‘What is a wife’? Reconstructing domesticity in postwar Britain before The Feminine Mystique

  • Caitríona Beaumont London South Bank University

Abstract

This article investigates the relationship between the lived experiences of housewives in 1950s and early 1960s Britain and their portrayal in The Feminine Mystique and popular women’s magazines.  Through a study of four housewives’ associations, the Women’s Institutes, Mothers’ Union, Townswomen’s Guilds and the National Council of Women, it is argued that they rejected the prevailing ideology of domesticity and challenged the myth of the ‘happy housewife’.  As a result housewives’ associations presented a modern interpretation of domesticity where wives and mothers not only cared for their husbands and children but also made an important contribution to wider society.  As equal citizens women were entitled to state support and housewives’ associations were successful in articulating the demands of women as wives, mothers and paid employees.  In doing so housewives’ associations presented a much more nuanced account of women’s everyday lives illustrating that not all women succumbed to the feminine mystique.