The Good Wife’s Guide

“The Good Wife’s Guide”

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When my mom was married in 1979, my grandmother gave her a present, as most mothers do on their daughter’s wedding day. Although, this present was not the typical wedding gift, but rather a piece of paper with bullet points delineating all the duties that my grandmother felt my mother must carry out in order to be a good wife and to make her marriage “work”. The list included tasks like, “never take your makeup off until your husband is already in bed but make sure you reapply before he awakens”, or “always have dinner prepared when he comes home from work”, and “never let him come home to a dirty house”. My grandmother slipped the sheet into my mom’s honeymoon bag and told her that if she followed the list closely that her marriage would last because there would be no reason for my father to ever be upset. However, I never realized that this list could possibly be based on a real artifact called, “The Good Wife’s Guide”.

“The Good Wife’s Guide”, which was piece of media created in the 1950’s to teach woman how to be the best wife possible. It consisted of an image as well as a list of 18 tasks that a wife must complete in order to keep her husband happy. There is speculation as to where the original “Good Wife’s Guide” first appeared. The popular belief is that the image was taken from a home economics textbook that was produced in the 1950’s as part of a required curriculum for girls in the public school system. A lesser-held belief speculates that this image was produced in the 50’s as a piece of media, never being published in any textbook. Agreeing with the popular belief, home economics was a class offered in most public schools, which taught girls how to become ladies and to manage a home by mastering tasks such as cooking, baking, bed-making, deep cleaning a house, organizing a house, sewing, laundry, and more. This kind of curriculum made a home economic textbook the bible of domesticity. Boys of course, did not take this course because housework was considered exclusively the woman’s job. The man was expected to focus on building a successful career, while his wife stay at home to “manage” the house. But for this paper, whether this piece was truly published in a home economics textbook or if this piece was simply a statement of popular beliefs held during the 1950’s is not of true concern. The issue is that it was created in the first place and that it was, at the time, an accurate depiction of America’s vision of the mainstream post-war American woman.

“The Good Wife’s Guide” serves as a perfect example of compulsory heterosexuality in America. Popularized by Adrienne Rich in the 1980’s, compulsory heterosexuality is the idea that female heterosexuality is designed and enforced by a patriarchal society. This way of thinking leads to a culture that disempowers women, which was happening in the 1950’s. Pieces of media like “The Good Wife’s Guide,” only reinforce the concept of compulsory heterosexuality in a society, thereby inhibiting change.  “The Good Wife’s Guide” was not only problematic because it disempowered women by the force of men, but it was troublesome because it only addressed white, middle-class women.  If “The Good Wife’s Guide” is only speaking to white women who live in a middle to upper class family, then does that mean wives of lower class families or wives of the minority races can never be good wives?  Of course we know that any woman has the capability to be as good as a “wife” as they wish (however they choose to define wife and the corresponding responsibilities), but this media source made it seem impossible to think that the “perfect wife” could be anything but white and comfortably wealthy.

The creator of “The Good Wife’s Guide” made a wife’s job simple and stated that in order to be a good wife; one should follow 18 simple rules, which would result in a happy husband and good marriage. During the 1950’s, America created a culture that expected women to get married, have children, and be dutiful housewives. “The Good Wife’s Guide” used an image and a list of bullet points to simply compel and prepare woman to discharge a narrow definition of the “duties” believed to be those of a role model wife and mother. In the image used in “The Good Wife’s Guide” the viewer can see the wife happily cooking dinner at the stove, dressed nicely still wearing her heels, while the father is just arriving home from work. The children, still dressed nicely as the mother has asked of them, flock to the father to greet him. The wife is bent over, causing the viewer to perceive her as subordinate to her husband who is standing tall in front of her. Not only does the woman have submissive posture, but also in the actual image the husband appears much larger, taking up more space in the picture. This causes the viewer to see the husband as a more commanding figure, implying that he is of greater importance. By showing the wife with a gleaming smile, and the husband with a satisfied look on his face, this image is intended to cause one to believe that being a “good wife” is enjoyable and beneficial for both parties involved. But if one were to read the bullet point tasks more carefully, the house of a “good wife” seems to be more pleasing for only one party involved, the husband.

The first bullet point talks about preparing dinner before the husband comes home from work, the author says more than that including that, “this is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs.” This shows that the man’s needs and concerns are of primary importance, but what about the woman’s? Next it says, “prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you’ll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking,” communicating that the women’s appearance is crucial to her husband’s happiness. The list proceeds to give instructions on how to prepare the house for his arrival, but there is a concerning over-arching theme in the bullet points which is, do everything to please him, whereas the wife’s happiness is of little or no consequence. This theme is expressed through phrases like, “be a little gay and a little more interesting for him,” “catering for his comfort will provide you with immense personal satisfaction,” “show sincerity in your desire to please him,” “his topics of conversation are more important than yours,” “make the evening his,” “make him comfortable,” “you have no right to question him,” and finally “a good wife always knows her place.” This theme of the husband’s superiority in stark contrast to the wife’s utter insignificance dominated the 1950’s, and is perfectly depicted in the image and text used in “The Good Wife’s Guide.” Fortunately this theory of thought is slowly being reversed to find equilibrium between men and women in contemporary times.

When evaluating the success of “The Good Wife’s Guide” as a piece of media or teaching tool (depending on the origin of its source,) I would argue that it was successful. The 1950’s housewife played a prominent role in America. TV shows like, Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best, depicted the importance and perfection of the housewife and her role in the home. Whether “The Good Wife’s Guide” was in a home economics textbook or simply just produced in the media, a majority of women saw it and most likely remembered some of the “keys” to being a good wife, and probably acted on them once married. The final reason why I would personally argue that this image was successful is that my grandmother found it so important that she created her own list based on the original “Good Wife’s Guide” to give to my mother on one of the most important days of her life, her wedding day. Almost 20 years after this list was created, other women like my grandmother were still re-creating it, which demonstrates its significance to a part of society and that period in time. In contemporary society I believe that when people see this list it is seen as humorous because of how drastically the definition of housewife and even the expectations of women have changed. This demonstrates that the meaning that a piece of media portrays is highly dependent on the generation and society that views that image.