Dear 1960s Woman

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Dear 1960s Woman,

I get you a little better now.

It was the Year 2000 when I launched into womanhood/wifehood/motherhood (all almost simultaneously, which was actually pretty retro of me). By my time, there were Working Women, Working Moms, Stay-at-Home Moms, Work-at-Home Moms, Single Women, Divorced Women, Single Moms… and we were, for the most part, tired of fighting with each other. We had the hardliners on each side, of course, continually insulting and taking offense at each other. But for most of us in the middle, we got jobs or didn’t get jobs and had kids or got married or whatever.

And we looked at the wild and angry feminists of the 60s and said, “What was your problem?”

You did have some issues, you know. You went a little overboard painting all men as bestial and oppressive and kind of sidelined your actual complaints.

But you did have some actual complaints, didn’t you?

I’ve been reading issues of Better Homes and Gardens from 1963 and 1964. Now, I happen to enjoy the current magazine a lot. It manages to balance a hey-girlfriend-let’s-chat tone with hey-we’re-serious-women tone. And it’s unabashedly aimed at women. Most of the writers are women, the special columns on health and finance are usually written by women, and the houses and gardens featured frequently highlight a woman. Not always–men get a warm welcome when they show up. The new editor is a man, and many of the photographers, chefs, and food stylists are men (why, yes, I do look at the credits on each article). But by and large, it’s a magazine by and for smart (and well-to-do and often pretentious) women.

This wasn’t the case in your world, was it?

In 1963, BH&G was basically an ad book. Advertisements outnumbered articles like orcs outnumbered Minas Tirith (you might not get that reference; The Lord of the Rings trilogy has been out for only eight years by your time). Every single page featured three or four ads, except for the ads that take up one entire page. They were in full color, these ads, and enticed you to buy new dishwashers, new washing machines, an extension for your phone, new “flameless” heating systems, and Metamucil diet pills — everything you needed to look like a slender, tidy, sophisticated American woman who was single-mindedly devoted to her husband and her family.

But there were some actual articles, of course. They were scattered in among the ads. I imagine that BH&G was merely one of several magazines published by a umbrella company, so the editorial staff had to work it in around all the others. Judging from the quality of the writing and layout, I’d say they scheduled Tuesdays from 2:oo – 4:00 to produce each issue, and made sure to remind Betty to make cookies for the meeting.

And I noticed something. I noticed that almost all the articles with a byline are written by men.

Not all of them; there are few articles under women’s names, talking about centerpieces, recipes, and patterns for “dashing and decorative” quilts. Standard fare for BH&G. (Except for the cheerful assumption that most women reading the magazine could sew well enough to send off for quilt patterns.)

However, most of the regular issues featured articles by the editors — both men — on subjects such as, “Can You Beat Auto Depreciation?” and “Is Life Insurance a Good Idea?” They read like a particularly pompous and boring husband lecturing his wife over dinner. “I know all these numbers confuse you, dear, but I want to try to stuff some sense into your head before you go back to thinking about draperies and shopping.”

Men, in fact, make pretty frequent cameos in this magazine. Anything having to do with “handyman” work, cars, or grills, or lawn mowers mentions men.

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A woman’s hands cut the cloth, but when it comes to working with a stapler or nails, it takes a man’s hand.
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Of course, if this were the result, I’d be glad to shift the blame onto DJ’s shoulders.

In 2015’s BH&Gs, the last-page article highlighted a woman (sometimes a couple) who accomplished some clever DIY project.

In 1963’s BH&G, the last page was called “The Man Next Door” written by Burt somebody or other. It was a collection of short commentary, humor, and observations about life.

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Isn’t the first item a gem? Especially considering what follows it. Also, just never can get enough of that 1960s marriage humor!

Why was the back page of a woman’s magazine written by “the man next door”? Couldn’t they have found a woman to write heartwarming and slightly wry commentary on life? From what I know of the era, it’s because a man was considered a legitimate success, while a woman merely “dabbled” in anything that didn’t gel with her basic instinct as a homemaker.

So these men wrote ponderously instructive articles for the betterment of women; at the same time, they sold and ran ads showing women fawning over new refrigerators or washing machines. In one ad that was funny in a sexist midcentury sort of way, the wife monopolizes the new Corvair to go shopping and leaves her husband to catch the bus to work. (I posted pictures of it here.)

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It’s no fair that all a woman could hope to be was a housewife, but she still had to dress up and wear coordinating shoes to do laundry.

To us women of the twenty-first century, these magazines are vintage and quaint and make us roll our eyes. But you, 60s woman — this was the world that defined you. This was a world where a home belonged to “Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Croner,” not to “Susan and her husband Bill.” Only whiny feminists insisted on using their own names instead of being identified by a man’s name.

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Right: a full-page, full-color Dove ad on how to achieve soft skin. Left: an article featuring the home of “Mr. and Mrs. Philip S. Egan”

You were given a small life to live. Boxed-in dreams to dream. You wanted more, and were angry and baffled when the men in shirts and ties smiled patronizingly and slammed the door in your face.

So as I look through these souvenirs of your life, I understand your battle. Fifty years later, I could choose to marry or not, could choose between working and staying at home with the kids — because you won those choices for me.

Also, good news! You were wrong about “all men.” Also, I’m better with tools than my husband is, but he’s better at bringing peace and harmony to a situation than I am. And neither one of us ever nails teal and gold striped material on our walls.

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