Sunday, January 20, 2013

Circa 1964: Frustrated Housewife Goes to Town

The Frustrated Housewife Narrative.

That's what I call it, that spate of novels and short stories from the mid 1960s through the 1970s, about white, suburban housewives feeling trapped and unhappy in a dual role they were raised to believe would fulfill them: wife and mother.

These protagonists felt alienated from all those around them, in large part because they were sure that no-one else felt the same longing for something else, something more than the roles that had been allotted to them. Each protagonist in these narratives felt that the problem was all her own, felt, indeed, that there really was no problem other than that she was ungrateful or somehow "faulty" because she felt dissatisfied with the role that was supposed to bring her utter satisfaction as a woman.


In her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan called this widespread but secret dis-ease "The Problem That Has No Name." Many feel that her book helped to spark the second wave of feminism -- which included all those Frustrated Housewife Narratives.

Eventually, in part with help from this book, women started realizing that their problem was not isolated and that the fault lay in the wider culture, not within their own hearts.

In my opinion, two of the best works of fiction of this type are Margaret Laurence's The Fire-Dwellers which I have taught to my college students, and Alice Munro's Who Do You Think You Are. Both present the reader with highly intelligent, insightful, and lonely women who try and fail to find satisfaction in a role that is far too limited for them.

These women are having about as much fun at this Tupperware party as at the one described by Laurence.

Plus, The Fire-Dwellers also contains the funniest and saddest spoof of a Tupperware party I've ever read.
Sexual dissatisfaction certainly has its place in the Frustrated Housewife Narrative too. My introduction to the genre came when I was a child. Published in 1978 by Judy Blume, Wifey is a rather salacious adult novel about a wife whose main frustration with her marriage is sexual. The character development is pretty weak and the feminist analysis pretty shallow. Still, there was no way I was putting this book down, not with all those racy scenes!

And I really was interested in the unhappy life this woman seemed to lead. I knew I could never settle for such a life.
 File:IraLevin TheStepfordWives.jpg

It didn't take long for the Frustrated Housewife Narrative to become a bit of a cliche. Indeed, as early as 1972, Ira Levin was able to publish a sci-fi satire of the genre -- The Stepford Wives -- which somehow managed to be feminist even as it spoofed the feminist novels it echoed.

Good Taste and Clothes, by Betsy Burke. One of the design instructors at my college was throwing it out.
It is with the same respect and sense of satire that I now pay my own silly little homage to the genre.

It all started with a handbag, a brooch and earring set, and the 1963 guide to Good Taste in Clothes, published by the Emily Post Institute.

Kitty, do you want to get out? You feel trapped, don't you? Are your babies all grown up? Are you bored, little thing? I know how you feel, all stuck inside like that with nothing to do. Poor Kitty. What we need is a trip into town, a little excitement.

Sorry, Kitty, but I can't take you with me.

Maybe if I had a nicer home, I wouldn't feel this way. I know John works very hard to provide for all of us, and I know we had to make sacrifices to put the kids through college... Oh, I'm just being ungrateful! 

But I do so wish we lived in a nicer home. At least I wish we could afford to keep ours up better.

Today, I shall go into the city and imagine that I am a smart, chic, well-to-do, city girl. I'll be a Lady Who Lunches!

What does such a girl wear? What does Emily Post say? 


I can do that... can't I? Well, I can try. Come on, Charlotte, chin up! Be brave!

Now what about my accessories? What kind of accessories does the chic girl wear?

I have the hat! Indeed I do. And the matching jewelry? Well, I just happen to have that too!

Hat: from Barefoot Contessa; Brooch and earring set: vintage

Stunning Austrian crystal set! If this isn't classy, well I just don't know what is. I could go to the tennis club parties wearing this. I'm sure of it... if I weren't Jewish, of course, but never mind about that. 

You'd never know to look at me that I'm just frowzy, little old Charlotte from the suburbs, little old Charlotte who can't keep the mold off her front stoop no matter what she does. 

Stunning, I tell you. Most becoming.

How could I ever be unhappy with John when he gives me such lovely gifts? He loves me. I know he does. And I love him. Of course I do!

Handbag: vintage
Now where was I? Oh yes, accessories. I think my handbag will just do in a pinch. Yes, yes, it will do.

And my gloves. I must remember my gloves. A lady never leaves the house without her gloves.


Okey dokey. Ready or not, big city, here I come! On to the train, then the elevated, and then... my big day in town. This will be nice.

Gloves: Reitmans

Oh my. Oh my, oh my. 

Town looks a little rougher than I remember. The people here seem awfully... tough. What if someone snatches my handbag? 

Be brave, girl. You're not a child anymore. You can do this. Just hold tight to your handbag and stand tall. Try to stand tall anyway.

Maybe I'll just go into a little shop and see what the city girls are wearing now.

Cape: London Fog; Sweater: JW & Co
Oh jeepers! What kind of a store is this? It's so... so... colourful.

I don't think this a store for nice girls. I think I shall leave -- directly.

Perhaps a nice walk on the side streets will be better for me, just to see how the other half lives.

Ooooh, look! Now that is a classy house! I wonder what it's like to live in a house like that? I bet the lady of this house never has dishpan hands. And look, she doesn't even have a front stoop to fret over.

Oh, but John does his best, I know. And besides, what would we do with a house like that, now that the kids are grown? It's so big, we'd just rattle around in there and pass each other like ships in the night from time to time.

But it would be nice, wouldn't it, to live in a truly classy neighbourhood. Maybe I always thought I would.

Silly girl! Give your head a shake. You have a wonderful life: a wonderful husband who loves you, three wonderful children, maybe even some grandchildren soon.

Still, to eat at a nice restaurant like this sometimes... I can dream, can't I?

And that brickwork! I always wanted a fireplace with that brickwork. I think I could be happy if I could just go to a steakhouse once a month, and have a fireplace that was really beautiful.

A romantic dinner with John at Trocadero. Coming home to lie in front of our fireplace and... Oh, Charlotte, you're thinking like a young girl of twenty, not a sensible woman of a... certain age!

I am tired though. I'll just step into this nice little coffee shop and have a little rest. It even looks a little bohemian here. Imagine little me in a bohemian coffee shop. I'll bet they even call it a cafe! How chic: a cafe.

Look at me! I'm chic! I'm a beatnik.

Ring: Birks
Oh, Charlotte, who are you kidding? You're just a frumpy suburban housewife... a middle aged housewife, with frizzy, uncontrollable hair. If only I had shiksa hair, slick, smooth, straight, Shiksa hair, then maybe I could look just right and be a reall lady who lunches. Or at least I could maybe look like one?

But, let's face it, that will never happen. The time for all that has passed. I should be happy. I am happy. Really, I am.

I just... It's just... Sometimes I wonder if maybe there's something... more out there.

(I'm linking this up with Spy Girl.)



  1. Tee Hee. I read _The Feminine Mystique_ in '65, just before or after my second child in 16 months was born. But the book I really found inspiring, I didn't read until the early 70's (by which time I had 3 kids and was, indeed, feeling trapped). I don't recall the author, but it was called, unforgettably, _I'm running away from home, but I'm not allowed to cross the street_. All I remember is that the author's husband was a "liberal" and "well-meaning" academic (as was mine), and that she felt stuck and devalued. I identified. Hair wasn't an issue, even though "Jewfros" weren't yet "in." I'd long before cut mine very short, and it also had become less kinky after each of my two pregnancies (kid #3 was adopted - and interestingly, everyone thought he, whose birth father was black, looked just like me, "especially those big, brown eyes and curly hair"). My eventual "way out" was to return to university - school work had been an area I could feel good about myself ever since junior high. Never mind that I never became an actual research scientist (my ambition during university); adding an MSc to my Mrs did a lot for my self-confidence. MKL

    1. I was a little worried that women who had actually lived this experience might find my spoofy tone disrespectful. Glad you didn't. Your story is really interesting. In her most famous novel, The Diviners, I think Margaret Laurence writes of a woman unhappy in her marriage to a liberal professor at just about the same time you were in that situation. Check it out.