Women on 50's TV weren't just housewives.
|Ask someone how television portrayed women in the fifties and you will likely get a reference to Barbara Billingsly as June Cleaver (“Leave it to Beaver”) cleaning house while wearing high heels and pearls. Certainly many shows featured female characters who were “housewives” who cooked, cleaned and raised children.
However, not all fifties women were married with children. Not all of them devoted their time to cooking and cleaning. The fact that a female character was married didn’t necessarily mean she had children. The fact that she had children didn’t necessarily mean she had a husband. And the fact that a women had a husband and a child didn’t necessarily mean she spent her time cooking and cleaning.
A female character in the fifties could be a teacher, a secretary, a business owner, a journalist or even a cop. An actress in the fifties could play a doctor, an entertainer, a murderer or a thief. She might even spend her time solving crimes like Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury - “Murder She Wrote”). A individual actress in the fifties could play a variety of different roles which could range from housewife to criminal.
Girls growing up in the fifties were familiar with a much greater variety of potential role models than girls growing up in previous decades. Girls of earlier generations were primarily limited in the potential female role models to their moms and whatever women they came into direct contact with on a regular basis.
The movies had provided other female role models, but they were limited to specific movies. Television brought those role models into the house every week. Girls could become familiar with them and want to follow their example. Noel Neill who played investigative reporter Lois Lane on the “Superman” tv series later toured college campuses and occasionally had coeds tell her they were studying journalism because of her character.
This essay will include the period of the early sixties because many 50's shows like “Father Knows Best” and “The Danny Thomas Show” extended into the early 60's. The first class of baby boomers didn’t graduate from high school until 1964.
The mid-60's would begin a new era of television programs. Among other changes sitcoms became less “realistic” with shows like “Gilligan’s Island” and “Get Smart”. The fifties sitcom “The Real McCoys” featured a hillbilly family who moved to California because they had inherited a small farm. The sixties sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies” featured a hillbilly family who moved to a Beverly Hills mansion after striking oil and becoming millionaires.
Fifties action adventure shows were westerns or detective shows. Detectives tended toward the Sam Spade model with brawling type fights and the star getting hit in the back of the head. The sixties added “Batman” and “Man from U.N.C.L.E” featuring improbable characters and plots on a regular basis. The “Superman” series included some episodes with weird inventions, but most of the characters, except Superman, and plots were realistic.
Shows during the fifties had been broadcast in “black and white”, but the term referred to the picture, not cast members. Except for a few shows in the early 50's, casts were almost exclusively white with only rare appearances by black performers except on variety shows. Black characters tended to be maids and butlers. In the mid 60's new shows like “Hogan’s Heroes”, “Mission Impossible”, “I Spy”, and “Startrek” featured major black cast members who weren’t servants and whose color was usually ignored.
The housewife role was the most common female role in the fifties in sitcoms. Secretarial type roles were common as far as regular cast members were concerned, and school teachers were common in recurring roles in shows with children. It might surprise some people, but women business owners were common in westerns.
Readers should keep in mind that variety shows and anthology dramas were very common in the fifties. In the mid fifties westerns occupied a significant portion of the prime time lineup. By 1958 seven of the top ten programs were westerns.
Young girls were probably more likely to watch family oriented sitcoms than drama programs, but the relatively small number of sitcoms meant families would watch variety programs and dramas part of the time. Although many families didn’t get televisions until the mid fifties, shows from the early fifties were often run on local stations as part of their afternoon or weekend programming. These programs might also be substituted for prime time shows local stations preferred not to carry. Networks might even rerun earlier programs.
Nielsen ratings are available for the more popular prime time shows of the period, but they aren’t broken down to show how many young girls were watching what shows.
Fifties tv shows generally portrayed housewives, especially moms, in a favorable light. The role of the tv housewife wasn’t glamorous, but it wasn’t as tedious as the real life role of housewife. Family series were sitcoms rather than dramas, although some like “Father Knows Best” and “Lassie” did feature light drama. Dramatic episodes involving families were limited to individual shows in anthology type programs like “The Loretta Young Show” (aka “Letters to Loretta”).
The character June Cleaver is perhaps the most criticized because she normally wore high heels and a pearl necklace. Billingsley later explained that the heels were to keep her taller than the boys. The necklace was for cosmetic purposes to hide a shadow area in the neck. In episodes in which she wasn’t wearing a necklace she was likely to be wearing something like a turtleneck sweater. Having her well dressed allowed Eddie Haskell to compliment her appearance.
Attitudes toward clothing have changed since the fifties and were changing in the fifties. Today many people wear casual clothing to the office. June Cleaver wasn’t the only one overdressed by today’s standards. Husband Ward (Hugh Beaumont) often wore a coat and tie around the house as did Jim Anderson (Robert Young - “Father Knows Best”). It is possible some housewives in the fifties actually dressed like June Cleaver and some men dressed like Ward Cleaver at home.
When I researched downtown shopping centers during the fifties I discovered an interesting change regarding the way women dressed to go shopping. When women went downtown they quite often put on a good dress and wore heels and possibly even a hat. They might plan to spend most of the day there and even attend a matinee. Some women who switched to suburban shopping centers began dressing more casually. They often would go to stores for specific items rather than for extended shopping. Accounts published at the time indicated some women were shocked when these women even began going shopping with curlers in their hair.
Hollywood may have been slow to recognize such changes, or perhaps clothing reflected their own preoccupation with glamour. Designers providing clothes may also have influenced decisions about clothing styles.
Lucy (Lucille Ball) and Ethel (Vivian Vance) on “I Love Lucy” came the closest to wearing the variety of clothing most housewives wore around the house. Lucy occasionally even appeared at breakfast wearing a bathrobe and with curlers in her hair. Ethel might visit wearing similar attire. They both frequently wore pants or informal “house dresses”. In the “Loving Cup” episode Ethel is wearing blue jeans and comments that she has to change to ride the subway because she had never worn blue jeans on the subway.
Producers of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” apparently were unaware of the attire worn by Lucy and Ethel. Mary Tyler Moore had to fight with them to allow her character Laura Petrie to wear capri pants on the show. Moore’s legs had previously appeared regularly on “Richard Diamond” on which she played Sam, the woman with the sexy voice who gave him information on the phone. Her voice was heard, but only her legs were shown.
Most tv housewives had modern appliances, particularly on shows like “Ozzie and Harriett” with appliance sponsors. Alice Kramden (Audrey Meadows) on the “Honeymooners” was an obvious exception. She still used an ice box. Younger readers might think of “ice box” as an old term for refrigerator, but an “ice box” was literally that. It had a space in it for a large block of ice which was used to keep the contents cold. A pan underneath collected the melted water. The “iceman” periodically delivered a new block of ice.
Tv housewives weren’t shown spending a lot of time actually cleaning, but then their husbands weren’t shown on the job very much if at all. I don’t know if we ever saw “Honeymooners” Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) driving a bus or Ed Norton (Art Carney) working in a sewer. Ozzie Nelson (Ozzie and Harriett) apparently didn’t have a job. Nelson later told Johnny Carson that his character was portraying him in real life – a retired band leader.
Housewives in the fifties such as Betty White’s character Elizabeth (“Life with Elizabeth”) and Joan Davis’s Joan Stevens (“I Married Joan”) might by described as “kooky” or “klutzy”, but housewives weren’t “desperate”, except for a few characters in episodes of mysteries or westerns. With the obvious exception of Lucy, the kooky housewives didn’t have young children. Father might have known best on some shows, but on others like “Life of Riley” and “The Stu Erwin Show” (aka “Trouble With Father”) mom had to be the grownup because dad was clueless.
There were three basic types of family programs. Some like “I Love Lucy” and “Life of Riley” emphasized the parents. Programs like “Lassie” and “Leave it to Beaver” emphasized the children. “Father Knows Best” and “The Donna Reed Show” varied the emphasis with some episodes emphasizing one or more of the children and others one or both parents.
Families in the fifties had three or fewer children. “Life With Father” with four children was an exception. Larger families like the Bradys and Waltons would have to wait for a later decade.
Mothers in the fifties raised children. They rarely bore children. Mary Kay Stearns character on “Mary Kay and Johnny” had a baby when she had one in real life as did Lucille Ball’s. Both shows featured couples who were also married in real life. Incidentally, Elizabeth Montgomery’s character Samantha Stevens on “Bewitched” would also become pregnant when she did.
Other shows preferred using adoption to add new children. On “Lassie” when Jeff Miller (Tommy Rettig) got too old for the part of Lassie’s owner, Timmy (Jon Provost ) arrived one night as a runaway. He had been taken care of by an elderly relative. He was later adopted and became a regular cast member. Then Jeff and his mom Ellen (Jan Clayton) both left the show with Timmy and Lassie going to the new operators of the farm – the Martins. “The Donna Reed Show” and “My Three Sons” would later use adoption to replace children who aged out of the role. Ellen Miller was a mother, but not a wife because her husband had died. Her father-in-law Gramps (George Cleveland) handled the farm work.
“Make Room for Daddy” used a different approach to replace Sherry Jackson’s character as Danny’s older daughter. Danny William’s (Danny Thomas) original wife had left the show and had been written out as dead. When he subsequently remarried, his new wife, played by Marjorie Lord, brought along a young daughter played by Angela Cartwright.
“Father Knows Best” dealt with the problem of children aging out of the role by ending the series. “Ozzie and Harriet” allowed the sons to become adults with the oldest, David, becoming a lawyer and getting married.
Other programs avoided the problem of growing children with the characters being married without children. Those couples who were married without children were as common as those who were married with children. Programs featuring couples who were married without children were significant because in real life such couples in the fifties felt forced to explain why they didn’t have children. Some married people looked down on those who were married without children. A few of these programs were crime dramas, such as “Mr. And Mrs. North” and “The Thin Man”. The series “Topper” featured a couple who were ghosts.
Part of the reason for avoiding babies was that there was very little that could be done with babies. Little Ricky on “I Love Lucy” spent much of his early years in the apartment of his babysitter Mrs. Trumbal. His parents left him behind when they made extended trips to California and Europe. He only became a regular when he was old enough to talk and play the drums.
After the “Mary Kay and Johnny” show fifties wives did not sleep in the same beds with their husbands even when the actress was married to her tv husband in real life such as Gracie Allen and George Burns or Harriet and Ozzie Nelson. The Ricardo’s (“I Love Lucy”) who were married in real life came the closest to sleeping in the same bed. Their beds were touching, but it was obvious from the blankets that there were two beds.
In the “First Stop” episode of “I Love Lucy” Ethel stated that she and Fred (William Frawley) shared a small double bed like the one in a motel they stopped at, but their bed was never shown. The “Day of Rest” episode of the “Loretta Young Show” did show a married couple sleeping in the same bed, but such scenes were very rare.
The characters on the cartoon show “The Flintstones” slept in the same bed. Real life couples didn’t start sleeping in the same bed until the mid-60's when the couples on “Bewitched” and “Green Acres” were shown sleeping in the same bed. The king sized bed on “Green Acres” became a major comedy prop on the show and the program often opened or closed with Lisa ( Eva Gabor) and Oliver Douglas (Eddie Albert) in bed..
Incidentally, it was common in the fifties for married couples to appear on the same show, including variety shows such as the Ernie Kovacs show featuring Kovacs and wife Edie Adams. For sitcoms and drama shows the couple were usually shown as being married to each other on the show. An exception was Roy Rogers and Dale Evans who were just good friends on “The Roy Rogers Show”.
Gracie Allen’s son on “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” was already grown. The show claimed to represent the home life of television stars George Burns and Gracie Allen with Gracie the housewife being very much like Gracie the television character. Her character was obviously not “just a housewife” because she also had a career as an entertainer. Gracie demonstrated that a woman could take care of a house and have a career outside the home.
Occasional shows would question the phrase “just a housewife” by showing the complexities of the job of housewife. In some cases the husband would be shown having trouble handling the various activities of a housewife.
Donna Reed devoted an entire episode of “The Donna Reed Show” to debunking the idea of “just a housewife” by discussing the various activities a housewife was involved in. She played Donna Stone a mother of two whose husband was a doctor. Changes in the opening from year to year demonstrated the changing role of some housewives. In the early shows the opening had Donna giving her children their lunches as they left the house. After doctor husband Alex (Carl Betz) moved his practice from the house to the hospital she also saw him off. Later Donna herself would then grab her purse and leave for some type of activity which could have included her volunteer work at the hospital.
Florida Friebus played a housewife with a career as Dobie Gillis (Dwayne Hickman) mom on the “Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”. She and her husband ran a “mom and pop” grocery store with the residence upstairs. Such stores were still common in older neighborhoods in the fifties, but supermarkets were gradually replacing them. Most people are more familiar with Friebus from her role as a member of Dr. Robert Hartley’s group on the “Bob Newhart Show”. She worked as a checker in a supermarket.
Mrs. B, [Dorothy Baxter] (Whitney Blake) on “Hazel” had a son but she could spend full time as an interior decorator because she employed “domestic engineer” Hazel (Shirley Booth) to handle the cooking and cleaning.
Jack Benny once remarked that in all the years of marriage, he and his wife had never used the word “divorce” – “murder, yes, divorce, no.” Women in the fifties might be widows, but regular characters weren’t divorced until “The Lucy Show” in 1962 in which Vivian Vance played divorcee Vivian Bagley. Occasionally characters on dramatic shows, especially crime shows, would be divorced. Loretta Young even played a character on her show who apparently had a child without being married. The murder of a spouse (husband or wife) was a relatively common plot on crime shows.
“My Friend Irma” was one of the first shows to feature a woman in a non-housewife role. Irma Peterson played by Marie Wilson was a kooky secretary who was single. Like many early shows it had previously been a radio program. Ann Sothern played Susie McNamara on “Private Secretary”. McNamara was the secretary to a talent agent. She frequently meddled in his personal life. Sothern later played assistant hotel manager Katy O’Connor on “The Ann Sothern Show”. Sothern’s Maisie series movies, in which she had a variety of different jobs, were also occasionally run as a series on local stations.
Elisabeth Fraser played a military type secretary, Sgt. Janet Hogan, on the “Phil Silvers Show”.
Ann B. Davis (better known for her role on “Brady Bunch”) played Bob Collins’ secretary and gal Friday, Schultzy, on “The Bob Cummings Show” (aka “Love That Bob”). Collins was a fashion photographer who employed glamorous female models, including one played by blonde bombshell Joi Lansing.
The decade’s premier secretary was Della Street (Barbara Hale) on “Perry Mason”. Street was an indispensable member of Mason’s (Raymond Burr) team. Television generally portrayed the job of secretary as more attractive than it was. Viewers saw Street providing her boss with the information he needed without showing the often tedious task of looking up information and typing it out. Secretaries were more likely to be seen interacting with others in the office than interacting with typewriters and filing cabinets.
Teachers were the female role models outside the home girls in the fifties came into contact with the most, but except for Eva Arden’s character on “Our Miss Brooks” television teachers were usually not series regulars until “The Andy Griffith Show”. Teachers appeared most frequently on “Leave It to Beaver”. During part of the series run Beaver’s school even had a female principal. Incidentally, some real elementary schools had female principals in the fifties. I attended such a school.
Gracie Allen wasn’t the only woman who played an entertainer during the 50's. Ida Lupino used actual situations in her acting career for some episodes of “Mr. Adams and Eve” in which she played actress Eve Drake. Her husband Howard Duff played tv husband Howard Adams. Barbara Bates played actress Kathy Morgan on “It’s a Great Life”. Detective series “Hawaiian Eye” and “Surfside Six” included female singers in their casts.
Incidentally, some women such as Dinah Shore and Martha Rae had their own variety shows.
“The Love Boat” wasn’t the first series to feature a passenger ship with a female crew member. Gale Storm played social director Susanna Pomeroy on the cruise ship S.S. Ocean Queen in the fifties series “The Gale Storm Show” (aka “Oh, Susanna”). Storm also had the title role in the series “My Little Margie” in which she played an adult who lived with her father. She handled the cleaning tasks when she wasn’t getting involved in some type of wacky scheme.
Early fifties action adventure heroes typically had sidekicks. The Lone Ranger had Tonto. Gene Autry had Pat Buttram. Flash Gordon had female sidekick Dale Arden (Irene Champlin) to help him chase bad guys across space. “Annie Oakley” reversed the roles. Gail Davis played the legendary sharpshooter who helped keep law and order in the old west. She was helping her uncle the sheriff who always seemed to be in another part of the county. She was assisted by deputy sheriff Lofty Craig (Brad Johnson). Davis had previously appeared in a variety of roles on “The Gene Autry Show”.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were not married on their tv series “The Roy Rogers Show”, although the show did imply that maybe some day they would be. Dale assisted Roy in rounding up the bad guys when she wasn’t busy running her café in Mineral City. Dale could shoot guns out of the bad guys hands just as well as Roy.
Dale Evans made an early plea for equal treatment for women in the April, 1952, episode “The Ride of the Ranchers”. Don Jose traditionally led a ceremonial ride of the ranchers of Paradise Valley. The men only would ride to a location where the women would meet them for a party. Dale told Roy at the start of the episode that women should also be allowed to ride. Later in the episode in a variation of a standard western story line Dale and the other women “hold down the fort” at Don Jose’s ranch against male outlaws until Roy arrives with reinforcements.
Evans wasn’t the only western businesswoman. Amanda Blake’s character Miss Kitty Russell on “Gunsmoke” owned the Long Branch saloon. Miss Kitty was Marshall Matt Dillon’s (Jim Arness) love interest, but not a potential spouse. Marshall Dillon was married to his job. The western series “The Lawman” at different times had a woman owning a café and another women owning a saloon. Women occasionally were shown as saloon owners on episodes of other westerns such as “Cheyenne” and “Bat Masterson”.
Western saloons often employed women as dancers or hostesses. Many of them were also probably what those in the old west referred to as “soiled doves”. No direct mention was made of this possibility in the 50's, but knowledgeable adults probably realized that the “good women of the town” didn’t look down on these women simply because they worked in saloons.
Westerns probably used women in non-housewife roles more for dramatic reasons than a desire to show women in other roles. Many of the western heroes like Gene Autry were in a different town each week. The shows needed female characters to improve their appeal and allow more different plots. Women ranchers or business owners were easier to work into the plots as damsels in distress that the cowboy could rescue.
Such women often assumed the role of rancher or business owner on the death of a father or husband. Paladan (Richard Boone - “Have Gun Will Travel”) even persuaded a woman to run for mayor of a western town in Wyoming after her crusading husband was killed by supporters of a corrupt politician.
Gene Autry started the trend of using women in a variety of different roles. He even helped a couple of female sheriffs and dealt with female outlaws. The Maverick brothers had occasional female gamblers and con artists to deal with.
Long before “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”, June Lockhart played frontier Dr. Phyllis Thackeray on the “No Visitors”(1957) and “The Return of Dr. Thackeray” (1958) episodes of “Have Gun Will Travel”. Paladin (Richard Boone) helped Thackeray overcome prejudice so patients would accept treatment. An episode of “Rawhide” also had a woman doctor.
Ann Burr played Dr. Kate Murrow on the 1952-3 series “City Hospital”. Nurses appeared on episodes of other shows as well as in the series “Hennessey. However, medical series didn’t become popular until the sixties. Dramatic series, other than anthologies, were primarily either westerns or crime oriented shows.
The fifties best known tv show journalist was Lois Lane (played initially by Phyllis Coates and later by Noel Neill) on “Superman”. However, she wasn’t the only female journalist. “My Friend Irma” had a journalist roommate. Female journalists also appeared in westerns. Kathleen Crowley played Jo Hart on the “Incident at Leadville” episode of “Bat Masterson. Hart was the standard crusading western newspaper publisher, editor and reporter.
Female crime fighters weren’t limited to western characters like Annie Oakley or Dale Evans. Beverly Garland played NYPD undercover officer Casey Jones on “Police Decoy”. Investigative reporter Lois Lane often helped catch criminals on “Superman”. Joi Lansing played undercover officer Sgt. Helen O’Hara on the “Superman’s Wife” episode of “Superman”. “Dragnet’s” Joe Friday occasionally was assisted by policewomen.
If Jessica Fletcher had been writing in the fifties her stories might have been published by Jerry North (Richard Denning) who tried to solve real crimes on “Mr. And Mrs. North”. However, Pamela North (Barbara Britton) often was the one who figured things out first. Nick (Peter Lawford) and Nora (Phyllis Kirk) Charles were another crime solving couple on “The Thin Man”.
Gloria Winters played Penny the teenage niece of “Sky King” who helped her uncle solve crimes.
Bad Girls, Bad Girls...
Women didn’t only solve crimes in the fifties. They often committed them.
On the “Lady Killer” episode of “The Roy Rogers Show” Pamela Duncan played the evil banker Alma Clinton who was killing the ranchers, and even their children, so she could foreclose on their property in oil rich Lost Valley. On the “Inside Job” episode of “Surfside Six” Mary Tyler Moore played a bank teller who was held hostage by Dolores Donlon’s character while male gang members robbed the bank where Moore’s character worked.
“I Led Three Lives” counterspy Herbert A. Philbrick (Richard Carlson) occasionally had to stop female communist saboteurs and spies.
Even actresses who normally played “good girl” roles could play “bad girls”. Most of us think of Frances Bavier as our favorite aunt – Aunt Bea on “The Andy Griffith Show”. Bavier had a sitcom, “It’s a Great Life”, in the fifties in which she played a similar character to Aunt Bea. As Amy Morgan she operated a boarding house in which her brother and adult daughter also lived. Bavier also appeared in the “Sawtelle Saga’s End” (1955) episode of “The Lone Ranger” in which she played a woman who encouraged her sons to be outlaws.
Beaver’s mom Barbara Billingsley appeared in the “Long Beach Story” (aka “The Smuggling Story”) episode of “Lone Wolf” in which she played a jewel smuggler who double crossed her male partner who ended up dead. The dialogue didn’t specifically say that she killed him. Incidentally, on the show she wore a scarf fastened with a decorative pin around her neck in some scenes and a high collar that covered her neck in others.
After Sherry Jackson had played the oldest daughter on “The Danny Thomas” show she got a role on the “Office Caper” episode of “77 Sunset Strip” as a would be hit woman. She of course failed because her target was one of the regular characters.
One of the common female criminal roles involved a character who killed, or tried to kill, her husband. Whitney Blake (the mom on “Hazel”) appeared in “The Hired Gun” episode of “Cheyenne” as the serious minded wife of a boisterous husband played by future Minnow (“Gilligan’s Island”) skipper Alan Hale, Jr.. Cheyenne (Clint Walker) pretended to be the hit man she had hired to kill her husband so she could marry her husband’s rival rancher.
Television’s portrayal of women in a variety of non-housewife roles in the fifties didn’t by itself produce the women’s movement of the sixties with its emphasis on women having careers outside the home. Fifties television functioned more as what sociologist Jacques Ellul described as “prepropaganda” – ideas that served as a foundation for later ideas. Television encouraged young girls to begin considering that they had other options that could include employment outside the home. Their moms likely identified with some of the non-housewives and began considering employment once the kids were grown. Many of the moms of baby boomers did seek employment after the kids left home.
In the 1953 Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movie “Money From Home” Pat Crowley played veterinarian Dr. Autumn Claypool. When Lewis’s character expressed surprise at a woman being a veterinarian, she replied, “a woman can do anything a man can do and have babies besides.”
Fifties television demonstrated this concept. Loretta Young’s show which had minor format and name changes over the years portrayed women in a wide variety of different roles. Young might play a widow working to support a child, the operator of a farm attempting to reform convicts, a housewife with several children, a judge or a radio station ad copy writer. In one episode she even played a single mom who coached a little league baseball team consisting of boys the other teams didn’t want.
Young played a judge at a time when women lawyers were rare. In “Dangerous Verdict”, which first aired on April 20, 1958, Young played Judge Janet Brighton who presided over the trial of Barry Linden (Chuck Howat) for allegedly murdering his partner in a uranium prospecting venture and burying the body in some unknown location. Linden had left the country after he failed in his attempt to get a different judge. He claimed that a woman judge would be unable to provide a fair trial because “women are emotional” and she would be influenced by pre trial publicity portraying him as guilty.
After the predominantly male jury returned a verdict of guilty, Judge Brighton thanked them for their service and dismissed them. After they left she suggested that the defense move for a new trial. In an interview by two reporters afterwards, she remarked that she felt that the jury had reacted because of emotion rather than by adherence to the law. The thirty minute length of the program limited details about the trial or her reasoning, but it did appear the prosecution had a weak case. Brighton said she agreed with Linden that “all women are emotional, but that shouldn’t be confused with the fact that women are not all emotion.” As Judge Brighton, Young was saying that women are just as capable of making decisions for non-emotional reasons as men.
Some sitcoms debated women’s roles. On an episode of “The Joan Davis Show” Joan Davis character Joan Stevens was all set to brag to her former high school classmates that she was married to a judge. Then she discovered that one girl friend was a top athlete, another headed a cosmetics company and the third was a State Department official whom the President sometimes consulted. Her friends later told her they envied her situation, but the show did suggest that women could succeed outside the home.
The important thing about such episodes wasn’t whether they eventually suggested that “women’s place was in the home”, but that they demonstrated a debate existed. Girls could make up their own minds about what they would do later.
In the episode “Betty Anderson Girl Engineer” of “Father Knows Best” Elinor Donahue’s character created a controversy on career day at school when she said she wanted to be an engineer rather than take a traditional female job like secretary or nurse. In an early episode Betty’s mom, Margaret (Jane Wyatt), criticized her for wearing jeans which were becoming popular with the younger generation.
In the “Pioneer Woman” episode a male descendant of the town’s founders claimed that women of his day weren’t up to the task of helping to pull a cart across country like his ancestors had done. At the end of the show Betty pulled the cart into town with him riding in the back because of a sprained ankle. Donahue would later play a pharmacist on “The Andy Griffith Show” and run for city office.
High schools, like the fictional one Betty Anderson attended, tried to encourage students to start thinking about what type of work they would do after high school. For girls in the fifties the job might be suggested as a temporary activity prior to marriage, but the idea of a job would still be encouraged. Some jobs like that of airline stewardess (portrayed as a job opportunity on an episode of the “Mickey Mouse Club” - the show suggested boys would become the pilots) might be presented as being temporary until marriage.
Young women might even seek employment as a way of finding a husband, like the characters on the series “How to Marry a Millionaire” with Barbara Eden.
When what became known as the “women’s movement” began in the sixties, young women had already been exposed to the possibility that women could do anything that prejudice didn’t prevent them from doing. Scientists are still trying to learn how the brain processes, stores and retrieves information. Young women in the sixties might not have remembered specific televison situations such Dale Evans request for an equal opportunity to ride with the men on “The Roy Rogers Show” or Betty Anderson wanting to be an engineer on “Father Knows Best”. They may only have remembered a feeling that women should receive the same treatment as men. Leaders of the women’s movement only needed to bring those feelings to the surface and convince women to act together.
Boys growing up in the fifties were also exposed to the idea of women being equal, even though they wouldn’t have been as aware of the issue as girls. When these boys became young men in the sixties they were more likely to accept the idea of women as coworkers and equals.
Fifties televison prepared girls for the possibility of being something other than a housewife. It also prepared audiences for additional roles for tv women during the sixties. Fifties heroines Annie Oakley and Dale Evans could shoot as good as a man. Sixties heroines “Honey West” (Anne Frances) and Emma Peal (Diane Rigg, “The Avengers”) could use their martial arts knowledge to out fight a man. However, command of a starship would have to wait for another 30 years.
Many fifties programs are available on DVD or on cable or satellite stations.
TVLand ( <http://www.tvland.com> ): “I Love Lucy” and “Leave It to Beaver”
American Life Network ( <http://www.goodtv.com> ): “It’s a Great Life”, “Lone Wolf”, “Superman”; Warner Brothers detective shows - “Bourbon Street Beat”, “Hawaiian Eye”, “77 Sunset Strip” and “Surfside 6"; and Warner Brothers westerns - “Bronco”, “Cheyenne”, “Lawman”, “Maverick” and “Sugarfoot”.
Family Net ( <http://www.familynet.com> ): “Annie Oakley”, “I Married Joan”, “Life With Elizabeth”, “Loretta Young Show”, “Meet Corliss Archer”, “My Little Margie” and “The Roy Rogers Show”.
Encore’s Western channel ( <http://www.encoretv.com> ): “Bat Masterson”, “Gene Autry Show” and “The Rifleman”.
Discovery Kids channel (http://kids.discovery.com/ <(http://kids.discovery.com/> ): “Lassie” with Timmy.
SciFi channel ( <http://www.scifi.com/> ): “The Twilight Zone”.
Good sites for information about old tv shows are:
You might want to access some of these sites through a search engine like Google or Yahoo so that all sites for the same show can be accessed through one search instead of searching each site separately. I haven’t dealt with soap operas because children weren’t as likely to watch them in the fifties. However, I did find a site for the first 30 minute soap opera in the fifties (1956) (previous ones were only 15 minutes) “As the World Turns” which includes some information about episodes in the fifties.
Various editions of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946 - Present” by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh contain summaries of fifties shows along with cast information. The appendix contains listings of the network evening lineups and Nielsen ratings for each year.