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The Ideal v. The Lived Experience

The Ideal v. The Lived Experience; Charm Magazine, January, 1951; Source image courtesy of The Vintage Traveler.
Charm Magazine, January, 1951; Source image courtesy of The Vintage Traveler.


After having it sit on my desk for a month, I finally got a chance to sit down and read my* former graduate assistant’s dissertation on how British Victorian women and their families are represented in literature (That’s the oversimplified version of the topic; It is very scholarly which is why she is now Gretchen M. Frank, Ph.D.!)  As I was reading her review of what other scholars have said, a phrase from a sentence jumped out at me and made me think of criticisms often thrown at me regarding the mid-20th century pressure to conform and be the perfect housewife:

…the difference between an ideal that can never be reached and the lived experiences that fall short of ideological expectations (Frank, 2014).

I’m not going to deny that there was tremendous pressure to conform to an ideal placed on midcentury women.  There was.  But the lived reality–the full spectrum of how women responded to that pressure–is very different and diverse than what the media would have us believe.  For example, the conventional wisdom is that almost all married women were housewives and didn’t work outside the home.  Well, that isn’t true.  While the number of married women who made up the workforce in 1960 was still in the minority, the fact that approximately a third of married women were in the workforce should be a large enough number for us to sit up and take notice.  Sadly, it doesn’t.  They are invisible.  Which is strange to me because in my early 1960s childhood reality, women worked outside the home.  Both of my grandmothers worked.  In fact, my maternal grandmother had her own business–she owned several beauty parlors, as they were called back then.

I think two of the reasons these working women are invisible is because they didn’t conform to the “ideal” and because they were limited to “pink collar” jobs.  Even today, women in these types of jobs struggle to receive the recognition and respect they deserve.

So, why am I telling you all of this?  Because as we read the texts from our midcentury mentors, we have to remember that they are describing the “ideal,” “the aspirational,” not the norm.  We have to be careful to remember that we are not seeing the everyday reality but are only seeing glimpses of those things that inspire us to become the women we want to be.

Will we ever reach midcentury perfection?  Of course not!  And it is unhealthy to think that The Land of Perfection really exists.  But we can certainly enjoy the sights and sounds on our journey to live a glamorous midcentury lifestyle!


* Gretchen wasn’t my graduate assistant.  She was the graduate assistant for programming of which I am the team leader.  Even though she was technically a student employee, she felt more like a colleague and we miss her tremendously.


Frank, G.M. (1984) Discourses of the Nineteenth-Century Family: Reading British Victorian Women and Their Families Through Communicative Representation (Unpublished doctoral dissertation <as of the date of this posting>).  Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois.

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  1. It seems to me — though my observation isn’t scholarly — that if and where women worked mid-century was influenced by where they lived. In the cities, there were certainly more opportunities for women than in the remote Idaho agricultural/logging community in which I grew up where jobs for women were limited and traditional (teachers, nurses, secretaries, waitresses, store clerks) — and yes, one owned the beauty salon and doubtless paid one or two employees. And those women who worked were mostly not mothers of small children. Day care was unknown — *where I lived.*

    What interests me is not whether or not women worked outside the home but the emphasis they placed on the home and how the attitudes have changed now that opportunities for women have expanded. My mother’s standards were high in everything she did and she expected her children to follow her example in striving for that standard. And if I visited at the neighbor’s, I could expect to see that same standard exemplified. I don’t think we think like that any more — about the home.

    My sister married as she finished college in 1956 and worked for five years as a teacher before staying home to raise her family. She says that “home focus” began to dwindle with her generation. She and her friends just couldn’t keep up with the “perfect homemaker” concept. But, like I say, I’m not quoting statistics and that’s not really my interest.

  2. Hi Kathy,
    I agree with what you are saying. My point was not about whether women worked outside the home or not but that there was still a great deal of diversity amongst women during the mid-century despite what the conventional wisdom would have us believe. There is a very long continuum of how women lived their lives back then…and much of how they lived it was influenced by their local culture, even if the focus on “home” was universal.

  3. Regardless of your point, you put a nickel in me and made my nostalgic thought-processes flow. You’re so good to put up with me! I could run on again, but I’m stopping now.

  4. (It’s a good thing to make those nostalgic thought processes flow, right??) 🙂

  5. Kathy, I love your stories so no worries about sharing your memories!

    Dr. JA- I think the ideal housewife came from advertising and the relief of WWII ending. People were so happy to have homes and plenty of food. Advertisers jumped on the trend pushing their perfect “modern” cleaning products and processed foods. The combination created an ideal that for some felt liberating and others suffocating. The effects are still apparent in today’s advertising but the emphasis is also on being the fun parent.

    This is just my opinion from my informal study of vintage magazines and books- both vintage and current. How awesome if I could get a degree studying this! Are you in Women’s Studies or literature? Or something else?

    Very interesting topic. Thanks for sharing Gretchen’s work.


  6. Sarah,
    I’m in something else–Faculty Development. I have a degree in Educational Psychology with an emphasis on college level teaching/learning. My job at the university is to help faculty achieve their teaching goals and to mentor the new faculty as they navigate the early stages of their career.

    But I’ve always had a fascination with the stories of everyday women. I started devouring diaries of women during the Westward Movement when I was in my early college years. According to the history lore, it was MEN who made all of the history (except for Betsy Ross or scandalous women). When you read about the events from the women’s perspective, a lot of those heroes are really just a bunch of donkey’s behinds who lucked out and got on the right side of history. All that is to say that, like you, I enjoy exploring the ephemera of midcentury women and try to glean timeless wisdom from it.

    Gretchen’s degree is in English Literature with an emphasis on how women and families are portrayed in Victorian literature (and the rhetorical impact it had on society).

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