October 23, 2011
Women, Then and Now
The thought of the 1950s conjures up many wholesome images; perfectly dressed and smiling mothers who have every meal on the table, working fathers with all the answers to life’s problems, and perfect children all gathered around the table. Today, the words wife and mother conjure up images that are similar, however far more complicated. Unlike the clearly defined gender roles of the 1950s, today’s woman fills traditional roles as well as many formerly held mostly by men. “If art imitates life, the trends in television situation comedies over the last 60 years certainly show where we are heading. Families in sitcoms have gone from the sublime to the dysfunctional” (Schweller-Snyder, 2010). The media’s portrayal of women in the 1950s media was the perfect picture of womanhood, a picture perfect portrait of family life. Donna Reed, June Cleaver, and Harriet Nelson were all memorable 1950s television mothers. All these women were homemakers, picturesquely portrayed from the opening credits to the closing scenes as lovely, agreeable housewives who cleaned in their high heeled shoes and lovely frocks (Rich, 2001). Some of these women, like Donna Reed, were prone to getting into comical jams. These jams were usually caused by going against sound and stern advice from their very masculine husbands, and were usually solved by these same suburban knights. The women of today’s media have brought more realistic and edgy subjects to America’s table. Roseanne, Claire Huxtable, and Lois Wilkerson all challenged the traditional women of television while producing laughs and facing realistic subject matter (TV Moms Bring Home the Bacon-A Look at the Evolution of TV Moms, 2009). These media portrayals showed women who abandoned the ladylike “momisms” of the 1950’s and were sometimes crude, imperfect parents, and no longer demure or deferring to their husbands. In the instance of the well-known Claire Huxtable, her husband, Heathcliff, did much of the cooking and domestic chores while she pursued her career as a successful lawyer. These women worked, challenged their husband’s opinions, and still managed to keep most of the feminine grace that women have always aspired to. The vision of the damsel-in-distress type has been all but erased by the media’s modern portrait of women. Despite the vast differences between the women of the 1950s sitcoms and the modern sitcom mom, they are connected by a very thin but definite thread. “We were not told we could do anything we wanted; we were told what we wanted to do” (Helen Jones, 2011). Education for women, though not as limited as one may think, was not taken seriously. Many women went to college simply to seek out a husband they thought would be successful (Gender Roles 1950’s, 2008). Women were prone to marry right out of high school and were encouraged by the society they lived in to do so. According to the United States Census Bureau, the median age of first marriage in the 1950s for women was 20. Career options for women were limited to secretarial, nursing, and teaching positions. “All the girls I knew in college were there either for business or to get a teaching certificate. We were encouraged more to teach though, so we would be better able to fill our duties as wives and mothers” (Helen Jones, 2011). Women choosing careers in sciences took the chance of being shunned in the fields they chose to study and practice within. “We had one female doctor that I knew of in Abilene; she catered to the very poor and took most of her payments in trade. We were not allowed by our husbands to go to her or take the children; she was shunned in higher society” (Helen Jones, 2011). The ratio of men to women going to college in the 1950s was nine to one (Gender Roles 1950’s, 2008). Today, women in college outnumber men with 57% of current college students being female (Ghosh,...