Work-Family Balance: 1950s and Now

Dear Kimberly,

In my post last week, I promised to tell more of my own story and continue where I left off on July 30 when we began the discussion of our reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique from our different generational vantage points.   But now, in view  of the struggles you voiced in your last letter about the controversy over McCain’s choice of Palin as his vice-presidential choice and the questions raised about sexism and work-family balance, I’d like to talk a bit about your concerns first.   Actually, it all fits together.

I’ll start by making some general comments and then go into some more history. I think it may help shed light on why these questions about work and family are coming up right now (which goes with what I was planning to write in my next letter anyway!).

Some General Comments

First, the general comments: Any time that two adults are raising children — whether they are a traditional husband and wife, or a grandmother and grandfather thrust by circumstances into responsibility for their grandchildren, or a gay male couple, or a lesbian couple, or even two friends sharing a home (such as some are doing while their spouses are away in military service) — they are going to have to work out some division of labor to keep the household running smoothly.  It has to be something that works for them, for their individual situation — not dictated from the outside.

There are all sorts of needs to to consider in working out a suitable plan:  economic needs, practical needs, nurturing/expressive needs, and social needs — just to name some of the main concerns that come to mind.

Economic needs mean one or both adults must work to earn the money — and to pay bills and manage the money earned.  Practical needs mean someone has to take the trash out, shop for groceries, cook meals, do laundry, keep the house clean, arrange appointments with doctors and dentists, and so on.

Nurturing needs point to the importance of working out ways to assure that children are safe and cared for at all times. Nurturing also means finding ways to attend to everything from cuddling to potty training to providing listening ears, shoulders to cry on, kisses to plant on tearful faces and scraped knees.  It means teaching children how to be strong, responsible, compassionate human beings who care about their world and grow up to contribute to it.  For people of religious faith, there is also aspiritual dimension to child rearing.

Social needs mean recognizing the importance of children’s relationships outside the home and guiding children in their involvement with school, church, and community, their peers, the extended family of relatives, and any others who come into their lives over the years.  There is also the larger outside world that comes to us through television, movies, printed materials, advertisements, and the Internet; and children need guidance in relating to all of these as well.

Working It All Out

Working out all these details in a particular household’s division of labor is never easy, Kimberly, and you and I are both aware that the workplace hasn’t helped much.  Many employers have been reluctant to allow flexibility in work hours or telecommuting, or they insist on an employee’s availability for after-hours work or require travel on business with little advance notice.  Finding excellent child care for times when a parent must leave children in the care of another is also hard to come by.  And many employers do not provide adequate leave time for such situations as when children are home from school because of illness.  If coupled parents have problems of this sort, the situation for single parents requires even greater heroism to keep the family going.

The  important thing to remember is that until society remedies some of these problems, every couple must work out whatever works best for them. That may vary greatly from family to family.   And from individual to individual.  Temperaments, energy-levels, and personalities differ, too.  Some parents are able to take on “super mom” or “super dad” roles at various times; others find it difficult if not impossible to “have it all” or “do it all” when it comes to balancing work and family.

There’s no reason to criticize or judge the couple who chooses to have one stay-at-home parent (it could be either one) while the other is in the paid workforce (though being a one-income family is increasingly difficult in this economy). Nor should we judge the couple who chooses to alternate each person’s work schedule so that one of them is always with the children, even though it may mean sacrificing much of their own time together.  Nor should we criticize the couple who chooses day-care arrangements so that both can be employed.  Similarly, we have no right to judge the couple who chooses to have no children at all.   The choices are up to each individual couple.

The Problem of a Gender-Based Division of Labor

So why does this topic of work and family generate so many inner struggles and outer conflicts?   Because outside forces have insisted on dictating the division of labor — and dictating that it be based on gender.

In my previous letter (Sept. 3 post), I wrote about the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially the Victorian era, when masculine identity required separating the “spheres” in which men and women functioned.  Men claimed the public sphere and women were assigned the private sphere of the home.

To sell this idea, writes Betty DeBerg, men “sensed they must make domesticity look sweet in order to keep women within its confines,”  and thus “they produced a sentimental, gushing exaltation of home, woman, and motherhood. Never before had women been praised so highly, nor had their day-to-day lives been described as being so worthy and vital. Women were given an important social role that only they could fill” (Betty DeBerg, Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism.Fortress Press, 1990, Fortress Press, p.23).

Being a Wife and Mother in the 1950s

During the 1950s, there was a revival of placing homemakers on a pedestal, with homemaking and child rearing being touted as a woman’s highest calling. The message was everywhere — from pulpits to politics.  Television was coming into its own during that decade as more homes purchased TV sets; and programs like Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave It to Beaver were popular.  The image projected on television and in magazines was one of a woman who, while her husband was off earning enough to support the family on his one income, stayed behind to make their suburban home a refuge to which her husband and school-age children returned late each day from the demanding world outside. She was always impeccably dressed as she spent her days cheerfully cleaning, cooking, and caring for their youngest children in a suburban home equipped with the latest appliances and household products. The corporate world which offered those products adored her.

The model housewife, in this 1950s view, lived to serve her family and keep her husband and children happy, meeting their every need.  Any aspirations or needs she had for fulfillment of her own beyond this model were considered “selfish.”

“Some Day My Prince Will Come

In 1956, Grace Kelley, the movie star, married Prince Ranier of Monaco in a lavish ceremony attended by the rich and famous and broadcast on television. It seemed all the world was starry-eyed about weddings that year as the media romanticized the couple’s courtship and marriage. Grace Kelley gave up her film career and was given the title, “Her Serene Highness, Princess Grace of Monaco.”

Many young girls saw it as proof that fairy tales were real after all.  They could hope that “someday theirprince would come,” too, and they would live happily ever after, devoting their lives to pleasing a handsome husband and beautiful children — maybe not in a palace but at least in a lovely home in the suburbs.  That was the prevailing ethos of the times. It was the middle-class dream, and virtually every aspect of society promoted it.

And that was the same year in which I was married.

Marrying Young

Women were expected to marry young (the average age at marriage for women in 1956 was 20.1 years) and they were expected not to delay childbearing.  I fit the demographic well by marrying at 20.75 years. And by my 25th birthday was expecting my second child.

Between the Two “Glorification of Homemaking” Time Periods

But in between the Victorian idealization of the homemaking role as the be-all-end-all of a woman’s life and the revival of that image in the 1950s, a lot had been happening, including World War II.  During that time, huge numbers of women had entered the workforce to fill essential jobs that had been left by the men sent off to war.  Education was making a difference, too.  Women were changing.  They had become aware of other dimensions of life beyond the home, and they weren’t ready to accept the messages that told them being a wife, mother, and homemaker was a woman’s greatest achievement and that a woman should find satisfaction in that alone.

The backlash and efforts to keep women at home were tremendous, as Friedan pointed out in her book.

No one was saying that love and marriage and motherhood were not important.  They just couldn’t be the whole of a woman’s existence!  Of course, questions about a man’s role were also beginning to be raised.  Balance, equality, and choice were what were being sought.

But this letter is already too long, Kim.  In my next letter, I want to tell you how I started writing about these matters in my earliest articles in the 1960s, a time when questioning the role of women was highly unusual in the evangelical circles to which I belonged.

But I think I’ve said enough here to give you an idea of what it was like to be a homemaker at the time I was a young wife and mother and why the time was ripe for the second wave women’s movement.

And it’s really not too surprising to see questions about “women’s place” and balancing work and family back in the news today.    What is surprising is to see where it’s coming from — especially from points along the religious and political spectrum where it was once said to be settled once and for all, often by simply quoting a Bible verse!

Your friend,

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.


  1. I enjoyed your post and wanted to offer up our family situation as an example of what were saying about division of roles.

    My wife and I have been together for 16 years now. When our relationship started (this is the second marriage for us both) we were both coming out of an abusive relationship. She was not working and had nothing beyond her high school diploma and minimal work experience because her ex would not “allow” it.

    16 years later she has her MBA and CPA and works full time and is a good employee (much better than me I think).

    But our house has the “stereotypical” roles reversed. I work part time on weekends. I also do all the cooking, the laundry (well except for this week), the cleaning, and 90% of the child rearing duties including schooling our youngest. When my wife comes home from work dinner is ready, house is hopefully not to much a disaster area, and she does not need to worry about that stuff.

    I also have my master’s degree and professional licensure. But my wife and I gravitated towards the roles we both were best at doing and the ones she wanted to do. She is a better worker than me, she is certainly a thousand times smarter than me when it comes to what she does and she shines at it.

    We also decided it was important to have someone with the children all the time. Both of us working would certainly provide a lot more money but we decided that object/things are nice but they certainly can not take the place of guidance, care, time. So we accept a smaller standard of living to ensure one of us is always around the house for the children.

    It is interesting to me to watch the reactions of different people when they learn of our “roles” at home. The worst reactions tend to come from the fundamentalist christian folks and that is sad. My wife is a great person, she loves her family. I love my family. In the end that should be all that matters not what gender is doing what.


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