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Rules for Wives, 1955

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This list of Good Housekeeping’s 1955 “Good House Wife’s Guide” has been getting a lot of attention on ye ol’intertubes. What are those guidelines?

1.) Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready, on time for his return. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs.

2.) Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal (especially his favorite dish) is part of the warm welcome needed.

3.) Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you’ll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people.

4.) Be a little gay and a little more interesting for him. His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties is to provide it.

5.) Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives. Gather up schoolbooks, toys, paper, etc. and then run a dust cloth over the tables.

6.) Over the cooler months of the year you should prepare and light a fire for him to unwind by. Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order, and it will give you a lift too. After all, catering for his comfort will provide you with immense personal satisfaction.

7.) Prepare the children. Take a few minutes to wash the children’s hands and faces (if they are small), comb their hair and, if necessary, change their clothes.

8.) Children are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part. Minimize all noise. At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet.

9.) Be happy to see him. Free him with a warm smile and show sincerity in your desire to please him. Listen to him.

10.) You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first — remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.

11.) Make the evening his. Never complain if he comes home late or goes out to dinner, or other places of entertainment without you. Instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his very real need to be at home and relax.

12.) Your goal: Try to make sure your home is a place of peace, order and tranquility where you husband can renew himself in body and spirit.

13.) Don’t greet him with complaints and problems.

14.) Don’t complain if he’s late home for dinner or even if he stays out all night. Count this as minor compared to what he might have gone through that day.

15.) Make him comfortable. Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or have him lie down in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him.

16.) Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice.

17.) Don’t ask him questions about his actions or question his judgment of integrity. Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him.

18.) A good wife always knows her place.

Of course the response has been the expected combination of incredulity, outrage, anger, and gladness that we don’t live in 1955. And that’s all fine. I feel that way too. “You have no right to question him”???? Wow. It is however worth noting a couple of things here. First, just because the ideology of the 1950s was this directly sexist doesn’t mean that it reflected the realities of people’s lives. That’s especially true when it comes to working class women who were laboring in the workforce, as well as taking care of the kids at home. Yeah, they were doing double work in a sexist society, but it’s not like women were staying at home being the submissive housewife. These rules did not reflect actual relations between men and women at home. However, there’s also no question that even working women came to believe that this sort of arrangement was the domestic ideal during this period, with polling showing that the vast majority of Americans believed women shouldn’t work if a husband could take care of them. It’s interesting to consider why such stark guidelines became popular during a period of relative peace and domestic prosperity and I suppose the back of the cocktail napkin answer is that after 20 years of turmoil, a return to normalcy was very appealing to people, even if that normalcy was an imagined and romanticized past. It’s been a long time since I’ve dealt with the historical literature on these issues, as neither my work nor teaching really covers any of this. No doubt readers can add more to the conversation. But in any case, it is worth noting that this sort of thing isn’t actually what was happening in the vast majority of American homes. And where it was, it tended to be in the homes of the wealthy, which is why Betty Friedan and her friends seem to have been more directly affected by all of this than the working and middle classes.

Speaking of the ideology of post-war middle class whites, watch this great film by the magazine Redbook if you haven’t. Or even if you have.

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