Toronto Star

Dec. 10, 12:15 EDT

`Family values' a myth of suburban '50s

Michele Landsberg
STAR COLUMNIST
Toronto Star

THE WHOLE Mel, Marilyn and Grace Louie arrangement is almost too sad and cheesy to bear thinking about, but it does provide a window into the nearly-forgotten world of mid-century suburbia.

If people remember the post-war decades at all, they tend to eulogize them as a time of stability, prosperity and ``family values.'' In truth, however, the Mel thing - the 14-year mistake thing - was almost the norm, the secret underpinning of the Beaver Cleaver daydream.

I was 12 when my family was forced to move into an unfinished house in a raw new suburb known then as Lansing. There were no book stores anywhere, and, on our long, boring, residential street, no trees to soften the flat glare of sunlight.

Our neighbourhood had its own version of Grace Louie. I'll call her Hope. She was thin, plain and nervous, and it was hard to square her unassuming presence with the lurid word, ``mistress,'' that was whispered among the neighbours.

I got to know her by babysitting for her two little girls. They were placid children, golden-blonde, with cherubic faces and round blue eyes: the spitting image of their father, a prosperous pillar of the WASP merchant class, who would come around now and then in his snazzy car and natty clothes. He was slightly portly and ill-at-ease under our furtive scrutiny.

The way it worked, apparently, was that he paid the bills, and when he snapped his fingers, the mother jumped. I'd be summoned in a panic to babysit at the last minute: ``Never mind, you can have supper here; just help yourself to anything at all,'' Hope would tell me.

What shocked me was not the nature of their relationship - I scarcely had the vocabulary for it - but the comparative penury in which Hope and her children lived. There was, actually, nothing in the cupboards, and nothing in the fridge, beyond some sliced Wonder bread and Kraft peanut butter. Hope kept vowing to buy a bed for her older child, just as soon as she could afford it. Meanwhile, the 4-year-old slept in a too-small crib and the baby was in a tippy laundry basket. Mr. Self-Satisfied would drop Hope off and she would anxiously scrabble in her purse and in various drawers to find enough change to pay my 25 cents an hour.

``I'll pay you next time,'' she would end up apologizing. Once in a while, her . . . what, her keeper? . . . would pay me himself, with a great show of hearty beneficence.

Poor Hope. I don't know whether Mr. Affluence ever supported his two little ``illegitimate'' daughters so they could pursue an education, but I doubt it. Girls were supposed to spend all their effort in attracting boyfriends, while at the same time guarding their precious virginity by holding their ardent suitors at arm's length till they could trap them into marriage. The only girls more despised than the boyfriend-less were the ones who were too successful and ended up with swollen bellies. And there were lots of those, in the days before the Pill or sex education.

The 1950s were a foul time for women and girls. (No wonder right-wing men snivel and howl for a return to those years; back then, they had it all their way.) An aura of disgrace and shame clung to Hope because she was a kept woman. But my very proper, hard-working mother was also under something of a cloud among her former friends; it was just not done for a married woman to work outside the home, as she did out of necessity.

All through those years in which the nuclear family was supposedly held sacred, popular magazines like Reader's Digest and Saturday Evening Post ran a mounting campaign of hatred against ``the smothering mother,'' the ``viperish domineering wife,'' the selfish ``career woman'' or the sloven who didn't have dinner ready when her husband walked in the door. These harsh judgments were real and implacable. And even if you were perfect - a cheery, stay-home, docile cook and bottle blonde - your reward was to be called ``the little woman'' or ``the ball and chain.''

Women simply couldn't win. The imbalance of power was so great that most women had no options beyond dependence on a man, one way or another. The schools actively encouraged this state of affairs: Few women got into professional schools, and it was a struggle to get to university (a baffled high school guidance counsellor urged me to limit my aspirations to nursing school or teachers' college). The values of those days - values still cherished in some circles - always blamed the woman while holding the man above judgment. She's a slut, a welfare cheat, a schemer, a gold-digger, a marriage-wrecker. He, whoever he is, is to be judged only on his achievements. The rest is ``private.''

No matter what eventually happens in the Louie vs. Lastman lawsuit, it's been a reminder that the retro belief system known as ``family values'' is a fraud. It stands for a time when men could get away with almost anything, and women had little choice but to settle for the scraps tossed their way.


Michele Landsberg's column usually appears in The Star Saturday and Sunday. Her e-mail address is mlandsb@thestar.ca

Copyright © 1996-2000. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.