Boomers’ Moms Weren’t June Cleaver, Then or Now

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?

Boomers Watched the Image of Mothers Change with Time

Our image of mothers has changed dramatically since the early boomer days. The 1954 “Home Economics High School Text Book” gave this advice to young women to take to heart when they became wives: “Have dinner ready, prepare yourself, prepare the children, minimize all noise, be happy to see him, listen to him, make the evening his.” That pretty much summed up a mother’s place in a 1950s American home.

Our TV shows reflected our image of what a mother was supposed to be, too. Yet Mister B thinks our popular TV shows helped further the image of mom.

In I Love Lucy (1951-57), Lucille Ball’s character gave birth to Little Ricky in the second season, coinciding with her real-life pregnancy. Both Lucys became moms at the same time. While Desi is off doing man’s work — in his case as a bandleader and singer — Lucy tends to the house. She usually ends up in some sort of trouble that tests the patience of her husband. He treats her in an almost child-like manner when he intones, “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.” Lucy as a mom was naive, fairly helpless and definitely second banana to her husband.

Barbara Bilingsley was an idealized version of a 1950s mother as June Cleaver in Leave It to Beaver (1957-63). She wears dresses around the house and constantly looks like she is ready to go out, with perfect hair and makeup. When her boys Beaver and Wally get into trouble, she doesn’t always agree with their father’s (Hugh Beaumont) decisions on how to address the situation and punish the boys, but in the end, it’s Mr. Cleaver who delivers his judgment while his wife looks on in support.

With Wilma Flintstone we see a strong-willed mother who makes her wishes known in the house. Daughter Pebbles appeared near end of the third season of The Flintstones (1960-66), and although Wilma is a stay-at-home mom in the early part of the series, she sees to it that her husband gets her all the modern conveniences that will make her life easier. Wilma was even known to physically bite or hit Fred if she felt it was warranted. Yet in Honeymooners fashion, she could still serve up a mean Brontosaurus steak to please her man.

Unlike most of her predecessors, Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha on Bewitched (1964-72) wore pants as much as or more than dresses. A mother to her daughter Tabitha, she was a housewife who was also required to have dinner ready for her husband’s boss on a moment’s notice. While she promised her husband she wouldn’t use her witch powers around the house, she often used them to keep things running smoothly for when her husband got home.

What we often hear or read about the era of the fifties and sixties is that a mother’s job was to take care of the house and her children. What we see in many of our TV shows, like these mentioned, are strong women figures who not only take care of the house and children but do quite a bit to support their husbands without them knowing. In this TV image of mother, she is really the head of the household, but the husband just doesn’t know it.

Mister B’s mom was a traditional housewife in the 1950s, but by the early sixties, she’d had her fill. The first thing to go was getting up and making his father’s breakfast. Since he left by six a.m., she would be up before five, which was no longer acceptable. Soon after breakfast for dad ended, she put her foot down again and told Mister B and Brother Boomer they would get themselves up for school and make their own lunches. About two years later, she started working outside the home. Mister B is sure this scene would be appreciated by those TV moms. Chances are it repeated itself throughout the 1960s as mothers

wanted and needed more than what a suburban house could offer them. They never stopped loving their husbands or their children, or relinquished their role as Chief Domestic Engineer. As time went on, they enlisted our help to keep things running so they could become the mother they always knew they could be.

So in the end, our boomer image of mother was shaped by our own mothers and the mothers of friends around us. Whether they found inspiration in some TV moms, or conspired over coffee with the neighbors, we may never know. The image of what we thought mother should be changed right before our eyes, and it was mothers who spurred it on.