Sluts, Hussies, and Bad Housekeeping

The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval

When American soldiers came back from World War II, the women who had worked in factories and run the farms were once again restricted to the home. And, at the start of the Cold War, when the whole nation was feeling unsafe, they were expected to make that place feel like both a fortress and a sanctuary.

In the 1950s, a government campaign glorified “domestic science,” producing pamphlets on the proper way to clean the refrigerator and the oven, wash the dishes, and care for the carpet using “special vacuum strokes.”

As Madison Avenue hawked all the latest gadgets and appliances, Amana, Maytag, and G.E. touted the virtues of an efficient household.

By the early 1960s, housework was done to perfection by cheerful TV moms like June Cleaver and Donna Reed. Yet women were eager to get back into the workplace and a decade later, there was no stopping them. In the 1970s, feminism was on the rise and the networks focused on career girls like Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore—and that icon of single-motherhood, Murphy Brown. an investigative reporter with no time to wield a bucket and a mop. With new career opportunities, many women turned their backs on home.
The Donna Reed show featured the latest appliances.

The Donna Reed show featured the latest apppliances.

A Feminist Rebellion

The boomer generation marched to support the Equal Rights Amendment and staged a sit-in at The Ladies’ Home Journal, demanding that household magazines be edited and produced by women—though of course, no self-respecting feminist would be caught dead reading them. We also grew up reading poets like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich—writers who nursed a serious grudge against the home.

Rich bemoaned the days when housework was the only outlet for her energy. And when Plath put her head in the oven, her colleagues warned, “This is what housekeeping does to women’s creativity!” Sexton compared the house to the interior of a woman’s body–a place that was dark and fierce and not altogether friendly.

Freudians had a field day and a whole generation saw the house as a black hole, ready to consume all life within its walls. Housekeeping itself was viewed as stifling, oppressive.

“No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor,” Betty Friedan declared in The Feminine Mystique, suggesting there were better ways of achieving one. And the unflappable Erma Bombeck noted, “Housework can kill you if done right. Cleanliness is not next to godliness. It isn’t even in the same neighborhood.”

Still, the old expectations were hard to shake. In the 1970s, talented and ambitious women continued to judge themselves by 1950s standards of perfection. Career women often ended up working twice as hard as their mothers in a vain attempt to balance work and home. And oh, how we judged ourselves, assuming we could do it all!

Bette Midler, who began her singing career in the baths at the Ansonia Hotel, was obsessed with cleanliness. One day she admitted, “My idea of superwoman is someone who scrubs her own floors.”

And there we have it—our age-old ambivalence toward housekeeping.

Bette Friedan at home, By Lynn Gilbert – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51678341

Valerie Andrews
Valerie Andrewshttps://reinventinghome.org/
VALERIE is the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home, an online magazine exploring how home shapes our culture, creativity, and character. Isabel Allende calls this publication Brain Pickings for the Home—a thinking person’s guide to the well-lived life. Our contributors explore home as a personal sanctuary and interactive hive, and how home contributes to our health, happiness, and productivity. Valerie calls her own features “a mindful approach to home with a Jungian twist” and considers everything from the secret lives of our possessions to how the dust underneath your bed is related to the creation of the cosmos. Reinventing Home is nonprofit journalism at its best—a virtual living room for an enlightened conversation about the way we feel about our nests and the bigger issues that are shaping home today, from technology to climate change. Read more at www.reinventinghome.org