Good hoaxkeeping

Have dinner ready … Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking … Greet him with a warm smile [and] … let him talk first — remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours … A good wife always knows her place.

THE above comes from what looks like the May 1955 edition of Housekeeping Monthly. It’s a scanned page that’s been circulating through cyberspace and amusing and horrifying inbox owners for the past decade or so.

When quotes from The Good Wife’s Guide appeared in this column last month, however, a fluster of male readers emailed to say that an urban legends-busting website had questioned the document’s authenticity.

“It has become fashionable to portray outdated society behaviours and attitudes — ones we now consider desperately wrongheaded — to be worse than they really were,” Snopes.com reads before acknowledging that the origins of The Good Wife’s Guide text were unknown rather than categorically fraudulent.
Despite this qualification, several of my correspondents were convinced the guide was just one of many malevolent feminist swindles.

“You stupid feminist btichas are full of siht,” one chap wrote with an excitingly anti-establishment approach to spelling. “Ull make up any bullsiht just to put men down and have a winj.”

Well. At the risk of engaging in a public btich slap with this excitable fellow, it does seem important to point out that while Hoaxkeeping Monthly may be a chimera, the oppressive era it alludes to is not. An embarrassment of Good Wife-style material exists in eminently verifiable sources.

The National Archives of Australia stores back copies of The Australian Women’s Weekly from the 1950s and ’60s. These feature an article arguing education is nothing but a burden to women, and another stressing the importance of sex appeal in the workplace: “aim for an attractive appearance as well as a high shorthand speed”.

Alongside spiffy ads linking laxative consumption to increased popularity (go Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills!), there’s also a column suggesting that half the wife murders in history could have been avoided if the murderees had refrained from interrupting their husbands’ stories at parties.

Book-wise, meanwhile, you can’t go past classic domestic self-help texts from the ’50s such as Doorway to a Happy Home by Mrs Clarence H. Hamilton. She says that if sex is disappointing or physically uncomfortable, ladies should simply beat up a cake or vigorously move furniture around until they are able to put the unpleasant episode out of their minds.

In How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead in his Social and Business Life, Mrs Dorothy Carnegie (second wife of Dale) suggests wives be fined 25c every time they behave shrewishly. Other highlights of this crusty 1953 edition include the chapters entitled “How to get along with his secretary” and “Don’t be a buttinsky”.

Then there’s 1963’s Fascinating Womanhood by Helen B. Andelin which contains all the patronising pillow-arranging and shoe-removal tips from The Good Wife’s Guide, and then some.

“His word should be law,” Andelin writes. “You must dispense with any air of strength and ability, of competence and fearlessness and acquire instead an air of frail dependency upon man to take care of you.”

To achieve this, Andelin recommends embracing attractive floundering and fluttering, and avoiding manly fabrics such as herringbones and denims. She also offers detailed tips on how to deliberately fail at un-ladylike tasks such as painting and handling or earning money, so hubby stops asking you to do them.

Scarily enough, Andelin has not gone up in a puff of denim-free wifely-ness but is still running classes and now has a website. Similar views are also reappearing in more recent publications such as 1995’s The Excellent Wife by Martha Peace which instructs wives to do only those things that glorify theirhusbands. Peace claims that cleaning and grocery shopping are a woman’s God-given responsibilities and cautions against the false saviours of masturbation, sport and (oddly enough) sleep.

In the light of all this, perhaps the real hoax surrounding The Good Wife’s Guide is the notion that oppressive Stepford models of womanhood exist only in the distant past.

If so, good, old-fashioned feminist winjing still has a place, too.

- originally published in The Australian on 20-11-2008.

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