1950’s Gender Roles
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Since the 1950s, American women have emancipated themselves from the norms imposed upon them by a society that was somewhat conservative back then. The image of a typical woman of the 1950’s, and to a certain extent the 1960’s, would depict a proper and prim housewife who performed the typical chorses of the house such as cooking meals, cleaning the house, and looking after the children. Very few of these women made it through college and often stayed home while their husbands assume to role of breadwinners going to work to provide for the family (Chen). This is further reinforced by the popular televisions shows of the time such as “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best,” and even “Bewitched” (though with a touch of fantasy). These shows often depict the ideal American family where everything seems to be fine and “normal.”
However, this was not always the case as depicted in Tillie Olsen’s short story, “I Stand Here Ironing.” The story is being told from a first-person perspective of a mother raising two of her children by herself though she has remarried. She recalls the events in the past that has contributed to her somewhat strained relations with her eldest daughter Emily whom she admits did not raise pretty well, as evidenced by the time she sent Emily away on two occasions, first to live with her relatives, and then to a convalescent home because she was not capable of raising her as typical mothers should do (Olsen, 181-182). Back then such women were considered “failures” since they failed to live up to the norms imposed by society, especially if they are divorced. Despite the fact divorce was allowed, it can be inferred that the practice was discouraged since it tends to create a wrong image of a typical American family.
This appears to run counter to how “typical” mothers cope with such problems such as in one episode in “Ozzie and Harriet” in 1953 where the couple (who play themselves) were debating on giving their children their own bedrooms, leaving Harriet to think Ozzie must want his own bedroom separate from hers. Unlike Olsen’s mother, Harriet appears to be very much in control on what goes on in the household and does not want to let things to go out of hand (“Separate Rooms”).
The end of the Second World War has caused the United States, in particular, to enjoy an economic boom which led to prosperity in most places. However, as families and households were prospering or their standards of living were improving for the better, there was an adverse side effect that came with it. The erosion of traditional family values since the 1950s has contributed to further juvenile delinquency among the youth. Many parents are not spending quality time with their children like in the past decades. Children are constantly being left on their own while their parents take to work in order to continually provide for the family.
Wives, out of economic necessity and personal freedom, also took up the cudgels of helping her husband provide for the family as the growing standards of living makes it difficult for one parent (father) alone to support a family and for the wife/mother to stay home and look after the children. Without any parental guidance, children get caught up in mischievous behavior, such as drug and alcohol abuse, earlier sexual behavior, failure to attend school and get in trouble with the law. This would cause a chain reaction as these youths get older and without any values to guide them produce failed families with their own children suffering the same fate but only worse. It can be inferred that Emily is going through that same stage because she did not get to be raised in a “normal” family.
All in all, women’s roles have changed through time given the complexity of life. But despite these changes, their role as guardians and caretakers for their children are irrevocable since they are the ones who bring them to this world and therefore must be the first ones to raise and guide them.
Chen, Ilin. Xena: The Zenith of Evolving Gender Roles from 1950 to the Present . 2000. 31 May 2010 <http://www.whoosh.org/issue45/chen1.html>.
Olsen, Tillie. “I Stand Here Ironing.” Between mothers & daughters: stories across a generation. Ed. Susan Koppelman. Baltimore: The Feminist Press, 1985. 177-188. Print.
“Separate Rooms.” The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. ABC. February 6, 1953.