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1 A New World
2 Beginnings of English America, 1607–1660
3 Creating Anglo-America, 1660–1750
4 Slavery, Freedom, and the Struggle for Empire, to 1763
5 The American Revolution, 1763–1783
6 The Revolution Within
7 Founding a Nation, 1783–1789
8 Securing the Republic, 1790–1815
9 The Market Revolution, 1800–1840
10 Democracy in America, 1815–1840
11 The Peculiar Institution
12 An Age of Reform, 1820–1840
13 A House Divided, 1840–1861
14 A New Birth of Freedom: The Civil War, 1861–1865
15 “What Is Freedom?”: Reconstruction, 1865–1877
16 America’s Gilded Age, 1870–1890
17 Freedom’s Boundaries, at Home and Abroad, 1890–1900
18 The Progressive Era, 1900–1916
19 Safe for Democracy: The United States and World War I, 1916–1920
20 From Business Culture to Great Depression: The Twenties, 1920–1932
21 The New Deal, 1932–1940
22 Fighting for the Four Freedoms: World War II, 1941–1945
23 The United States and the Cold War, 1945–1953
24 An Affluent Society, 1953–1960
25 The Sixties, 1960–1968
26 The Triumph of Conservatism, 1969–1988
27 Globalization and Its Discontents, 1989–2000
28 September 11 and the Next American Century

Chapter 24: An Affluent Society, 1953–1960


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Jennifer Colton, "Why I Quit Working," Good Housekeeping (September 1951)

In this excerpt, a woman described both the positives and negatives of being a working mother in the 1950s. Like many women in her generation she eventually decided to quit working and to devote her time to her children, her home, and her husband. Carefully consider the positive and negative aspects of her decision. What kind of jobs did she assume women could get outside of their homes? Was that accurate for all women during this period? What kind of home and standard of living was assumed in her description of being a housewife? How many homes fit that ideal? Why did so many married women continue to work outside of the home despite cultural pressure?

Jennifer Colton "Why I Quit Working" Good Housekeeping, September 1951, 53.

Just over a year ago, I was suffering from that feeling of guilt and despondency familiar to most working mothers who have small children. During the hours I spent in the office, an accusing voice chanted continuously, "You should be home with the children." I couldn't have agreed more, which only created an additional tension: the frustrated anger of one who knows what is right but sees no way of doing it. Children need clothes as well as attention; they must be nourished with food as well as love.

Some mothers can eventually talk themselves out of this feeling; they conclude that the material advantages they can provide are worth more than their presence in the home. Some, unable to rationalize this way, gradually grow more despondent. Others try to find a compromise. For the fortunate ones, the problem is solved by a substantial increase in the husband's income.

One day in 1950, I finally worked out a compromise: a way to be at home with the children and still do some work for which I'd be paid. At that moment, I knew only two things: that I would never again rage against a delayed subway for costing me my painfully brief hour with the children, and that at last I would be able to serve a dinner that took more than half an hour to prepare and put on the table.

A year has passed, and I've had time to judge the advantages and disadvantages of leaving my office job. How they will total up ten years from now, I don't know. But here is my balance sheet of the results to date.


The great alibi: work. My job, and the demands it made on me, were my always accepted excuses for everything and anything: for spoiled children, neglected husband, mediocre food; for being late, tired, preoccupied, conversationally limited, bored, and boring.

The weekly check. And with that went many extravagances and self- indulgences. I no longer had the pleasure of giving showy gifts (the huge doll, the monogrammed pajamas) and the luxury of saying "My treat." And without the extra money, I couldn't rectify or camouflage such mistakes as an unbecoming hat, a too-big canasta debt, a too-small pair of shoes.

The special camaraderie and the common language. The warm but impersonal and unprying relationship among working people is one of the most rewarding things about having a job. People who work, even in unallied fields, speak rather the same language, which can't be translated for the uninitiated without going into the whole psychology of business. I missed the crutch of shoptalk when, later, I struggled to reach people through interests outside the business world.

One pretty fallacy. For some reason, most working mothers seem to think they could retire with perfect ease; that they could readily adjust themselves to their new role. I don't think so. When you start to devote all your time to homemaking, you run into a whole new set of problems. The transition from part-time to full-time mother is difficult to make.

One baseless vanity. I realize now (and still blush over it) that during my working days I felt that my ability to earn was an additional flower in my wreath of accomplishments. Unconsciously -- and sometimes consciously -- I thought how nice it was for my husband to have a wife who could also bring in money. But one day I realized that my office job was only a substitution for the real job I'd been "hired" for: that of being purely a wife and mother.

The sense of personal achievement. A working woman is someone in her own right, doing work that disinterested parties consider valuable enough to pay for. The satisfactions of housekeeping are many, but they are not quite the same.

The discipline of an office. The demands made on you by business are much easier to fulfill than the demands you make on yourself. Self-discipline is hard to achieve.

Praise for a good piece of work. No one can expect her husband to tell her how beautifully clean she keeps the house or how well she makes the beds. And other people take her housewifely arts for granted. But a business coup attracts attention.


A role. At first I found it hard to believe that being a woman is something in itself. I had always felt that a woman had to do something more than manage a household to prove her worth. Later, when I understood the role better, it took on unexpected glamour. Though I still wince a lit- tie at the phrase "wife and mother," I feel quite sure that these words soon will sound as satisfying to me as "actress" or "buyer" or "secretary" or "president."

New friends and a wider conversational range. It was sad to drift apart from my office colleagues, but their hours and, alas, their interests were now different from mine. So I began to make friends with people whose problems, hours, and responsibilities were the same as mine. I gratefully record that my friendship with them is even deeper than it was with business associates. Although we share the same pattern of life, we are not bound by it. As for conversation, I had been brought up on the satirical tales of the housewife who bored her husband with tiresome narratives about the grocer and the broken stove. Maybe it was true in those days. But not any more. I've had to exercise my mind to keep up with these new friends of mine. They have presented me with that handsome gift of expanded interests.

Normalcy. The psychiatrists say there is no such thing, but that's what it feels like. My relationship with my children is sounder, for instance. I have fewer illusions about them. I have found I can get bored with them. Exhausted by them. Irritated to the point of sharp words. At first I was shocked, and then I realized that when I worked and we had so little time together, we had all played our "Sunday best." The result: strained behavior and no real knowledge of one another. Now I'm not so interesting to them as I was. I'm not so attentive and full of fun, because I'm myself. I scold, I snap, I listen when I have time. I laugh, I praise, I read to them when I have time. In fact, I'm giving a pretty good representation of a human being, and as the children are going to spend most of their lives trying to get along with human beings, they might as well learn right now that people's behavior is variable.

The luxury of free time. This is one of the crown jewels of retirement. The morning or afternoon that occasionally stretches before me, happily blank, to be filled with a visit to a museum or a movie, a chat with a friend, an unscheduled visit to the zoo with the children, the production of the elaborate dish I'd always meant to try, or simply doing nothing, is a great boon.

Leisure. The pleasure of dawdling over a second cup of coffee in the morning can be understood only by those who have, sometime in their lives, gulped the first cup, seized gloves and bag, and rushed out of the house to go to work.

Handwork. This may seem trivial, but making things at home is one of the pleasures the businesswoman is usually deprived of. Homemade cookies, presents, dresses, parties, and relationships can be worth their weight in gold. Intimacy. The discovery of unusual and unexpected facets in the imaginations of children, which rarely reveal themselves in brief, tense sessions, is very rewarding.

Improved Appearance. Shinier hair, nicer hands, better manicures, are the products of those chance twenty-minute free periods that turn up in the busiest days of women who don't go to business. Of course, such periods crop up in an office, too; but you're not allowed to make use of them for personal affairs.

Proof Positive. If I hadn't retired, I would have remained forever in that thicket of self-delusion called thwarted potentials. It was almost too easy: the shrug, the brave little smile, and the words "Of course, I've always wanted to write (or paint or run for Congress), but since I'm working, I never have time." And it's time that gives you proof positive of what you can and cannot do.

Relaxation. Slowly, I'm learning to forget the meaning of the word tension. While I was working, I was tense from the moment I woke up in the morning until I fell into bed at night.

There is no way of measuring or comparing unrelated work. I don't know whether I work harder or less hard now. I walk farther, but there are often free periods during the day to enjoy as I like. I do a greater variety of things, but at my own speed, and without the pressure common to all offices. I get sleepy instead of tired.

Sometimes I ask myself, "What would persuade me to go back?" And my answer is, "Barring big medical expenses or a real need for something for the children or my husband, nothing." And I mean it.

But I'm glad I had the experience of working. I can understand my husband's delight in his work, and I can still talk sympathetically with friends who work. And what else could make me so acutely conscious of every blessing and so humbly aware of the potentials of my new role?

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