The Radical Feminist Revolution
2.6. Radicalism: The instruments and ideologies of action
Conclusion: how the experience of American women in the 1950’s and 1960’s
contributed to modern women’s emancipation


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