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How to be a good wife according to a 1954 textbook

A 1954 textbook details to teens "How to be a Good Wife."
A 1954 textbook details to teens "How to be a Good Wife."
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The high school son of the Sex and Relationships Examiner recently came home from a long day and asked his mom what was for dinner. When she said nothing, that she’d been busy working all day, the 17-year-old boy began to recite a photocopy from a 1954 textbook on “How to be a Good Wife,” and then joked that his meal should have been ready and waiting. He was then punished.

All joking aside, the teen was not punished, but the mother and son did enjoy a good laugh at the document, which detailed how women were told to behave via a Home Economics high school textbook from 1954. The son had been studying the 50s and 60s in AP US History, as the civil rights’ movement and women’s rights' movement were to be emphasized on the upcoming NYS Regents exam. The assignment was taken from the United States History and Government II Resource Guide as reprinted from “Eyewitnesses and Others: Reading in American History, Volume 2 (1865-present)”, Austin: Hold Rinehart and Winston, 1991, pages 338-341.

The history class had been studying Betty Friedan on the Feminine Mystique and had to first read a page from “How to be a Good Wife” and then answer questions. The first paragraph, which led to the son’s demand of dinner, detailed the importance of meal planning. Not that the author’s own mother wasn’t of that era, but she worked as did her mother before her. The thought to “have dinner ready and plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal, on time,” to “let him (the husband) know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs,” was simply preposterous.

This isn’t to say that meals shouldn’t be planned. Sometimes it’s easy for working mothers (and all moms work in and out of the home) to plan a meal or the week’s worth early on, and sometimes schedules do not allow for that convenience, but it certainly is not an indication of love or concern for a spouse or other family members.

Why was this advice built into a high school textbook? The data suggests that by the end of the 1950s the average marrying age of women dropped into the teens and “14 million girls were engaged by age 17.” Women’s magazines began to report the “unhappy statistics of young marriages” and insisted marriage education and counselors be added to the high school curriculum.

The second hysterical passage in “How to be a Good Wife” recommended women take at “least 15-minutes to rest to be refreshed” before the husband arrived home. The 1954 text also advised to touchup the makeup, perhaps add a ribbon to the hair and try to be “gay and a little more interesting,” because his boring day could use a lift. Not that she wasn’t busy conversing with little ones or cleaning crayon off the walls, or any of the 5,000 things mothers do to tend to the house and care for kids, and that’s without working outside the home.

The rest of the page read the same: Make sure the home is clean, neat and clutter free before he enters from a busy day at work. Disguise the children as “little treasures;” change their clothes, comb kids’ hair and wash them up. Oh Beaver! Minimize all noise including the kids and appliances and greet the hubby with a warm smile instead of a scowl.

The wife might want to shed her day in his ears, but first listen to him. Let him talk first. Never complain and make the evening all about the king of the castle. Fluff his pillows, have a drink and slippers ready and speak in a low, soothing voice.

The goal of this “Stepford Wives” script was to “try to make your home a place of peace and order where your husband can renew himself of body and spirit.” Sadly, one third of American women worked at that time, but those that did were married with part-time jobs (selling or secretarial) to help put husbands or sons through college and to assist with the mortgage, or they were widows supporting families. There were few women professionals and a shortage of nurses, social workers, and teachers. Scientists determined “American women were the greatest source of unused brainpower,” but the guide suggested females wouldn’t study physics because it was “unfeminine.” My, how times have changed (for the better, although there are sure to be a few naysayers.)

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