The 50’s Weren’t All That

12 May

Return to homepage at

When I read Stephanie Coontz’s book The Way We Never Were while I was writing my book on motherhood and feminism, three things happened.  One, I fell in love with her.  Two, I wished I had become a historian.  And three, I became forever suspicious, and righteously so I might add, of what Coontz called “the nostalgia trap” and I became more acutely aware of how we are culturally stuck in that trap.  We do rather sulk about how things are not like they used to be.   Because for some reason, whatever age we’re in, it’s not as good as the age we used to be in.  I don’t think this is an exclusively contemporary phenomenon.  But I do think that, particularly for members of the U.S., some eras have more nostalgic currency than others.  In particular, “the 1950s” is used as a representation of all good that is gone and lamentably so.  People often brood over the 1950s, and about how lovely it was and pure and innocent and brave and true. 

The problem with the hallowed 1950s in part is that the image of domestic order and ease and bliss that captivates us so did not accurately represent much of anybody in that decade. Certainly not anyone who was poor or working class, certainly not a large number of women from the middle class, whose rates of depression were high and dissatisfaction higher.  And certainly not the teenaged women whose historically unparalleled rates of pregnancy outnumber any U.S. decade before or since.  Even though our guiding imagery for families in “the fifties” reflects a mythical, magical order, ease, and bliss of full time domestic life, it’s an image that is not grounded in any cultural reality whatsoever so the way in which it captivates us is rather quizzical. 

Another problem with our perception of the 1950s is that it was not, in fact, the last era when mothers were revered, when at-home work really meant something, when caring for the home had dignity and status. It is this argument that my idol Stephanie Coontz takes to task in her New York Times Op-Ed piece “When We Hated Mom” just this past Mother’s Day.  Specifically, Coontz argues that Suzanne Venker and Phyllis Schlafly’s new book, The Flipside of Feminism, which makes these very drippingly sentimental claims about the hallowed fifties and which [ho hum] says all of that good was ripped from us by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and the feminist movement that ensued.  Coontz explains that Venker and Schlafly’s book reflects a misreading of history, and then explains exactly why.  The truth of the matter, as it turns out, is that mom was not in fact revered in the fifties, and really hadn’t been for some 100 years, and that child care and at-home work actually gained social status as a result of feminist movement, thank you very much.

Check out Coontz’s work that I’ve talked about above.  Easily readable stuff that will change your worldview.


Posted by on May 12, 2011 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting


Tags: , , , , ,

3 responses to “The 50’s Weren’t All That

  1. Patrick Cronin

    May 13, 2011 at 5:55 am

    Totally agree. I was there for the “50”s and the only good thing about that decade was “the Beats” and the revolution they started to expose the lie of “Happy Days”. Thanks for the reminder and for sharing Coontz’ ideas

  2. mamamezzo

    May 16, 2011 at 8:28 am

    This is so interesting to me. I “pine” for the ’50s, not because I think mom’s were happier (hello Valium) but because I have the idea that the American Dream of owning a house and a car and supporting a family on one income and dad would always be home at dinnertime was more attainable. We exist on one income but it is a white-knuckle struggle. Maybe it always was. They must have invented coupons for a reason.

    • Dr. Mama

      May 17, 2011 at 8:46 am

      Mamamezzo, thanks for posting. I think lots and lots of people pine for the 50s or, more accurately, for the ways in which the sainted decade have been presented to them. The life you discuss were more attainable then, but only for a a comparatively small portion of the population, and due in large part to government assistance, of which a large number of (mostly white) families partook. But it wasn’t called “welfare” then so people forget that it was in fact the same “government handouts” that are critiqued today with such vitriol. So the idea that “one income” is what supported the middle class family in the 50s should be read with some skepticism in general, and with attention to the ways in which of-color families of the middle class were not living the American Dream you describe. But don’t take my word for it–read historian Stephanie Coontz’s book(s). She’s awesome.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: