Becoming June Cleaver, A 1950s Education
from Remembering Childhood: An Interactive Memoir
Why can’t I play with the blocks? I liked my dolls, but I’d wanted other options from as early as I can remember. In kindergarten, girls played “school,” “nurse,” or “dolls,” while the boys got to play with wooden blocks, fire engines, and toy trucks. I’d peek over the half wall that separated the boys’ and girls’ play areas to watch intense little guys build blocks and noisy guys imitate fire engine sounds, but another girl, or worse yet, the teacher, would coax me back to my place.
Beginning in the sixth grade we left our homeroom class several times a week for extended periods of either home economics or wood shop. These gender-specific facilities occupied opposite sides of the cement-walled basement. Choice was not an option, but I yearned to define my person beyond presumptions of what was right for me well before the eyes-wide-open sixties.
My brothers took pride in their bookshelves and birdhouses. I examined their projects to see how they were made, confident that I could do as well. My own take-home was an apron that I had sewn on a treadle Singer machine. I stuffed it in the bottom of a kitchen drawer.
In eighth grade we girls produced identical, princess style, dotted-swiss graduation dresses with V-necks and short, capped sleeves. No variations were allowed for us, but the boys could choose their own ties.
Mrs. June Cleavers in the making, we learned cooking and housekeeping skills while wearing identical white-bibbed aprons. Miss Beemer, our home economics teacher, wore a 38 EEE brassiere, we were certain. We watched her, intent not on her direction but on the sure possibility that she would fall forward, drawn to the floor by the weight of her bosom. She was a sweet young woman, a competent homemaker, yet little match for pre-adolescent girls.
One day while stirring cupcake frosting, Terri whispered, “Pssst. Watch me.” She held a frosting-laden spoon like a slingshot, ready to fire it off at Miss Beemer, who in a prescient moment, hastened off to the housekeeping rooms. Thwarted, Terri licked her spoon, and we all dug into our bowls for a taste.
The home economics complex had six kitchen workspaces and a complete suite of rooms— a model living room, dining room, and bedroom—for instruction. In the austere dining room, a long, dark wood table awaited our ministrations. The windowless, over-furnished room was cellar dark, and the still air held not a hint of cooking aroma.
“Jean, select the tablecloth, and Terri, help her lay it. Girls, each of you please take silverware from the sideboard and set your place. Stand behind your chair when you’re ready,” said Miss Beemer. We had learned the correct placement of two forks, two spoons, and a knife. Next week, we would add the fish fork, learn how to arrange the china, and record all of our homemaking wisdom in notebooks for the day we would reign in our own homes.
We moved on to the living room to vacuum and dust, each in its proper order. Vacuum first so what is kicked up, can be dusted off. Or was it dust first, so what floats down, could be vacuumed up? Regardless, I recall the swirling haze in the light of table lamps, and I would sneeze at each swipe of the rag.
In the bedroom we learned to make tightly pulled hospital corners of the flat-bottomed sheet. We paired up to add the top sheet, blanket, and quilted coverlet. Miss Beemer inspected every step, leaving nothing to chance in molding our future course.
We girls graduated to high school, competent to keep house, steered toward an early marriage, and encouraged to be ladylike in every situation. Soon after, the sixties hit, and all bets were off.
Your Thoughts: Did you feel thwarted by gender expectations in school? What particular experience can you recall? How have your attitudes changed with respect to gender roles since the 1950s?