Should Wives Work? In 1938 Eleanor Roosevelt Had Some Thoughts on the Subject.


A Happy Couple–with Chesterfields. Good Housekeeping ad, June 1938.

One focus of this blog is life in the 1930s to 1950s– as seen through popular culture. In 1938, the editor of Good Housekeeping, William F. Bigelow, a big fan of Jane Hall’s work, put together twelve articles as “The Good Housekeeping Marriage Book.” Targeting hundreds of thousands of university and college students, as well as millions of other young men and women who were eager to learn more about what makes a marriage work, he wrote: “I have heard lots about Youth in recent years — it’s lackadaisical attitude toward all serious things, it’s tendency to look at the moral code straight in the eye and smash it, it’s belief that chastity isn’t worth its cost or success in marriage worth looking for.” He was incredulous, and decided to offer useful advice.

Should wives work? First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had a lot to say on this subject. It’s one that still generates debate in some circles. “Is it possible for a woman to marry and still have a career?” At the end of the Depression, Roosevelt found the question itself a bit foolish, “for there are very few women who have careers.” In fact, she felt that marriage itself was a career. And while there is “no general answer” to the question, she asked young women: “Are you able to carry on two full-time jobs? Have you the physical strength and the mental vigor to do this day in and day out — particularly when you are young, first married, adjusting yourself to a stranger’s personality, and perhaps bearing children, which is an added physical strain?”

Why should you adjust yourself to a stranger’s personality? Roosevelt, by then a 55-year-old mother of six, felt the answer was simple: “No two people really know each other until they have been married for some time, and one of the most exacting duties of family life is the adjustment of the various personalities that make up the family circle.”

And then there’s the fact that a woman who wants to make a successful career of marriage needs time to study her husband; and think about “his capabilities, his interests, and even his peculiarities.” She should know about his business and about his pleasures. For she is instrumental to his success both by bringing out his strengths and supplementing his shortcomings.

But Eleanor Roosevelt was, of course, well aware of economic realities. She admitted that many young people marry knowing both will have to continue working. These couples need financial security before they have children. Even though “a craving for a home of her own is the first stirring of maturity in a woman. To many women, however, a home is not wholly satisfying unless she is making it for someone else, and nature has made most women yearn for a man to mother.”

Mrs. Roosevelt showed great empathy for women in mill towns or in poverty-stricken families where the women had to work. She also acknowledged that men need to understand that there are some women who want to have some financial independence. Plus a woman who remains dedicated to her job often feels that she will be a more interesting spouse if she has a life outside the home; couples must grapple with these issues together.

So Mrs. Roosevelt was not completely averse to women with careers. Some women have a “capacity within themselves which cannot be denied, and they should marry only men who understand this and are willing to make some compromises. It can be done very happily, but it depends on both the man and the woman in each case.” In 1938, these ambitious women were very fortunate indeed if they found the right man.

Her final thoughts: “I think any young couple is fortunate when the woman has to do everything about the house and does it happily, but in view of all the different angles that the problem presents, I would give no advice, only urge young people to think over what they want out of life very carefully when they are making the decision of how they will start their life together.”

Much of popular magazine fiction grappled with this question in the 1930s through the 1950s. And other experts weighed in for Mr. Bigelow on topics such as “Sex Instruction in the Home” and “The Case for Monogamy.”