The Good Wife’s Guide

“The Good Wife’s Guide”


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.

Defining Mom

Proctor and Gamble’s (P & G) “Thank you Mom” commercial appeared in 2012 as part of the campaign that ran during and put narrative focus on the 2012 London Olympic Games. The commercial depicts the progress of athletes as they move from young children to Olympic competitors, supported along the way by their mothers. Five or six different mothers are depicted waking their young athletes early, making them different (assumedly culturally appropriate) breakfasts, and then delivering the children to various athletic practices. The mothers do it all again the next day, and the next, and the next. The athletes are shown in different stages of life and after trial and tribulation each arrives at his or her specific Olympic event. The mothers look on with tears of pride.

Proctor and Gamble is the parent company of over 60 brands that comprise mostly of household cleaning and beauty products. Dawn dish soap, Brawny paper towels, and Tide detergent are just a few of the company’s most-recognizable assets. Because of the company’s brands, we can assume the advertisement’s target audience is people who work in the home performing domestic tasks: whoever uses dish soap, paper towels, and laundry detergent most often will likely be the buyer of such products. The first (and most important) assumption the ad makes is that the Mother is the keeper of the home. The campaign called “Thank You Mom,” and the text at the end of the ad specifically addresses mothers. By targeting mothers with their ad, P & G assumes they are the primary users of P & G products.

The argument P & G addresses to its viewers runs along these lines: Domestic work leads to greatness; washing uniforms, and cooking meals allow children to become Olympic athletes. P & G ties greatness to working in the home. At this point in the commercial, it appears that P & G has made the assumption that all primary caregivers are women: no male caretakers appear in these video sequences, unless you could the fuzzy half-outline of a dad at a gymnastics meet.

The ad furthers this assumption when the words “Thank you, Mom” appear on the screen. All caretakers are women, and all Mothers are caretakers. The ad also assumes that the same member of the family is responsible for both the housework and taking care of children, a situation that does not hold for every family structure. One interesting consequence of the lack of male caretakers in the ad is the resulting lack of comment on caretakers’ relationship status. Are the mothers of the commercial straight, lesbian, or trans? Are the mothers perhaps single mothers? No assumptions are made in regards to this element of family life.

The ad assumes all caretakers are women, all Mothers are caretakers, and the caretaker performs all the housework. The argument is simple: domestic work (the kind facilitated by P & G products) leads to greatness. Just as mothers work tirelessly to support their children, P & G supports Moms (and so moms should buy their products).

Proctor and Gamble’s ad is an attempted intervention into the myth of the happy fifties housewife: yes, taking care of a child and taking care of housework is hard, says the ad; The text at the end of the video reads “The hardest job in the world is the best job in the world.” By acknowledging the difficulty of maintaining a household and raising children, the ad disrupts the image of the smiling mother who has lots of time for book-club and social gatherings. (Maybe my own image of junior-leaguers and country club cocktails is shaping my view of this commercial a little too much here.)

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan enters into Proctor and Gamble’s chosen world of the happy housewifeFriedan argues (contrary to P&G’s ad) that mothers and wives must stop searching for happiness among their husbands and children: happiness lies in fulfilling the dreams that are frustrated when intelligent women give up education and careers to stay at home with children. Friedan contradicts P&G’s message of motherly fulfillment through self-sacrifice, yet both Friedan’s and P&G’s arguments have the same oversights: both ads entirely ignore differences of race and class. (Though, admittedly, P&G does attempt to address the race issue by showing athletes and mothers of all nationalities).

bell hooks’ criticisms of Friedan in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, hold for the P&G commercial. hook argues that Friedan’s narrative of the troubled 50’s housewife is the narrative only of the white, upper-middle class housewife; Friedan’s dilemma in no way parallels the experiences of lower class white women, or of women of color (from any class). Friedan assumes that all women (her assumed audience) are mothers with husbands and no careers. Similarly, Proctor and Gamble assumes that all mothers are stay-at-home moms, who take care of cooking and cleaning. The ad leaves no space for mothers who have to work (usually a class issue), or for mothers who choose to work, or for fathers who are the primary caregivers for their families.

According to the Proctor and Gamble, children who achieve great things have mothers that sacrifice; sacrifice to wake up early, sacrifice to drive children to practice, and sacrifice to do all the housework that allows their children to be great. Don’t worry, says the narrative of the ad, being a mother is the “best job in the world.” Plus, you’ll get thanked and acknowledged for all your hard work… if you sacrifice. How do career moms feel when they view this advertisement? Do they feel that they are being thanked for all their hard work? P & G’s “Thank you mom” ad supports existing stereotypical norms of American family structure (white, mother and father, 2.5 kids).

BUT WAIT. What if these are real athletes and these are their real mothers? Are we to fault companies for reflecting real-life realities? Or perhaps the commercial is not based upon real Olympic athletes, and is rather a strategic attempt to sell product to P & G’s target demographic. Is it wrong to assume that the large majority of P & G’s buyers are mothers who are also primary caregivers and housewives? The ad is undeniably touching, and on some level appeals to nearly everyone. Everyone, at some point, had a mother. Most people have had a caretaker who cared for them with the maternal affection demonstrated by P&G’s mothers. The analysis of a commercial is tricky business: do we evaluate commercials based on their effectiveness as advertisements, or based on their representation of the society to whom they are selling? The morality of the advertising world is a topic that will have to wait for another post…

This post, by the way, is dedicated to my own mother. Mom: sorry I haven’t done anything as impressive as win a gold medal. Nonetheless, #thankyoumom.

Works Cited

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, 1963

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks, 1984