Occupation: Housewife

Last Sunday my mom phoned me, and with a flustered and excited tone to her voice said, "You're not going to believe it, there's a picture of your grandmother in the New York Times today!" My grandmother past away in 1980. She was not a public person, and as far as we know, photographs of her appeared only once in a newspaper or magazine during her lifetime. So, unless she had led a secret life unknown to the family, we had a pretty good idea what the source of the photo in the Times must have been. Occupation: Housewife "Occupation: Housewife" was an eight-page photo essay that followed the daily routine - from breakfast in the morning, cleaning the house, doing laundry, entertaining guests, to putting the kids to bed at night - of an American housewife (my grandmother) and her family. The article, which appeared between a spread for Tyrone Power and Betty Grable's new movie "A Yank in the R.A.F." and photos (that terrified my mom, then age four) of a child victim of Nazi bombing, was published in LIFE magazine on September 22, 1941. When I asked my mom about how LIFE chose her family, she recalled; [![][1]][2] "LIFE wanted a 'typical' American family for the article. Kankakee, Illinois, where we lived was in the Midwest, and at the time was growing fast. The reporter and photographer went to the owner of the Ford auto agency in town, Romy Hammes, to see if he knew of such a family. Romy felt his family was too wealthy for what they were looking for, so he suggested us since we lived only a couple of blocks away from him on Cobb Boulevard." Sure enough, the photo was taken directly from the LIFE article, with one very obvious photo-shopped alteration. In the original photo, my grandmother is shown "picking-up" in the living room. Around her are carefully staged props: a carpet sweeper, dust mop, trash bin, and some papers strewn across the floor. She is bending over the couch. Above her, in an oval frame, is a painting of a stern looking man with an Abe Lincoln beard. This was my great, great, great, great grandfather John Ward Amberg. The Times photo is identical except that, in place of the portrait of Grandpa John, there is a photo of Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique." [![][3]][4][The article by Patricia Cohen that accompanied this 'photo illustration' was titled "Today, Some Feminists Hate the Word 'Choice'."][5] My grandmother would probably agree, because in both cases, in LIFE and in the Times, her image was used to illustrate stories that were not of her choosing. After some consideration, my mom decided to write a letter to the editor, that would explain her relationship to the photo and how it had originated in LIFE. Below is her letter, which [appeared in the New York Times on Wednesday, January 18th][6]. To the Editor: I agree that issuing marching orders to women today is "not helpful." To try to label women is an act of futility, making them one-dimensional when in fact most women's lives are complicated and change with time and circumstance. But I was most taken with the photograph accompanying your article, because the woman portrayed cleaning her house was my mother, Jane LeValley Amberg. As noted, the photo was taken by William C. Shrout for LIFE magazine and was originally published September 22, 1941, in a feature article titled "Occupation: Housewife." My mother was unhappy with the published article, because she was portrayed as a "typical" American housewife who cared only for home and family. Not mentioned was the fact that, with no college degree, she was also a voracious reader and a committed liberal Democrat who cared deeply about national and international issues. Our first TV was bought so that she could watch the Army-McCarthy hearings. Sixty-five years after the Life article, women still struggle with the rigid, one-dimensional labels of "stay-at-home moms" and "women who work." Pamela Loewenstein Lawrence, Kansas [1]: http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/loewenstein/occupation1-sm.jpg [2]: http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/loewenstein/occupation1-lg.jpg [3]: http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/loewenstein/occupation2-sm.jpg [4]: http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/loewenstein/occupation2-lg.jpg [5]: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/weekinreview/15patti.html [6]: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/18/opinion/l18feminists.html


Debbie_Gottschalk 12 years, 4 months ago

Hi David and Pam,

I decided to take a break from work at take a quick look at your blog - I still remember the shared "American Studies" conversations we had and find it an amazing coincidence that you'd have such a personal connection to something one of us might have written a paper on. or maybe not such a coincidence.

I don't have time to read the Times, let me know if your family appears there or elsewhere again :)

take care, Debbie

Joel 12 years, 6 months ago

Hmmm. I think, Dave, that I see a family resemblance between you and Betty Friedan.

Aufbrezeln Eschaton 12 years, 6 months ago

Dood, ur gramma was HAUGHT.

No, seriously, I hate the label "housewife" myself, but at the same time am loathe to ally myself with the type of women who pull out the "If you paid outside labor to do what I do it would cost 50 grand a year!!" line. Kudos to your mom for speaking out to the fact that many of us "housewives" have brains, and use them for purposes other than ferreting out that funky smell in the laundry room.

leslie 12 years, 6 months ago

I haven't read the Times story, but Friedan's point was always that housewives have brains, too. If her image was used as a derogatory counter to Amberg's, it was used incorrectly. Friedan herself was a housewife as well as an author and activist. Did the article reflect any of their similarities?

lori 12 years, 6 months ago

I dunno, I do some of my best thinking while doing some physical labor--scrubbing the tub, hanging out laundry, weeding the garden. Most ofthe stay at home moms or dads that I know have made the decision of who works based on who has the most earning potential and/or who loves thier job most. Who loves to stay at home most also comes into play.

I fail to see how it is antifeminist to choose to stay at home, or ENJOY staying home. I enjoyed staying home to raise my young children. Now I enjoy working and going to school.

gaiapapaya 12 years, 5 months ago

It is fun to stay home, but you have to be connected with other awesome moms and dads with whom you can drop off your kid for a solo trip to the grocery store or whatever. I kinda felt like I was done with the stay-at-home since my youngest went to kindergarten this year, but life is full of surprises, and he dropped out of public school this week. I first felt like, man, we just go both kids taken care of for half a day, but now I'm really embracing homeschooling again and had an awesome afternoon of extreme ping-pong at the rec center yesterday. Of course, I still have my part-time gig in the early a.m., which gives me adult interaction, and school started this week, too, which gives me intellectual (did i spell that right?) stimuli and cheap coffee. I'm also lucky enough to have a partner who cares about house work more than I do, so he really pitches in, and sets his days off to be with the kids when I can't so we can keep them home, and I'll give all my friends more props for all the helping out they do, too. I guess I fell like, why do women feel so threatened to have to explain why they work or stay home or do both? We all want what is best for our kids and families. Yeah, if I took a full time job, we could look at centruy school or montessori, but I want to do school right now. Does that mean I think moms who do so are lame? NO WAY! What if you're one of the moms who drowns your kids after your husband forces you to homeschool and won't let you leave and keeps getting you pregnant because birth control is against god's planeven though you suffer form post-partun depression? (Like the tragic woman from Texas). I guess my whole response could be summed up in this: I feel we're lucky to have choices, adn that's what the women's right movement has been about. If staying home is your deal, great. If corporate america is your deal great. If running a business from home works for you, even better! You get to hang with the kiddos and make some $ at the same time. It's nice we have choices and such an awesome set of families here in Lawrence to share everything with.

gaiapapaya 12 years, 5 months ago

Sorry for the rambling, it's my second beer...

quinn 12 years, 5 months ago

Yr mother wrote an excellent letter. It's a dying art.

thetom 12 years, 5 months ago

In the one picture, it looks like Grandma is shushing Grandpa.

No offense, but isn't that a bit uppidy?

ploewenstein 12 years, 5 months ago

The photo is posed. The idea is that the kids are still asleep, and if we're quiet we can have a few moments to ourselves.

I happen to know this because the people pictured are my parents.

Pamela Loewenstein

Terry Bush 12 years, 5 months ago

It's a question that we probably will never answer to everyone's satisfaction, and a topic often discussed. Stay at home, versus working outside the home - which is better and for whom. There are books, treatise's, newstories, studies, and fights about the choices made and the results of those choices. Note, it still hasn't become much of a topic in men's magazines.... Be that as it may, the bottom line is that there is never one right choice. What works for one may not work for every person (woman). There is merit in many different ways of balancing the many needs and demands being made and met. We do the best we can under the circumstances of our individual lives.

The pictures are cool. The "'Keep quiet' the kids are sleeping" one reminded me of our neighbors growing up. While my parents had a noisy messy dinner with all 5 of their children, but then put us to bed so early in the evenings that we could hear all the other neighbor kids playing outside for several more hours, our neighbors had the "civilized" idea of feeding their 3 children early, putting them to bed soon after, and only then would they sit down to enjoy a nice quiet meal between parents. Much as I hated laying awake in bed for hours, I am glad I didn't have to eat meals separate from my parents. But to each their own. Right?

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