How equality meant the end of gender typecasting
By Stephanie Coontz
From the TIMES, April 11, 2007
In the 1950s and 1960s being a wife was a full-time career for most women and being a “good wife” was
central to their self-esteem. A study of British women’s magazines from 1949 to 1979 found that the
constant message of articles and ads through all those years was that a woman’s main goal should be
to become a wife, and that she could achieve job security and a satisfactory performance rating in this
career only by devoting herself to home-making and husband-pleasing. Home economics textbooks of that
era advised wives to greet their husbands each day with a warm smile and a cool drink. “Arrange his
pillow and offer to take off his shoes,” one author suggested. “Indulge his whims when possible, even
if they strike you as a bit foolish,” urged a marriage counsellor.
The job description of a good husband was more narrowly defined. He was expected to go to work, bring
home most of his pay and investigate noises his wife heard in the night. But he was not expected to take
responsibility for the emotional quality of family life. When one woman complained to the postwar British
women’s magazine Lucky Star that her husband was always irritable when he came home, the advice columnist
inquired: “Are you bright and welcoming and understanding? Men are rather like children in a way; they
must be fed and amused.”
The legal system was rigid in defining what made for a good wife/husband. A husband’s duty was to
support his family; a wife’s to keep a nice house, rear the children and nurture the family emotionally.
Until the mid1970s, most Western states had “head and master” laws that gave husbands the final say over
decisions such as where the couple would live. A husband could forbid his wife to take a job if he
thought it would interfere with his right to enjoy her home-making and child-rearing duties. A husband
could not be charged with marital rape because the law held that it was a good wife’s duty to have sex
with her husband whenever he wanted.
In those days the definition of a good marriage was one in which each partner conformed to these separate
gender roles. Interviews taken with couples from the 1940s through to the early 1970s show that many
believed that such conformity was the best that they could expect of a spouse. Men noted that they
shared few common interests with their wives but still had a good marriage because the little woman
was “a great cook and a wonderful mother”.
A 1967 survey in the US revealed that men were more interested in a wife who was a good cook and
housekeeper than one who was intelligent and interesting. And two thirds of college women told pollsters
that they would consider marrying a man they didn’t love if he could give them economic security and
social status. All this has changed in the past 30 years. Women have now gained access to living-wage
jobs from which they were once excluded. They outnumber men in many universities, further increasing
their earning power. Women need not enter or stay in a marriage for economic security, and most no
longer feel compelled to put their own needs aside to curry favour with men. Reforms have led to the
repeal of laws that gave husbands the final say in marriages, while activists against domestic violence
have made huge strides in protecting women from husbands who use force to impose their will.
As women have discovered the rewards of economic independence, men have discovered the rewards of
psychological interdependence. Most women deem it more important for their husband to be emotionally
supportive than make a lot of money. And men say finding an intelligent companion and real partner
matters much more than good cooking and housekeeping skills.
Today couples must negotiate what it means to be a good marriage partner, based on recognition of the
other’s individual needs, talents and interests. This requires deeper thought and harder work than when
the different roles of husbands and wives were so clearly defined by law and social custom. But more
and more couples are discovering the joys of tailoring their partnerships to meet their own needs and
desires instead of tailoring their needs and desires to fit the “good husband” or the “good wife” mould.
1. How were a good wife and a good husband portayed in most women's magazines from the 1950s to the 1970s? Use your own words.
2. How did law define gender roles in Western states until the mid 1970s?
3. What did a 1967 US survey find about women and their view of marriage?
4. What has changed in the past 30 years about gender roles?
5. a. What is your view of a good partnership?
b. How can a couple best combine job and children?
c. Should the state financially support child rearing or should it rather provide for kindergarten places?