We boomers grew up watching sitcoms like Father Knows Best (1954-60), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66) and Leave It to Beaver (1957-63), where the mom character was the official domestic engineer and chief child-rearer. Evidently, a dress, pearls and heels was the required uniform, whether washing dishes, vacuuming or cooking. Only the addition of an apron helped to differentiate between the household tasks.
By contrast, the man of the house went to work and, it appears, according to boomer-era TV shows, his only job when he got home was to sit in a chair, relax, read the newspaper and, for most of them, smoke a pipe. Occasionally, he was forced to issue dad advice or verbal punishment for his children’s misbehavior, which was brought to his attention by his wife.
Animated female characters didn’t fare much better. By the 1960s, Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble, on The Flintstones (1960-66), were drawn to be virtually the same as Margaret Anderson, Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver. Wilma and Betty’s Stone Age dresses, complete with necklaces, brought 1950s sitcom fashion into the 1960s.
The Jetsons (1962-63) was the futuristic-family answer to The Flintstones. Although pictured in the future, where a “female” robot named Rosey had taken over most of the household chores from the mom character (complete with apron), Jane Jetson was still the homemaker and mother. Jane’s job was to make life as smooth and easy as possible for the family, which she did with the help of space-age inventions. On the other hand, George Jetson wasn’t the one pushing any of the household buttons, despite his grueling work schedule of one hour a day, two days a week. In fact, his encounters with technology often required asking for his wife’s help. His main household chore appeared to be walking the family dog, Astro.
Our TV mindset was so ensconced on the woman controlling all the housework that it became the visual joke on My Three Sons (1960-72). The series starts with the audience knowing that character Steven Douglas, father of three boys, is a widower. Does he immediately jump into the job of homemaker and enlist the help of his growing children to handle the household chores? No — instead, his deceased wife’s father, Bub, grandfather to the children, becomes the live-in housekeeper. The part was played by William Frawley. When he became too ill to continue in the series in 1965, his role was replaced by Uncle Charley (played by William Demarest), the great-uncle former merchant marine who tackles the household chores while wearing an apron (the 1950s signifier of the homemaker), but chomping a cigar lest his character seem too effeminate.
Boomers, however, despite this gender indoctrination, knew their mothers did not live the glamorous sitcom life of June Cleaver; but they were the homemaker and person in charge of the daily home schedules of the children. For Mister B, like many boomers, his mother quit working once the first child was born. She stayed home raising the children and doing the cooking and cleaning until Mister B and his siblings were in high school, when she found a job outside the home.
A prevailing thought, both at the time and even today, was that the Women’s Liberation Movement would change the dynamics of work within the home to a more equitable relationship. Fast forward fifty years and studies are showing that though men are doing more work in the home than ever before, in most relationships it is far from a 50-50 split that many people see as the ideal sharing of responsibility.
Our boomer history came into focus this week for Mister B when reports indicated that during our world-wide pandemic, women are being affected far more than men both in the workplace and on the homefront. Before COVID-19 hit the U.S. a year ago, women made up half the country’s workforce. Indications now are a good portion of unemployed women have left their jobs in order to care for children, who are now required to be home while schools remain closed. To make matters worse, studies show by far women remain the main housekeepers, handling cooking, cleaning, laundry and in many cases, their own work-at-home job situation, while troubleshooting home tech connections for their children and assisting teachers in attempting to reach their on-screen classes.
Even though today’s woman is in a far different situation than June Cleaver, we are witnessing that though many things have changed, much has not. Mister Boomer has no answers, advice or pithy inspirational messages to relay here. He merely tips his hat and humbly bows to mothers everywhere. Where would we be without them?
Has the pandemic brought into focus the dynamics of your own homelife or that of your children, boomers?