Fifties Housewife


More educated now than any previous member of her family had ever been, Erma willingly abandoned academic life and dove back into the newspaper business. The Dayton Journal-Herald welcomed her home. She was assigned to the women’s section.

Women’s departments were a bit of a joke and no one was more aware of it than the women themselves. While there were a few women on the city side, for the most part, female reporters’ stories rarely made the front page. The unfair treatment frustrated Erma, but she rarely complained.

She hoped someday to be promoted to the city side, but there was no rush. If she gave her best to every assignment, no matter how dull or silly she found the subject, she assumed that eventually she’d earn a move across the hall.

While her work turned out to have some negatives, her love life had taken a decided turn for the better. After Bill Bombeck left for Korea during the final stages of World War II, the two corresponded. Erma’s letters impressed Bill. When he returned to Dayton, they began dating seriously. Erma and Bill, both age twenty-two, were married at the Church of the Resurrection on an overcast morning in August.

Erma returned to writing humor in 1952. At first her columns, which ran under the title “Operation Dustrag,” offered household hints and new product evaluations. Then newlywed Erma discovered housework. Household absurdities quickly found their way into the column.

The Bombeck family: Erma, Bill, Betsy, Matt and Andy.
The Bombeck family: Erma, Bill, Betsy, Matt and Andy.

At the same time, World War II had created a profound change for American women. With their men at war, millions of women flooded the workplace — 75 percent of them were married and one-third had children under the age of 14. Erma’s first columns struck a nerve with these women.

For two years, Erma and Bill tried to have a baby. Their doctor confirmed that chances of Erma’s conceiving were small and they decided to adopt. After filling out boxes full of forms, they waited. Finally, Erma received a call from a Catholic Services social worker. She was about to become a mother. When Betsy came into her life, Erma said goodbye to her career and the people she had grown up with at the newspaper without the slightest doubt that she was doing the right thing.

The demands of motherhood amazed Erma. Exhaustion stalked her constantly. There weren’t enough hours in the day. She never had time for herself and sagged under a kind of loneliness she had never known. Since no one discussed these feelings in public, Erma thought something was wrong with her, that she was the only woman in the world experiencing them. She thought she should be able to handle her life, but she wasn’t doing a very good job and no one seemed to understand.

Her solution was to bury herself in typical fifties housewifely pursuits. She crocheted Santa Claus doorknob covers, stuck contact paper on everything that didn’t move and decorated Bill’s dinners with miniature roses sculpted from zucchini. It didn’t help.

From the book, Erma Bombeck: Writer and Humorist by Lynn Hutner Colwell.
Used with permission of the author.

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