It’s the biggest scoop E&M has ever had: we’ve just discovered that our grandmothers had better literature than we do! A (funny) review by Petya Y.

Dusting my grandmother’s bookshelves I came across a dog-eared book from the 70s which made me giggle: Home, Family, Lifestyle. A Housewife’s Guide. Out of curiosity, I flicked through the pages and ironically enough, what I read made me question the idea of the woman today. Have we lost something by getting rid of the housewife ideal? How is it different and how does it overlap with the idea of womanhood today?

A perfect housewife should never be out of fashion! | Photo: x-ray delta one / / CC BY-NC-SA

Containing tons of prescriptive advice for women of all ages, the housewife’s bible was present in every household in Bulgaria and in many other European countries 50 years ago. Old-fashioned? Perhaps. Useless? Not at all. The book is written by no less than 20 professionals – architects, interior designers, sociologists, pediatric specialists, teachers, midwives, cooks, in a word, experts from all relevant fields. In comparison, have you ever heard of a midwife being interviewed by a glossy magazine? Quoted at least? Nope, neither have I.

The housewife’s bible vs. glossy magazines

The book begins by giving directions on how to build/choose a house, how to allocate the rooms, and how to decorate them. There are detailed evaluations of the pros and cons of different materials, even a section on colours and the impressions they give. This much has survived into the recently popular glossy magazines, and is now mostly found in blogs and webpages. There is a difference, however. The Housewife’s Guide’s recommendations take a practical perspective, whereas today’s (sometimes paid) stylist advice centres on the abstract ideas of beauty and harmony. The question of whether a room is easily cleaned and maintained is shamelessly ignored in today’s press, only brought up occasionally in relation to bringing up children, which in itself is marginalised.

The multifunctional Home, Family, Lifestyle also offers tips for choosing furniture and arranging it. In a way, the communist version of Feng Shui.  And if you have already started wondering who needs so many annoying prescriptions, look what the 1970’s experts from the housewife’s bible say:

‘The main requirement for the modern household is to have nothing unnecessary which would only get dusty and would waste the housewife’s precious time.’

Sensible, isn’t it? I’ve yet to read a modern magazine which advises its readers not to waste the precious time of the working woman. It isn’t even called ‘precious’. Now it’s called ‘free’ time. It almost sounds as if it’s illegal to have free time. And today there’s the widespread underlying assumption that since it’s free, it will be wasted anyway.

Cleaning and cooking: not the main skills of this perfect housewife

The 1970’s Housewife’s Guide states that although a permanent job and new technologies allow women to spend less time cooking, cleaning and taking care of the household, the main burden of raising the children still falls on their shoulders. The fact that society is taking more responsibility by providing services such as kindergartens is applauded as ‘progress’. It seems the ideal housewife is actually an independent working woman who demands recognition for her efforts; a woman who doesn’t spend her time cooking or knitting or cleaning the floor. A full-time job and the right to decide to have a partner and children lie behind the definition of ‘progress’ for women in 1970.

Have you ever heard of a midwife being interviewed by a glossy magazine?

The book proceeds to examine what a modern family means, then goes on to state that ‘socialism has turned the woman into a person’. Too bold a statement? Not if you know your history lesson. The early 20th century woman had hardly heard of a full-time job, unlike her descendants who worked shoulder by shoulder with their husbands in the factory or on the field. The guide’s authors quote the hard statistics to point out that the percentage of employment is roughly the same for men and women in 1970s Bulgaria. A success for gender equality, but is this the whole story?

What are modern glossy magazines hiding from us?!

Besides advice on how to bathe babies, and how to look for symptoms of the most common diseases, the guide also teaches the perfect housewife how to live with teenagers, where the word ‘patience’ gets mentioned in every other line (never too much repetition!). Obviously, one should not forget that if your kids get old you will get old too; and the perfect housewife will also have sooner or later to deal with menopause, and the book has not forgotten this matter.

There is also a large section on STDs, hygiene advice and pregnancy prevention. After all, the book in intended for the housewife and she’s the one who has to have quick access to that information. In comparison, modern glossy magazines hardly tell you what happens after you’ve had unprotected sex. There’s this thing called pregnancy and eventually a baby comes into the picture, but how and when it all happens remains a mystery. Planning is the key word here, but unfortunately today it never makes it from the clinic’s name to our everyday reads.

If you accuse me of idealising The Housewife’s Guide, I’ll hasten to reveal that the book does conclude with some 50 pages of practical advice on cleaning and cooking (although here again the underlying idea is to save the woman’s precious time!). But before that, it gives advice on how to clean your skin and how to dress. Not surprisingly, this is the exactly the type of advice you hear from professional stylists, and not glossy magazines. Advice on what colours and shapes to wear to accentuate or hide different parts of the body. The type of advice that will make you feel good in your body and will earn you quite a few compliments. Advice that will show you respect your body rather than use it to please someone else. The focus when choosing clothes is on practicality, rather than extravagance. No surprise that impulsive shopping is reproached. The exact opposite of women’s magazines today.

I was surprised that an old-fashioned, nearly 50-year-old book from a now outdated and ridiculed political regime shows more respect for women than a modern glossy magazine. By providing professional advice on health and well-being for women, the Housewife’s Guide differs strikingly from many modern publications on the topic. Reading the guide helped me realise that society’s view of women has changed significantly from the 1950 to the 1970s, when it reached a dead-end street from which we are still trying very hard to pull it out.  

Cover photo: James Vaughan;  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (flickr)

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