The American housewife seems a thing of the past. Women who stay at home to cook, clean and take care of children while their husbands go out to work are a rarity today, but in the 1940s they were the norm. My mother, Elfriede, wasn’t one of them. She always worked outside the home, even though her salary as a woman professional in a nonprofit was very modest.
My father and mother escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 and 1939, respectively, and Elfriede arrived on one of the last ships to get out of Europe before World War II. My sister was born in Germany and my brother and I were born here. In 1945, when I was two, my mother realized the War was coming to an end, and that would mean the return of millions of GIs to the job market. Elfriede’s Heidelberg Ph.D. in economics enabled her to become Research Director for the Philadelphia Housing Association, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, but she had to face the same problems of balancing work and home life that parents still face today. She even discovered the concept of “quality time” with children long before that term was part of the American vocabulary.
Elfriede’s earnings barely covered the cost of child care. Her salary of $30 per week would come to about $300 per week in today’s dollars — what a job at Walmart pays, and she only got to take 18% of that home. Most of what Elfriede netted from her work went into savings to pay for the eventual college expenses for my brother and me (my sister was already in college on a full scholarship), so we were able to graduate without any debt.
After Elfriede died in 1999, I found among her papers an old draft in pencil on yellowed cheap tablet paper. Written in her uniquely difficult script, it is titled “Contest for Career Mothers,” but as far as I know, it was never published anywhere. It is remarkable how similar her thoughts in 1947 were to the considerations of working parents today. Her essay follows.
Contest for Career Mothers (1947)
Elfriede Fischer Hoeber, 4349 N. 9th Street, Phila 40, PA
We have three children, ages 17, 6 and 5 (age 17 is off to college). We live in a 6 room row house, adjacent to a large city park, 30 minutes from the center of the city.
I am director of Research for a private social agency. This is a full time job, 5 days, from 9 to 5 o’clock. I started working again after a pause of several years when my youngest child was 2 years old. I felt that I would be better satisfied working on a job for which my training qualified me than to be tied down 24 hours a day at housework. Satisfactory arrangements for the children are of course the principal condition to maintain peace of mind and to avoid a feeling of guilt when working outside the house. I have a housekeeper who comes in a few minutes before I leave in the morning and who leaves shortly after I get home at night. It is generally possible to find qualified persons if the hours and the pay for the housekeeper compare favorably with the standard rates. I found that the cost of a good private nursery school (there was no public nursery school anywhere near) for two children and the cost of at least some household help would have been more than I could afford. Maybe I was just lucky with the housekeepers I had, but the arrangement was quite satisfactory. The children are now in the first grade and in the kindergarten of the nearby public school.
I prepare the breakfast myself and allow plenty of time for it so that the whole family can have an unhurried breakfast together. The housekeeper prepares lunch for the children and the dinner. The big laundry is sent out and the housekeeper takes care of the smaller children’s washing and some other personal things. Generally speaking this arrangement has proved quite satisfactory. The standards of housekeeping vary somewhat from time to time. Sometimes the cleaning is not quite as thorough as I might wish, sometimes the cooking could be better, but as long as the children are well taken care of, I am willing to put up with what I consider minor shortcomings.
No, it is not all gravy. Actually, the financial surplus after deducting expenses would hardly make it worthwhile if it were not for other satisfactions. My weekly earnings and expenses are as follows:
My husband was raised by a mother who was a physician and who worked full time during most of her life. So he is willing and, as a matter of fact, anxious to see his wife work outside the home even when he occasionally feels he is not getting quite the service to which he feels accustomed and entitled. I have always tried (not always successfully) not to load any more household work on him than he would undertake if I were not working. He tends the furnace and makes Sunday breakfast. But even if he does not have to help much with children or house work, his generally positive attitude is one of the basic conditions without which I could not and would not want to work. His contribution is mainly putting up with the service he is not getting and he complains loudly about buttons off his shirt and socks not yet mended.
I certainly do prefer to go out to work. The work I am doing is highly interesting and satisfactory. I am not tied down as I would be if I took care of the children and the household without help (and we could not afford help on my husband’s salary). Staying at home, I would have less chance to participate in civic affairs than I have now.
I would not complain of mental strain; on the contrary, it seems lots of fun to put trained brains to work, rather than vegetate on the somewhat meager mental diet that is the housewife’s lot. I find my work mentally stimulating rather than a strain. Emotional strain – well, that is there but it can be minimized, if the arrangements for the children are satisfactory, if the husband is cooperative and if the aims one wants to achieve in a job are not overstated.
You ask the most important question at the end. After all, if the children were to suffer physically, mentally or emotionally, the price for my satisfaction from working would be entirely too high. I chose a job with pretty well fixed hours and no work Saturdays. I keep evening engagements to a minimum. I stick to a rigid schedule for 5 days. We have a leisurely breakfast together, and leave the house at the same time. I am home shortly before 6 o’clock. That leaves one hour after dinner for the children when we read or play together. I bathe them myself and put them to bed around 8 o’clock. The children know this and look forward to it. Saturdays and Sundays belong to the children altogether, except for rare social engagements. We do the necessary household chores together and plan something special almost every weekend. Under this plan the children are well adjusted and happy. I find that a few hours that belong to the children and on which they can depend compensate quite adequately for the scattered minutes of half-hearted attention.