What Makes a Good Wife?

I was back in the National Library of Ireland today to continue reading copies of Woman’s Way from the 1960s. I’ve been exploring back issues of the magazine for what they can reveal about how women were represented and perceived. Yesterday, I wrote about the arrival of the fridge and the contribution it made to the housewife’s day-to-day life. Today, I’ve been thinking about what the magazine reveals about what made a good wife in the early 1960s.

Advertisement for Arnotts Bridal Gown Department, Dublin, Woman's Way, 14 February 1964
Advertisement for Arnotts Bridal Gown Department, Dublin, Woman’s Way, 14 February 1964

In Joyce Bazuin’s short story Wait Till You Meet Mother, we are introduced to Marion as she scrapes slightly burnt toast — a subtle commentary on her culinary skills and the first indication that she might not be the perfect housewife. Over breakfast, her new husband, Howard, talks of the pending visit of his mother that weekend, which unnerved his wife. His mother is painted as a strong, capable woman — her qualities summed up in Marion’s semi-rhetorical question, ‘Your mother is good at everything, isn’t she, Howard?’, and her husband’s response, ‘Yes, mum’s pretty wonderful at most things’.

This short story, published in Woman’s Way on 14 February 1964, reveals much about the role of the housewife and the expectations of a new wife — the pressure to maintain the smooth running of the house. Marion’s kitchen is described as ‘untidy’ and we are told that her sink is in a state of ‘disorder’. Breakfast had only ended and used dishes in the sink are to be expected, but the description of the room is an implied criticism of her housekeeping skills. This is reinforced by her own musing,

It really was too much to think you could get married one week and automatically become the perfect housewife the next.

and by the description of her upstair’s neighbour’s kitchen:

Marion followed her [Mrs Morgan, the neighbour who offered to help her with cooking] silently up to her spotless blue and white kitchen, rich with the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee and a wave of despondency swept over her when she thought of the chaos in her own kitchen.

‘Chaos’ was an interesting — we’re only really told about some used and yet-to-be-washed dishes — but deliberately chosen choice of word. The cumulative effect of this imagery, together with the homemade cake that Howard’s mother brought with her, is to give the reader the sense that Marion is lacking as a wife. In a twist, the reader also discovers that Howard’s mother cannot cook either and her ‘homemade cake’ is actually store-bought. Her lack of culinary abilities was something she had covered up for many years. That she presented herself as accomplished in the kitchen serves as a further indication of what was expected of the housewife.

Though Bazuin’s story is a work of fiction, the content had much in common with letters written from (as far as we can tell) real Irish housewives. Letters included those written by women looking for cooking tips, complaining about husbands who did not contribute to the housework, and advice on how to deal with mothers-in-law when a newly married couple lived with the husband’s family.

A common complaint in letters I’ve read so far focussed on the expectations of husbands. As one letter writer in July 1963 put it,

My husband was an only son and spoiled darling of his adoring mother, sisters and maiden aunts. They always danced attendance on him, and he expects me to do the same

The Cork bride was advised that to ‘un-spoil a man calls for time and patience’. But generally, women who complained that their husbands did not help out around the home were criticised for expecting him to do so. Maura Laverty, Woman’s Way‘s first advice columnist, deemed such an attitude ‘selfish’.

I consider it most unfair to expect the breadwinner to wash dishes after his day’s work, unless in exceptional circumstances, as when the ‘bean a tighe’ [lady of the house] is ill.

How, or if, that advice changed as time passed is something I’ll be watching out for as my research progresses.

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire.

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