“Housewives have played a role in raising feminist awareness”

It’s a story that has only rarely been told … Along the intimate notebooks of Anna, Francine or Ruby, the director Michèle Dominici brings us back to the daily lives of millions of housewives in France. After war. Far from the clichés of the advertisements of the time showing fulfilled women, the documentary The forgotten history of housewives, presented Thursday in preview at Pessac International History Film Festival, instead plunges us into the distress of these women referred to the status of “chief consumers”, “summoned to procreate for the nation”, and whose condition will be violently questioned at the dawn of the 1970s.

Your film is a documentary on an era, but it also tells, through poignant testimonies, the intimacy of these housewives left behind. Was the idea to rehabilitate them?

I wanted to give them back their intelligence and their voice, because it hurts me that they take them for idiots, which was not the case. The texts of the diaries that I found show it: they are very well written, and of a nuance, of a rather incredible delicacy. I also wanted to work on the notion of history film differently, by telling the little story, what had happened in medium-sized towns, in the countryside, in kitchens, dining rooms… And show how the big story happens. in homes through television, radio.

Your film focuses on the post-war period, but you say that the history of housewives starts in the 19th century …

The notion of a housewife emerged with the Industrial Revolution. Before, everyone worked to feed the family, but the increase in productivity is reshuffling the cards. The other factor was the emergence of the middle classes and intermediate trades (clerks, engineers, executives…), within which the gentleman could maintain Madame at home, which a worker could not do. The housewife is a character of the middle class.

A character inseparable from the advent of the consumer society from the 1950s …

Before the wars of the twentieth century, the phenomenon was not yet massive, and the first housewives were for the most part productive: they made household linen, cleaning products, they had a vegetable garden … After the war, they become consumers, and even chief consumers. They are the backbone of this new era of consumption. Women are then sold the model of the housewife, as the model to be followed in order to become a happy woman. The American series Mad Men shows it very aptly.

You show advertisements of the time, where we see smiling and fulfilled women, which contrasts with the diaries of these women, evoking their “disappointments” and their feeling of “confinement” …

The first stages of their life as a housewife are very happy, they are excited to start a family, to move in. And gradually, they measure the distance that exists between their life and the idea they had of it. As they are very isolated, they feel that it is their fault, they feel guilty, they think that they are not doing well enough. They did not see that there were millions of them, and that their discomfort did not come from them, but from the situation in which they had been put.

At the height of the phenomenon, how many housewives were there in France?

At the end of the 1950s, there were 12 million housewives, for 45 million inhabitants. It was the norm.

On top of that there is condescension on the part of the men, who basically tell them: what are they complaining about?

This was the general idea at the time, and it is neither the fault of the men nor the fault of the women. I don’t like looking for culprits. When a husband says, “What are you complaining about?” He’s in all sincerity, he doesn’t realize.

This era still resonates today, through what is called the “mental load” of women, right?

Absolutely. The mental load is the distance between them and us. The remaining images of these women are hysterically happy, and I wanted to deconstruct this visual myth that still clutters our unconscious: “Am I a good mom? »« Am I a good hostess in the house? “I wanted to speak to young women today, who aspire to become housewives: there are – and I do not judge them, it is not my role – but I wanted to show them the back of a decor.

Little by little, the condition of women is improving anyway, with the right to vote and then the permission to open a bank account without the authorization of her spouse, in 1965. The housewife does not disappear, but y does it have a date, or an event, which marks the end of the mass phenomenon?

No, it is rather diffuse, even if in France, the year 1970, which marks the end of the role of head of the family attributed to the husband, can constitute a symbolic date. Overall, the decade of the 1970s gradually killed this image of the ideal housewife.

At the same time, the first feminist demonstrations broke out …

It is the daughters of these women who are revolting. And my hypothesis is that the misfortune of these women caused the revolt of their daughters. In this sense, these women have played a role in raising feminist awareness, even if it has been played in private.

For some of them, the evolution of society is difficult to live. You stress that “new images of women adorned with qualities that were then prohibited – ambition, autonomy – are appearing” …

When they reach their forties, other ideal woman statuses emerge. The housewife becomes old-fashioned, at a time when the children are leaving, when the marriage is worn out … And they have been so excluded from the public domain that the step to take, if only to work again, seems immense to them. These millions of women have experienced this in a very violent and lonely way.

The forgotten history of housewives by Michèle Dominici, 52 minutes, will be presented Thursday, November 18 at 3 p.m. at the Jean Eustache cinema in Pessac, in the presence of the director, as part of the International History Film Festival which lasts until November 22, and will be broadcast soon on Arte.

Source: 20Minutes – Une by www.20minutes.fr.

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