Carnegie Mellon University

Constructing Housewives: Narratives of Domesticity, US 1945-1965

Author: Valerie Begley
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2000

This dissertation traces the discursive construction of “The Housewife” as an ideological form, and as a raced and gendered subject position in the United States from 1945 to 1965.  Domestic discourse and, within it, the reified figure of the housewife, was relied upon to prop up a variety of other discourses in the postwar years, from models of medical authority to racial hierarchies, and, eventually, to feminism itself.

Several sites for investigation--food, housing, psychological medicine, literature, and feminism--permit us to observe the cultural work that the housewife image performed.  In chapter two, I interrogate the housewife as a figure of whiteness through an analysis of US culture’s simultaneous de-emphasis of ethnicity in food and emphasis on modernity in kitchen appliances.  Chapter three demonstrates that women were expected to identify with their houses; the culture’s obsessional relationship with single-family dwellings was encouraged in popular culture.  In chapter four, I analyze the role that medical discourses played in constructing the widely held belief in the housewife as “nervous” and therefore in need of medical intervention, including lobotomies.  Chapter five examines The Street by Ann Petry, and Romance of a Little Village Girl by Cleofas Jaramillo, texts that challenge the exclusionary status, along race lines, of the dominant discourse on domesticity.  These writings, along with an analysis of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (in chapter three), engage and critique the powerful attraction of middle-class domesticity for white, Latina, and African American women. 

The coda to the dissertation examines the role of the housewife as a condition of possibility for second wave feminism.  Through an examination of Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, I examine the role that the narrative of the inarticulate housewife played in establishing speaking authority for second wave feminism.  The extent to which white women participated in a racial hierarchy that benefited them in their enactment of the domestic mandate is, I argue, the unnamed problem of second wave feminism.  The racialized dimensions of the housewife can therefore be seen to serve even the formulation of domesticity’s counter discourse.