where the writers are
The Death of the 1950s TV Housewife

The death this month of Barbara Billingsley—TV homemaker June Cleaver on the 1950s TV series Leave It to Beaver—provides a ripe opportunity to celebrate the bygone era of the mid-century housewife.

Fictional housewives—gentle, sweet, blissful suburbanites content to raise their children and eager to catch up on their husband’s workdays as they cooked casseroles, tied Little Jimmy’s shoelace, organized linen closets, and darned socks—dominated sit-coms of the era.

The best of the model middle-class homemakers include Jane Wyatt as Margaret Andrews on Father Knows Best ; Donna Reed as Donna Stone on The Donna Reed Show; Harriet Nelson as herself in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet;  and Billingsley as Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver. While their cookie batters varied slightly, the postwar housewives all shared the same roll-up-your-sleeves-and-serve-your-family-in-high-heels-and-pearls work ethic. There wasn’t a problem that couldn’t be solved over a glass of chocolate milk or a game of bridge.

Like real-life suburbia, television’s Golden Age relied on housewives to ground its narratives. As early as 1948, television manufacturers had already determined that women were a primary consumer and targeted real-life homemakers with countless home products and food advertisements. For the most part, it seems, women were content within their domestic realm of bon-bons, aprons, and scraped knees, and the presence of a shiny new television ensured that the family had a gathering spot for its after-dinner activities.

Though birthed in the same blissful era, television actresses such as Gracie Allen (Gracie Allen on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show), Lucille Ball (Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy), and Audrey Meadows (Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners) diverged from this formula to become some of the earliest feminist role models.  They could bake—or burn—their fair share of cookies, but their performances as nontraditional housewives provided opportunities for critiques of patriarchy, appreciation of women’s roles and realms, even an all-out belly laugh—though not always at their expense.  Watch some of these reruns closely and you’ll find that the early comedic housewives of the 1950s often utilized humor as a tool to combat the repressive conditions of their home life.

Part of television’s unique success during the 1950s was its role in women’s domestication and the way in which it empowered female viewers through the consumption of so-called enjoyable household products and appliances—from Ivory soap to Palmolive to Pampers to anything Frigidaire—and positive depictions of femininity. The key to television’s early success is found in the fact that the same medium—even the same program—was able to disseminate messages of feminism and domesticity simultaneously.