Written By: Bill Syken
In 1947 LIFE magazine ran a long story titled “The American Woman’s Dilemma.” Women today might immediately recognize the problem: the balance between home and work life. Back then the issue was becoming increasingly relevant because from the 1930s to the 1950s the number of married women in the work force increased from 10 percent to 25 percent, according to the Washington Center For Equitable Growth. Among the reasons they cite for the increase: more work was being done in offices that needed clerical workers, and more women were attending high school. LIFE’s story, shot by Nina Leen, examined the lives of women in and out of the home, and the forces pulling them in conflicting directions.
The photo at the top of the story illustrates one aspect of the dilemma: working mothers who miss time with the children. This was a particularly stark example: the woman identified in the 1947 issue as “Mrs. Joseph Glass” hugs her four-year-old son Joe Jr. on a Friday after she leaves work, at a doll factory. She had not seen her son all week because she and her husband couldn’t afford to hire someone to watch him, and so they had boarded him in another home during the work week. The photo below shows her Mrs. Glass her job—in a doll factory.
The staged photo above left was meant to illustrate the domestic chores a mother of three young children needed to complete in the course of a week. The mother is Marjorie McWeeney, and her weekly tasks included 35 total bedmakings, twenty-one meals, and dishes and cleaning the clothes. The article did not raise the possibility of Mr. McWeeney making the bed or pitching in with the dishes. On the right Ms. McWeeney gets her hair done while keeping four-month-old Mark close by. According to the original story, she hadn’t given thought to what she would do when the children left home.
The other side of the dilemma: women who have no career risk being bored and unfulfilled, especially after the children have left home. Nina Leen’s photo makes this bridge club look like a circle of hell (actually, it’s Maplewood, N.J.). In 1947 the U.S. had 17,000 formally organized women’s bridge clubs with 2,500,000 members. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that around the time of this story half of all adult women were idle—meaning, they didn’t have a career or children under 18, and they were not elderly.
Perhaps the detail of the original story that looks most offensive to the modern eye was its talk of a “reducing session” that would be needed for woman who didn’t get enough exercise. This woman above left is reading while standing on a Slendro Massager that was supposed to jiggle the pounds away. One thing is clear: workout clothes have come a long way, baby.
In 1947 advice books abounded for women who felt unsure of their role. The LIFE story quoted mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, who observed to Vogue, “Probably no man has ever troubled to imagine how strange his life would appear to himself if it were unrelentingly assessed in terms of his maleness….If from school and lecture room, press and pulpit, he heard the persistent outpouring of a shrill and scolding voice, bidding him remember his biological function.”