The Midcentury Female Breadwinner: Who Was She
New York Times bestselling author, Cynthia Swanson shares, The Midcentury Female Breadwinner: Who Was She…and Can We See Ourselves in Her? with Women.com
The Midcentury Female Breadwinner: Who Was She…and Can We See Ourselves in Her?
On my kitchen wall hangs a small black-and-white photo of my grandmother, Mildred, with her sons – my father and my uncle. The boys are on a see-saw and Mildred is holding my dad, a toddler, at the upper end. My uncle is at the bottom, facing the camera and shielding his eyes from the sun. Mildred, in a flowered dress with perfectly styled dark hair, smiles at the photographer – likely my grandfather.
I imagine this was a typical family outing on a carefree summer day. A day when my grandmother had no idea what was to come: within a few years, my grandfather would be the much-too-young victim of a massive heart attack. And my grandmother would be widowed before her thirtieth birthday.
With no education beyond high school, Mildred had to find a way to support her family. She moved back in with her parents and enrolled in nursing school. After she graduated, she worked full time as a nurse, until my dad was in high school.
Mildred's story is unusual, but not completely unheard-of for her era. Still, it may be surprising to imagine a woman supporting her family in the mid-20th century. Think about "mother" in the 1950s, and I'll bet this is the image that comes to mind: young, attractive female with one of those bouffant hairdos, cleaning and cooking for her family in a full skirt and high heels. A woman straight out of an ad for appliances or Tupperware.
This description would fit many wives and mothers of that era, but not all. While most midcentury wives identified themselves as homemakers, there were the revolutionaries: women supporting their families due to necessity, choice, or sometimes a combination.
Who were those women? And what implications would this lifestyle choice have for her feminism, her family, and her future?
Like my grandmother, some entered marriage and motherhood expecting to be full-time housewives, supported by a wage-earning man. But a husband's abandonment, long-term illness, or even death may have sent their homemaking plans into a tailspin.
Some women never planned on a family at all and pursued higher education because they had a calling – they aspired to be doctors, businesswomen, politicians. Knowing they were unlikely to receive support from a husband, extended family, or other sources – and that it would be next-to-impossible to juggle career and family – many in this category eschewed the notion of marriage and motherhood altogether.
Others may have planned a single, child-free future, but circumstances changed. One fascinating example I came across while doing research for my novel The Glass Forest (which features a professional woman raising a child in the 1940s/1950s) is Helene Rother. Born in Germany in 1908, Rother was a jewelry designer living in Paris with her young daughter when the Nazis invaded. Rother and her child immigrated to the United States. After a few years in New York, they moved to Detroit, where Rother became the first female automotive designer, creating luxury car interiors for General Motors and Nash, and eventually opening her own design studio.
No matter the circumstances or the reason, the expectations that working women in the 1950s and 1960s placed on themselves – and external societal demands placed on them – often added up to a pressure-cooker lifestyle where women felt deficient in both their home lives and their careers.
Sound familiar? How many of us struggle to get a kid to an appointment, a healthy meal on the table – and that report done and those emails answered, all before falling into bed exhausted every night? Even as I write this essay to promote The Glass Forest, which is – ironically – about a woman struggling with her role as a breadwinner, I'm distracted by thoughts of the medication forms I need to get approved by the pediatrician before my daughter's overnight class trip, the get-well card for an ailing family member that I want my husband and kids to sign before I mail it, the costumes for a school play that I offered to help design and create. And on and on.
Those struggles for – let's face it – an unattainable level of work and home life perfection are the result of expectations that both society and individual women foist upon ourselves. We might think we've made progress, but in this realm we're not all that different from women of our grandmothers' generation.
That 1950s female breadwinner was, in a popular saying of the time, between a rock and a hard place. She gave of herself all day at work, then spent her evenings picking up the pieces of her home life, attempting (as we still do) to have it all.
I think back to my grandmother, Mildred. After she married my step-grandfather, she continued to work part time the rest of her life – by choice, not necessity. She passed away many years ago, as have both my father and uncle. I know Mildred's sons admired her fortitude, but I don't know if they considered her a feminist. Or if she would have considered herself one – because by the time that term came into vogue, she was remarried and likely thrilled that she no longer had to work her fingers to the bone just to put food on the table.
What would she think of our lifestyles now? Would she tell us to chill out, to stop trying to be all things to all people?
I can't know. I don't profess to have the answer to the "have-it-all" dilemma. What I do know is that the times I say no to that extra volunteer job, the times I let an elaborate dinner plan go, the times I wait until morning to respond to an email instead of trying to compose something coherent at 11:00 at night – when I do that, I'm more at peace.
And – surprise! – nobody and nothing seem to be any worse off for it.
Cynthia Swanson is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Bookseller. An Indie Next selection and the winner of the 2016 WILLA Award for historical fiction, The Bookseller is being translated into more than a dozen languages. Cynthia has published short fiction in numerous journals and was a Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives with her family in Denver, Colorado. The Glass Forest is her second novel. Find her at CynthiaSwansonAuthor.com.