home

The New Housewife Blues
Time, March 14, 1977

see also

 

I am asham 'd that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.

... Wm Shakespeare

 

TOTAL WOMAN
Marabel Morgan
Fleming H. Revell; 1973

TOTAL JOY
Marabel Morgan
Fleming H. Revell; 1977; $6.95

"HOGWASH AND BULLSHIT," says New York Psychiatrist Judianne Densen-Gerber, J.D., M.D., who has, along with her two degrees, her career and her four children, some very definite opinions about a woman who would subscribe to those lines at the end of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.

"Sick," says Theologian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago Divinity School about the same woman. Adds another theologian: "The Christian whore."

"Inaccuracies ... cliches ... a patchwork quilt of impressions, intuitions and out-of-style dogma," say Dr. William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, they of the inquiring movie cameras and the surrogate wives.

In these permissive days it is hard to imagine what sort of female could be talked about in such a way. One half expects a practitioner of cannibalism or perhaps a worshiper of Baal. In fact, the object of all this vituperation is a small (5 ft. 51/2 in.), slender (124 Ibs.) Miami housewife who believes passionately in the virtues of middle-class monogamy. Now 39, she came from a poor family in Mansfield, Ohio ("I grew up on peanut butter sandwiches"), and worked as a beautician to send herself to Ohio State University. There she became May Queen, having previously been Miss Mansfield and Miss Talent and Congeniality. She is a born-again believer in Jesus Christ. She is inventively kind to her husband Charles, a shy, bespectacled attorney who acts as a lawyer for several of the Miami Dolphins football players. She dotes on her daughters, Laura, 11, and Michelle, 7, but firmly makes them wash the dishes and sort the laundry. She greets the world with a straightforward look and a friendly smile that viewers have been enjoying lately on TV talk shows.

Her name is Marabel Morgan, and her sole transgression is that she is the author of two treacly and wildly popular books, Total Woman and its newly released sequel Total Joy, which argue that every housewife can find happiness by pampering and submitting to her husband. Total Woman, with one pink rose on its cover, had few ads or reviews when it appeared in 1973 from the venerable religious publishing house of Fleming H. Revell, but a housewives' grapevine spread its message until sales reached a phenomenal 3 million copies (and still climbing). Total Joy is already moving in the same direction-I77,000 hard-cover sales so far at $6.95.

Housewives not only buy huge quantities of Marabel Morgan's books but also write her fervent letters to tell her their difficulties. The letters (100 per day) are a cross section of "housewife blues" in the age of liberation. She answers all these pleas, which provided the basis for her second book. Furthermore, she has some 75 Morgan-trained disciples now giving Total Woman courses to thousands of women in 60 cities. Four two-hour sessions cost $15, of which Marabel gets $5 - helping to bring her take so far to nearly $1.5 million.

No matter what her faults or limitations as a self-created savior of the troubled American marriage, Marabel's books are significant as a kind of cartoon version of genuine problems that confront millions of American housewives today, including those who may sneer at her preachings as silly. Some of those problems are as old as the Fall - problems of loneliness and dissatisfaction. Others spring from the new writ that women should find work and fulfillment outside the traditional confines of the home. Marabel Morgan, by contrast, quotes St. Paul's declaration (Ephesians 6:21): "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord." Others may have offered more elegantly reasoned defenses of American family life - as does Arlene Rossen Cardozo in her new book, Woman at Home; still others may be attempting more organized measures to help the housewife - as has Jinx Melia with her Martha Movement. But the huge success of Marabel Morgan's books (and the hostility of her critics) makes her a remarkable phenomenon of the mid-'7os.

Most of the Morgan message is standard to all the pop self-help books that publishers have been churning out ever since Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale reaped their first millions: Think positively and keep smiling, or as Marabel puts it, "A merry heart helps melt away the troubles." Does the housewife lack goals? "Write out your philosophy of life as a woman." Is it hard to get organized? Make a list of what to do today. "A total woman sets aside time to plan carefully." Also brush the teeth frequently, and use dental floss. "Be touchable and kissable." Marabel's books contain humane and practical advice on caring for children, but they also include characters like Harriet Habit and Phoebe Phobia and phrases like "putting sizzle back into your marriage" and "plugging into God as the power source." True to the genre, she attributes her entire system to God's wishes. God wants the American housewife - or "gal," as Marabel commonly refers to her - to be happy and well scrubbed.

Along with platitudes, Marabel preaches a message of uplift and liberation that might be expected to satisfy (but does not) even her fiercest critics. "Poise and self-confidence are available to any woman," she writes. "Discover who you really are and where you are going. Develop your own convictions. Have the courage to live by your standards. Enjoy your unique spot in the world." Right on, Marabel!

But what should the American woman do with her new confidence and convictions? Marabel's answer, which her critics regard as deceptive and manipulative, combines the exhortations of the fundamentalist prayer meeting with the theatrical techniques of the Kama Sutra. Says she:  "A Total Woman caters to her man's special quirks, whether it be in salads, sex or sports." For example: "Tonight, after the children are in bed, place a lighted candle on the floor and seduce him under the dining room table." A Total Woman might also try proposing sex in the hammock - even if there isn't any hammock. Marabel warns: "He may say, 'We don't have a hammock.' " But the Total Woman has an answer: "Oh, darling, I forgot!"

The most celebrated of Marabel's specialities is the suggest of erotic costumes in which to welcome the husband home from work.  "Take your bubble bath shortly before he comes home. Thrill him at your front door in your costume. A frilly new nighty and heels will probablydo the trick as a starter." Marabel's readers have apparently followed these instructions to all sorts of conclusions. One woman greeted her husband in a costume of nothing but Saran Wrap bound up with a red ribbon. Another wanted to greet her husband la gypsy with beads, bangles and bare skin," but when she went to the door, she was surprised to confront an "equally surprised water-meter reader." Marabel admits, moreover, that she herself "looked foolish and felt even more so" the first time she dressed up in "pink baby-doll pajamas and white boots after my bubble bath." But the result was that "my quiet, reserved, nonexcitable hushand took one look, dropped his briefcase on the doorstep, and chased me around the dining room table." And so Total Woman was born.

Like a kind of Miami version of some Fellini movie, the fantasies of Total Woman grew from the unhappinesses of Marabel Morgan's past. It is a success story, of course, and Marabel lives in a white eight-room house with a pool that abuts on Biscayne Bay. She painted the house herself, and everything in it is just so. There are vases of gladioli on the living room table, baskets of fruit on the kitchen counter. She looks tan and healthy, and she wears a long, flowing pink caftan as she sits on a lime-green sofa with TIME Correspondent Marion Knox and talks about her origins: "I never saw a happy marriage when I was young. I grew up amid a lot of fighting. My father left when I was three, and then my mother married a policeman who adopted me. I adored him. He tried very hard, but he also had to work long hours. We didn't have a car. We never had vacations. I don't ever remember coming home to a good meal. I never tasted steak until I was 18, when a boy friend took me out to dinner. I didn't like the feeling of my home."

To make up for all that, Marabel worked hard at school. "I was a very aggressive, competitive person, and I got good grades. Then when I was 14, my stepfather died of a heart attack, and I went into a shell. I could hardly bear to come home. I walked around school alone. I ate alone. I felt inadequate and shriveled up. Then I won a contest selling chrysanthemums, and that gave me confidence. I went to beautician school. I didn't like the work at the beauty shop, but I loved the people. I rinsed my women well. They'd come and tell me their problems, and as the years went on I made good money. I could buy cashmere sweaters. I had freedom."

Marabel spent a year and a half at Ohio State, majored in home economics, thought of becoming an interior designer, and brooded. "I wasn't happy and I didn't know why. I determined that I would find the truth, and every morning I'd get up at 6 a.m. and take a walk around the campus trying to figure out the secrets of life. In the springtime, when the buds would come out, every day they'd be a little bit bigger, and I'd think: 'Man! If I could just crack that secret!! !!

Her savings ran out, and she had to return to the beauty shop, and "there, with the water running, I was born again. I had always been fascinated by God, but I had talked to him and had never got any answers. This time I asked him to take me and he took me. There was no bolt oflightning, only peace. I was tickled to death."

Marabel went to Miami on a vacation, stayed on to work for the Campus Crusade for Christ, and met Law Student Charles Morgan Jr. When he graduated in 1964, they married and moved to New York for a year. Says Marabel: "I played wife. It was fun cooking, having the apartment, folding his shirts, doing my little fairy tale stuff. Then we moved back to Miami, where he set up his practice, and he was very involved in his work, and the babies came, and ... I don't know how it happened, but I began to nag him."

"She was on a crusade to change me," adds Charlie Morgan from another sofa. "It was her life goal, and she worked at it for six years. She didn't have a bit of success, but that didn't discourage her."

"I really tried to insist on my rights and demand what I thought was due me," says Marabel. "I wanted him to take me in his arms and tell me he loved me, but he was focusing on his work, his sports."

I often worked until midnight, and home was more like a boardinghouse than a home," says Charlie. "We'd go to the Dolphins games, but Marabel thought I should do other things. She would schedule cultural activities on the afternoons of the games. Or when I was watching a good movie on television, she'd ask what else was on and switch the channel to the educational station."

Says Marabel: "A woman is looking to her husband to be the big daddy, the man who will take her in his arms. But a few months after the wedding, he's somebody with a stubbly beard and bad breath in the morning."

All unhappy families are different, as Tolstoy said, and perhaps Anna Karenina would never have thought of dressing up in baby-doll pajamas. Perhaps Karenin would not have been inspired to chase her around the table. But Marabel did, and Charlie was. Epiphany. Love was reborn. Charlie became romantic. Marabel stopped nagging. Charlie was happy. Marabel was happy. The children were happy.

Family life revived-with a vengeance. "She thought everybody should experience international cooking," Charlie recalls. "She served Greek dishes, North African couscous, Turkish goulash, and she and the kids would dress up in the costumes of the country of that evening, and I was supposed to read about it from the encyclopedia. The point was that I saw how hard she was trying, and I couldn't help but respond. Her efforts showed up my failures."

Friends noticed the difference in the Morgans and asked for advice. Groups were formed, luncheons held. Several of the Miami Dolphins' wives tried the Morgan method. Result: well-publicized bliss. Says Charlie: "It snowballed. At night women would call every half-hour until midnight. I was about to go up the wall."

In between bubble baths and raising the children, it took Marabel a year of "15-minute intervals" to finish Total Woman-"but I knew I had to do it." She read other marriage manuals and collected the sayings of various sages - Socrates, David Reuben, Shakespeare, Dale Carnegie. She scribbled her own views on yellow legal-size paper and then Scotch-taped the pages end to end. Says she: "I was told it should be geared to a fifth-grade reading level. I didn't have to worry about that. I'm a two-syllable person." She had so little expectation of the book's success, though, that she feared the publisher would be mad at her. To improve sales, she bought 300 copies herself. They are still piled up in her garage.

Even now that millions of women have paid for her message, she is cheerfully unawed by her creation. Says she: "There's nothing new in Total Woman or Total Joy. A lot of self-help books say the same things, only in different ways." She is correspondingly dismayed at the criticism that she advocates tricks for the sake of getting husbands to provide "goodies." Says she: "The word I use for a wife is not subservient but submissive. One is involuntary. But if I do something because I want to, because it gives joy, I'm not being manipulative at all. It's a struggle to submit, but it's worth it. I don't know why Total Woman should be a threat to feminists. I'm for women's liberation in that it opens up more options. But marriage and children is also an option. When I share with other women what happened to me, I give them hope."

At best, the rearing of children is a fascinating and rewarding occupation. But at worst, the mopping up of spilled food and the changing of diapers are menial labor of the lowest sort, dirty, boring, wearying and endless. The housewife gets no salary, no promotions, no titles, no formal evidence that the maintenance of family life is, as Jimmy Carter said in his Inaugural Address, "the basis of our society." The only thing that makes it bearable is constant reassurance that the best does go along with the worst, but the housewife has never had too much of that reassurance. Her husband is often busy with other things, and the children take her for granted.

Until perhaps ten years ago, she had been regularly told (whether she believed it or not) that it was the housewife's duty, happiness and fulfillment to maintain a home for her husband and children. From this, certain reassuring (or oppressive) rules followed. Among them: that monogamy is a state blessed by, and based on, religion; that sex inside marriage is sacred, though sinful outside; that it is largely up to a wife to keep her husband from straying and, indeed, to set the moral and spiritual tone of their union. Today, in addition to all the chores of housework - and, increasingly, the additional demands of an outside job as well - the American housewife is suffering from a fundamental uncertainty about what a housewife is or should be.

Less than a decade ago, Feminist Author Cynthia Propper Seton could write: "I came across a short reference in the Times to a University of California psychiatrist who said that from his experience a happy marriage was the rare thing, that education did not seem to improve its chances, and that it was usually up to the woman to make it work or break it up. Oh, I thought, how like a man, how unfair, how unequal, how true." One major reason for the hostility to Marabel Morgan is the belief that she preaches a return to those days of unfairness and unequality. Marriage itself, runs the extreme form of this argument, is a centuries-old exploitative prison from which women are only now beginning to escape - with help from the Pill, legal abortion, equal rights laws and a chance for a fair share ofthe job market.

Even feminists who value family as highly as careers are contemptuous of Marabel, partly because they believe that marriage can only be practiced properly as a union between equals. Each must pay a share of the electricity bill and each must wash some of the dishes. Any woman who favors submission to male whims - baby-doll pajamas or otherwise - deserves only scorn.

Discounting the various excesses of feminist rhetoric, it is undeniable that the women's liberation movement is an expression of all sorts of legitimate grievances. It is undeniable that millions of women have been discriminated against at work and at home, that their minds and talents have often been ignored or wasted, that they have been brainwashed into thinking of themselves as inferior beings. Equality in marriage is indeed an ideal, which sometimes does work; but as in other relationships, the ideal is not easily achieved. That said, it is also proving true that a remarkable number of American housewives either do not want to compete in the world of factories and offices or else cannot find any work preferable to housework. From their harassed husbands, they want love and security more than new challenges or an exactly equal division of labor. They feel puzzled and threatened by the complex choices demanded of them, by the soft but persistent denigration of their role, even by a constitutional amendment that officially guarantees them equal rights in all things. And even women who have given up successful outside careers because they feel that caring for families is more rewarding yearn for reassurance that the traditional values still hold, that the traditional lives they have chosen are worth living. Marabel Morgan, wisely or not, offers them that.

Her constituents are, predictably, largely white, middleclass, religious and scattered widely through the South, Midwest and California. A sampling interviewed by TIME correspondents around the country turned out to be fairly broad - from 18 to 64 years in age, from near illiterates to Ph.D.s, from the poor to the affluent. More than a third have jobs or careers (somewhat less than the national average of 47%).

Gratitude to the books and their author seems incontestably genuine. Both TIME interviews and letters to Marabel - like most insights into troubled marriages - reveal how pitiful are the devices that can hold domestic despair at bay. A typical Total Woman suggestion, for example, urges an alienated wife to think of something she genuinely can admire in her husband, and then tell him about it. One wife, well past middle age, had to rack her brain until she remembered, from way back during the 1930s Depression, how hard her now crusty husband had worked to hold the family together. When she gently reminded him of how proud and grateful she had been at the time, he promptly burst into tears.

Both in the matter of flaunting sexiness and offering submission to a husband's will on key decisions, most women who followed the Morgan instructions said these proved in practice to be mainly symbolic acts, icebreakers that helped re-establish the habits of consideration and generosity after years of mutual resentment and marital coldness. Instead of feeling like slaves and door mats, a great many women told TIME that they found themselves for the first time consulting amicably and equally with their husbands about all family decisions.

"I wouldn't even have read the book if I'd heard all those silly sexual parts first," says Kathy O'Connell, 30, wife of an accountant in Wauconda, Ill. "But after the seminar I no longer felt obligated to apologize for being a wife and mother. One night when my husband came home from work, I decided to do what my instructor suggested. Instead of unloading all my troubles on him before dinner, I shuffled him into the bedroom, brought him the mail and turned some quiet music on the tape recorder. After 15 minutes he was relaxed and happy and began to talk. I was just treating him like I would want to be treated." Agrees Lois Jenkins, 26, a secretary at U.S. Steel and wife of an FBI agent: "My view of sex is the same, but now I say 'Thank you' when he opens a door, rather than just take him for granted. In fact, I try to be as nice to him as I would be to a stranger."

These women hardly needed Marabel Morgan for that. But housewives who struggle every day not just with washing dishes but with maintaining values like loyalty, dedication and caring for others complain that they now get very little help from their surrounding culture. "You're told so often how normal it is to feel bitter and resentful as a wife and mother," says Lois Kholos of Tarzana, Calif., "that if you do enjoy it you somehow feel unusual." "Every issue of Woman's Day and Family Circle," Tina Klein of Los Angeles points out, "tells stories of women doing things in the outside world or how they have turned their hobbies into moneymaking projects." Meanwhile, from the centers of expertise and progress, women mainly get refracted images of Gloria Steinem ("Sex is now primarily a form of communication") or R.D. Laing (blaming most of a civilization's discontents and even its wars on the crimes of the family). Says Martha Bardack, a Los Angeles housewife who gave up a part-time job to care for her son Noah, 2: "Society makes it very hard for me to respond to my need to care for my child."

One of the ironies of the domestic '70S, in fact, is that the "just a housewife" syndrome, one that the women's movement was partly founded to cure, is still around, and that the broadening of women's choices, which was meant to take the sting out of it, has made it worse. Says Becky Vascellaro, 24, a nurse who was attending a Total Woman seminar in Oklahoma City last month: "I work part time, and I'd like to advance my career, but I put my family first." Others in the class had similar views. Sharon Burton, 30, wife of an insurance agent: ''You don't go to college and get a degree in how to make a marriage work, and people put you down when you tell them that's your goal." And Sharon Sliverman, 38: "People constantly say, 'You have a college degree. You're wasting your time at home.' " Adds a woman who recently graduated from a once all-male Ivy League college and now works in journalism: "Everyone tells me I must not have a baby. That would mean that another woman has proved professionally unreliable. We were pioneers at college, and now everyone is working except one girl who's married to a law student. And everyone says, 'Poor Karen. She's really gone round the bend.' "

Young professional women who quit work for child care are sometimes surprised by its pleasures, and by the unexpected amount of freedom to read or work at hobbies and local causes. But a second surprise is likely to be loneliness and the depressing reaction of other women to their new experience of housewifery. Valerie Kraus, 34, quit her job as an Illinois teacher last fall when she saw her two children "were losing me and the attention and love that only a mother can give. Soon afterward," she recalls, "at a pot-luck dinner at church, we each had to tell about the nicest thing that had happened to us recently. Other women talked about their jobs. When my turn came, I said, This is the first time I've stayed home and I thoroughly enjoy it!' People just said, 'Oh.'''

Today, when housewives are asked what they do, they tend to answer diffidently "Nothing really" because they have been made to feel inferior and because the joys and challenges of domestic life are unorganized and unmeasured. Except for a philosopher or a poet, such inner rewards are hard to put into words, and therefore hard to preserve on a cold morning when the toast burns and the child is crying. For centuries, men have told their wives that such problems were not very important, but the novelty is to be patronized by other women for "not doing anything really." Kathy Mertz, who enjoyed serving as a Cub Scout den mother in North Barrington, Ill., particularly resented a newly emancipated part-time secretary who periodically called on her to act as chauffeur for her child. Says Mertz: "She kept telling me that I ought to be 'doing something worthwhile'! What I was doing was giving her child care."

In a success-oriented society the cumulative effects of such treatment can be demoralizing. One of the few women so far trying to do anything organized for the millions of housewives is Jinx Melia, 40, who last year joined four other women in founding a national organization to give homemakers more status. Named for Martha, who did the household chores while her sister Mary listened to Christ expounding his wisdom (Luke 10 :38-42), the Martha Movement so far has nearly 4,000 members in all 50 states and several foreign countries, and Executive Director Melia just returned last week from a fund-raising tour through the West. Among the organization's projects: short-term child-care and resource centers near supermarkets and hot lines for counseling housewives with critical problems.

Melia now lives in Burke, Va., with her engineer husband and two sons, aged 5 and 3, but before she quit to care for them she was a $15,000-a-year teacher in New York City. When she decided to go back to work again after a couple of years, she found herself applying only for jobs in the $8,000-a-year range, for which she was overqualified. This was not because of professional rustiness, or the need for more time at home, or even because teaching jobs were hard to find. Says she: "I had devalued myself. I had become a victim of the process that makes a homemaker feel she is worth nothing and her role as creator of the next generation is not important."

During the past twelve years Arlene Rossen Cardozo has been interviewing and advising women with children, first in Cambridge, Mass., then in Minneapolis, where she now lives with her busband, a professor at the University of Minnesota, and their three daughters.  Some of this experience has gone into Woman at Home (Doudleday; $6.95). Like the housewives she often speaks to and for, she is no antifeminist, but she objects sharply to the rhetoric of the women's movement - at least in its more extreme forms. It has done considerable harm, she feels, by lumping housework and child care together and dismissing them as something that women must escape in order to achieve "selfhood." It has also deluded women about both the pleasures and the problems of commercial work and about the ease of being a responsible parent and pursuing a career at the same time. (A large part of all work done by men and women is boring and unsatisf'ying and, as men know well, leaves little enough time for a family or any other form of commitment or self-development.) Most potentially dangerous for the family, Cardozo argues, is the fact that the women's movement has urged wives to follow men in their rush to be gobbled alive by the success ethic, emulating the American man at a time when he has never been "less in need of emulation, and more in need of searching his own soul)."

Instead of helping these women remove the causes of their "boredom and loneliness at home," as Cardozo believes could (and can still) be done, feminists told them to leave home and become absentee mothers, just like their absentee husbands. Says she: "Their only quarrel with the success ethic was that it excluded women." The delusion that the mass of men chained to jobs are free or fulfilled (that kind of fulfillment is only sporadically true even for a handful of trained professionals and craftsmen) was never examined. "Men no longer have jobs; jobs have men," says Cardozo. "Now, jobs have women too."

Since two incomes are more and more necessary to keep marriages solvent, more and more women are going to work. The problem, as Cardozo sees it, is how to keep people's careers from damaging family life, and how to work out flexible and practical ways of individual child care in an impatient society more and more inclined to turn all problems over to the state. Cardozo, like a number of public figures, sees no panacea in care centers, now being urged by many feminists, because they would become increasingly compulsory and would deprive many children of an affectionate upbringing. An alternative: that women, and men, who take care of their own children be granted Social Security benefits for such work, and that tax benefits be offered to businesses that devise split work shifts and flexible schedules so that young husbands and wives will find it easier to spell each other in caring for their families - and each other.

"We have desacralized marriage," according to Robert Weiss, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and author of Marital Separation. It is no longer seen as a "calling" or a "social responsibility" but merely as an adjunct to the good life. This change, which Benjamin DeMott sums up as scrapping" 'in sickness and in health' in favor of 'I do my thing and you do your thing,' " is not so much the result of sexual permissiveness and easier divorce laws as, like them, an offshoot of what Weiss describes as the "intensity of our impatience with barriers to self-realization." Weiss adds: "To a greater extent than seems true elsewhere in the world, we Americans seem to cherish our right to the unimpeded pursuit of happiness no matter how much sorrow that pursuit may engender."

Roman Catholic Philosopher-Writer Michael Novak is less cool in his assessments. "Our highest moral principle is flexibility," he writes; our view, that "life is solitary and brief, and that its aim is self-fulfillment. In such a vision of the self, marriage is merely an alliance ... They say of marriage that it is deadening, when what they mean is that it drives us beyond adolescent fantasies and romantic dreams ... Choosing to have a family used to be uninteresting. It is, today, an act of intelligence and courage."

This is all somewhat more complicated, to be sure, than anything contained in the wit and wisdom of Marabel Morgan, but Marabel's subsequent evolution, too, is part of the story. "I haven't had a bubble bath in years," she admits. "The costumes - well, we have had an awful lot of company recently, so I've fallen down on that." In other words, the advocate of domesticity has acquired what she probably was destined to have from the beginning, namely a career. And she enjoys that: "I should be a philosopher and walk across the country interviewing people. If I weren't married, I'd take the world by storm. I would just take it by storm."

As long as she remains married, however, Marabel continues to interpret submissiveness in her own irrepressible way. One of her pieces of advice to the Total Woman is to wave goodbye to the husband when he leaves for work. A neighbor saw Marabel doing that herself one morning not long ago. Only she didn't just wave. She suddenly started doing the cancan.