In the 1950s, things seemed simpler, at least for middle-class
Americans. In the ideal world, men were the breadwinners, working
full time in careers that promised security and a comfortable living
for those willing to make work their top priority. Women were the
caretakers of the home and family, supporting their husbands emotionally
and socially so that they could focus single-mindedly on climbing
career ladders or at least hanging on.
Although this lifestyle worked for some, it was never a reality
for poor women or men, those on the fringes of the labor market.
Still, the breadwinner/homemaker family became the icon of the American
Dream. "Success" for men entailed a career that enabled
their wives to stay home. "Success" for women meant being
married to a "successful" man. Although not all families
in the 1950s could afford this version of the good life, even those
on the outside looking in -- poor families, immigrant families,
divorced or single parents -- aspired to this breadwinner/homemaker
lifestyle, replete with a house in the suburbs and a car in the
carport, if not the garage. Books, movies, advertisements in magazines,
and television shows depicted American women and men as homemakers
and breadwinners, reinforcing and sustaining the gender divide.
But all was not well on the home front. Despite cultural consensus
that marriage and motherhood are women's "master" roles,
many emulating this archetype in the 1950s and 1960s felt a deep
lack of fulfillment and a sense of unease. One of them, Betty Friedan,
frustrated and depressed by the absence of opportunity to use her
education and talents, actually began to write about this "problem
with no name."
In the 1950s Betty Friedan struggled to be a good homemaker, wife
and mother. Tucked into a residential suburb, she felt cut off from
the mainstream, embroiled in her small world of full-time domesticity,
of women and children isolated from the "real world" of
business and industry. Frustrated by the absence of opportunity,
she began to write about this "problem with no name,"
eventually calling it the feminine mystique (which became
the title of her groundbreaking book). In that one phrase, Friedan
captured the myth of middle-class womanhood in the middle of the
twentieth century. Marriage and motherhood were touted as totally
fulfilling, as a rewarding life peopled by children and other mothers
in the new residential suburbs sprouting up in postwar America.
Women were the family consumers, chauffeurs, cooks, and caregivers.
They were also deft at handling contradictions, at being both sex
symbols and the keepers of the nation's morals.
Leading to the feminine mystique were, first, jobs that paid a
family wage (that is, enough to support a family on one
income). A burgeoning post-World War II economy fit well with the
beliefs and values honed on the American experience, the American
Dream of individual achievement and self-sufficiency. The dream
captures the frontier spirit of enterprise, energy and optimistic
expectations so emblematic of the United States. Success can be
earned, people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, anyone
can move up the occupational ladder. For many in the middle of the
twentieth century, this dream seemed within reach. Even blue-collar
jobs with no such ladders offered a clear path to seniority and
with it higher salaries, the wherewithal to own a home, and economic
security. A measure of men's success became the fact that they could
afford to support their wives as full-time homemakers.
In her book Betty Friedan showed the underside of this myth of
domestic fulfillment. Many middle-class homemakers felt isolated,
inadequate, alone, and unhappy. Sometimes living up to this ideal
caused hardship for the rest of the family. Many girls saw their
mothers grapple with being "just a housewife." Many families
struggled to maintain a middle-class lifestyle on one salary.
The feminine mystique was only part of the story, half the gender
divide. It was, paradoxically, embedded in the American Dream that
anyone could make it through hard work. Only, that "anyone"
was assumed to be a man. What emerged for American men following
World War II was a lockstep template -- a one-way pathway from schooling
through full-time, continuous occupational careers to retirement.
This lockstep career path both enabled the feminine mystique
and was sustained by it. Men could lead work centered lives
precisely because their wives took care of the daily details of
family and home. Wives even supported their husbands' careers by
entertaining bosses and relocating from state to state as their
husbands followed jobs or moved up company ladders. Although men
expected to fall in love, marry and have children, their jobs were
their main act, who they really were -- doctors, salesmen, plumbers,
and members of a growing white-collar bureaucracy that worked in
offices, not on factory floors. For most middle-class households,
there was one job -- the paid one. Men's careers, thus, offered
the only path to security, success and status -- for their families
as well as themselves.
Women's lives in the middle of the twentieth century, by contrast,
offered no such starring role. They were the stagehands, set designers,
walk-ons, caterers and coaches of others' lives: their husbands,
their children, their neighbors, their friends. Still, most worked
for pay before marriage or motherhood, as well as during World War
II. Growing numbers of women attended college and developed occupational
aspirations of their own. This mismatch created the cultural contradictions
of the feminine mystique, a mythical vision of womanhood that limited
options and idealized the breadwinner/homemaker family, even as
many young American women were entering colleges or the workforce
as a matter of course.
Whether people achieved it or not, the breadwinner/homemaker template
provided cultural guidelines about careers, families, and gender
that effectively decoupled paid work from unpaid family-care
work, creating a fictional divide between them, a divide that became
embedded in occupational ladders and prospects, assuming someone
else -- a wife -- would attend to the details of daily living. In
this way, the imaginary divide between paid work and unpaid
work became a very real gender divide. Today the borders
are both fraying and more permeable than ever before, but the roles,
rules and regulations about a lifetime of paid work remain in place,
while care for the nation's families remains mostly women's unpaid
In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan pointed out the
cultural contradictions of assigning full-time homemaking to half
the adult population. But she paid scant attention to its mirror
image, the career mystique, the expectation that employees
will invest all their time, energy and commitment throughout their
"prime" adult years in their jobs, with the promise of
moving up in seniority or ascending job ladders. Some captured the
reality of this mystification of occupational careers -- C. Wright
Mills wrote White Collar, William H. Whyte described The
Organization Man, and Sloan Wilson painted a vivid fictional
account in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. But none of
these recognized that the career mystique rested on the
premise of a gender divide, with men occupying the jobs offering
seniority and ladders and women making men's homes, nurturing their
children, and providing them with support and encouragement.
The Feminine Mystique was a bombshell. With it, Betty
Friedan helped usher in the Women's Movement of the 1960s, 1970s
and 1980s, which, along with an expanding service economy, has literally
transformed the lives of American women. But in rejecting the norms
and values of the feminine mystique, much liberal feminism came
to embrace men's lives as the yardstick of equality. The senior
author recently overheard a young girl in a toy store saying she
wanted boy's toys. This was, in essence, what feminism of the latter
half of the twentieth century wanted as well: Many thought the way
women could be equal to men was through affirmative action, enabling
them to have men's jobs and men's career investments and to reap
men's economic rewards, advancement and prestige.