Poor Jane! As she visits with her friend, Jane marvels at the modern convenience of her friend’s new kitchen – a kitchen very unlike her own. Together, the two women devise a plan to make Jane’s husband George (welcome the dad from A Christmas Story) understand the hardship that Jane encounters when working in her unmodern, old kitchen: Jane will leave town without preparing meals for her husband and son to force George to spend a few days in her shoes. Maybe then, he will want to buy her a new home with all the modern technologies that her friend enjoys. This 1950s ad from The Women’s Home Companion entitled Word to the Wives was for a new home builder. The video illustrates how history is not linear. On one hand, the advertisement advocates the perfect stay-at-home wife narrative that prevailed during the era; on the other hand, it also promotes the advantages of modern technology.
The 1950s norm of the stay-at-home wife was a reaction to two major events of the 20th century: The Great Depression and World War II. During this fifteen year period, women began working outside of the home to either provide the essentials for their families or to help the war effort. According to George Elder’s study of Depression era children, due to gender role disruption during The Great Depression and World War II, children of that era had a negative view of their mother if she worked (May 53). Girls were especially affected: “The more role reversal their parents experienced, the more likely the daughters aspired to normative roles with traditional power relationships in the families they established” (May53). As a woman in the 21st century, the idea of staying home and not working would make me feel goalless; however, for women raised during these two events in American history, they desired a more traditional role. The technology boom of the 1950s not only gave them, as Jane’s friend describes, “a freedom from drudgery,” but it allowed them to pursue a life that many of these women felt was more normative.
America also had a fever for new, modern technology during the 1950s. The ideology expressed in the Word to the Wives video that new technologies and “the freedom to shop whenever you want” was also expressed by then Vice President Richard Nixon in his famous Kitchen Debate against Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev: “’In America these [washing machines] are designed to make things easier for our women ’” (May 21) Nixon’s point to his Soviet counterpart was that this new technology made life easier; therefore, women in America enjoyed more freedom. Additionally, Nixon argued that even though American women did not work like their Soviet counterparts, the freedom to choose the appliances in their home was also a demonstration of how free American women were. Though this advertisement was aired four years before Nixon’s visit to Moscow, the same ideology is reinforced when Jane’s friend not only surprises George with her ability to play golf on a day she is hosting a dinner for friends, but also in the montaged discussion George has with the friend’s husband on how to design and choose the appliances in George’s new kitchen if he decides to build a new home.
As politicians of the 1950s extolled the joys of modernity, other forms of media propelled this ideology as well. Cookbooks during the era published new recipes that relied on newer appliances. Any woman wishing to make this new and ideal meal for her family needed to have an automatic oven or a blender in order to pull it off. Likewise, more advertisements pushed the need for modern upgrades in the home like the one posted below that states buy these before “she cries.” By the end of the decade, one thing was clear, modern technology equaled freedom.
Word to the Wives is a great example of the New Historicist belief that history is not linear. First, it illustrates the cultural regression of the role of women in society prevalent during the era. Although it is very hard for modern women today to understand, this drive by women into domesticity was a voluntary reaction by many women in response to two very prominent events in American history: The Great Depression and World War II. Additionally, with the technological advances of the 1950s, America began its love affair with modern conveniences, and that love affair has progressed over time. Today, if you watch a House Hunters marathon on HGTV, the expectation of modern appliances, especially in the kitchen, is still a desire, if not a necessity, of modern Americans. The difference is that we do not want the convenience only for women, but for everyone.
May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound. New York: Basic Books, 2008. Print.