Written By: Eliza Berman

In 1956, just 16% of women with children under 6 worked outside the home, but twenty-seven-year-old Jennie Magill of Hammond, Ind., was one of them. When LIFE Magazine published a special double issue on “The American Woman: Her Achievements and Her Troubles,” the editors selected Magill for its cover. Smiling lovingly at her child, who smiles adoringly back, Magill was introduced to America as the face of that rare specimen, the “Working Mother.”

For historical context, this was seven years before the Equal Pay Act prohibited sex-based wage discrimination and The Feminine Mystique exposed the plight of the joyless housewife. It was more than a decade before the Equal Rights Amendment and long before the idea of equal pay for equal work became a rallying cry. People back then were more likely to be talking about whether women should work at all.

For many of LIFE’s readers, Magill would have been something of an introduction to the working mom. But despite the prevalent stigma back then against mothers who worked outside the home, LIFE portrayed Magill in an overwhelmingly positive light.

Magill worked in the bridal service at a local department store, and her husband Jim as a junior executive at a steel company. Her job afforded her a social life with coworkers. It brought the family more disposable income. It provided time for her and Jim, on their drive home together, to talk without the distractions of a hectic household. And both parents” time away from home meant that when they were with their children, they were entirely focused on enjoying time as a family.

Despite its unequivocally laudatory attitude toward the two-working-parent household, the magazine omitted one thing: the voice of Jennie Magill. As implied by the headline, “My Wife Works and I Like It,” the attitudes expressed in the photo essay, progressive and egalitarian as they were, belonged to Jim. Jennie was the pretty face, and Jim the confident voice, an editorial choice that may have reflected an effort to make the story more palatable to stalwarts of the old guard.

Perhaps the most telling aside in the essay is that Magill, who by all appearances had what we might today call “it all,” could not do what she did alone. Not only was she “blessed with a loyal, experienced housekeeper,” but Jim “enthusiastically approves of the idea” of her working outside the home. And while both partners worked outside the home, they also both worked inside of it. “We all live here,” said Jim, “so why shouldn’t we all help out?”

Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

Jennie Magrill with her family in the background.

Jennie Magill with her family in the background.

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Working mother Jennie Magill shopping with her children at the super market.

Working mother Jennie Magill shopping with her children.

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jennie and Jim Magill in the kitchen.

Jennie and Jim Magill in the kitchen.

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jennie Magill and family in the kitchen.

Jennie Magill and family in the kitchen.

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Wifely kiss is Jim's reward for helping with the dishes.

LIFE’s original caption read, “Wifely kiss is Jim’s reward for helping with the dishes.”

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jennie Magill at work.

Jennie Magill at work.

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Companionable lunch with the girls from store is lots better, says Jennie, than a sandwich in solitude at home. "Through Jennie's friends at work," says Jim, "I've met a lot of people I wouldn't have met otherwise."

Original caption: ” Companionable lunch with the girls from store is lots better, says Jennie, than a sandwich in solitude at home. `Through Jennie’s friends at work,’ says Jim, `I’ve met a lot of people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.'”

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Her work is a source of pride to Jim. "She' has done a terrific job. And when i tell her about my work she doesn't brush it off."

Original caption: “Her work is a source of pride to Jim. `She has done a terrific job. And when I tell her about my work she doesn’t brush it off.'”

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Going home, Jim always picks Jennie up at Carson Pirie Scott branch. The ride home is a chance to talk without domestic distractions.

Original caption: “Going home, Jim always picks Jennie up at Carson Pirie Scott branch. The ride home is a chance to talk without domestic distractions.”

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jennie and Jim Magill coming home from work.

Jennie and Jim Magill coming home from work.

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Taking over the family reins when she gets home, Jennie holds Jackie, 2, who tests cake which he "helped" housekeeper Sophia Flewelling (left) to bake. Sophie runs household smoothly while parents are gone.

Original caption: ” Taking over the family reins when she gets home, Jennie holds Jackie, 2, who tests cake which he `helped’ housekeeper Sophia Flewelling (left) to bake. Sophie runs household smoothly while parents are gone.”

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jennie Magill and family.

Jennie Magill and family.

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jennie Magill ironing with her daughter.

Jennie Magill ironing with her daughter.

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jennie Magill with her children.

Jennie Magill with her children.

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jennie Magill comforting her crying daughter.

Jennie Magill comforting her crying daughter.

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jennie Magill with her children.

Jennie Magill with her children.

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jennie Magill reading a story to her children.

Jennie Magill reading a story to her children.

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Bill-paying is disagreeable, but it reminds them of how well they live because Jennie works. "It's nice not to have that lost feeling," says Jim. "Now when we see a piece of furniture we want, we buy it."

Original caption: “Bill-paying is disagreeable, but it reminds them of how well they live because Jennie works. `It’s nice not to have that lost feeling,’ says Jim. `Now when we see a piece of furniture we want, we buy it.”

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jennie Magill kisses her children goodbye.

Jennie Magill kisses her children goodbye.

Grey Villet The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

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