Show me a “first world” country and I will show you a Mrs. Bridge—one of the title characters in this month’s movie, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990). First world countries offer capitalism, industrialization, and technological innovation as gravy trains that carry opportunity far and wide, thus creating a robust middle class. For Mrs. Bridge and other women of her time, “paternalistic” was another societal attribute that helped to create her particular middle-class status.
Mankind’s story is one of ensuring daily survival, which for the majority of time, was not to be taken for granted. Our ancestors, because their existence depended on it, dedicated themselves fully to foraging, farming, and toiling in a variety of trades to have food and shelter for survival. A life of prolonged leisure was an unheard-of concept that was exclusive to the highest echelons.1
Progress in 20th Century America Enabled the Lifestyle of Mrs. Bridge
Only recently, in the late 19th and 20th centuries, has astounding progress enabled a middle class to enjoy weeks away from work for relaxation and recreation—under the right conditions, that is.2 Thus, Mrs. Bridge is a product of the successful Constitutional Republic that is the United States of America.3
Upon America’s creation in the 18th century, Founding Father John Adams surmised,
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children the right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
This very attitude about the value of education is what created a country that, by the 20th century, became established as the land of opportunity.4 For those with means, food was available without having to hunt, gather or plow. Shelter, clothing, and essentials of life were readily accessible to the resourceful.
Hiring employees and service companies to help in household maintenance was widely affordable by the middle class, which included Mrs. Bridge in the 1930s. All that she and other women of that era had to do was marry a responsible man with ability, motivation, and opportunity to earn money.
Mrs. Bridge’s Identity Defined by Her Husband
Throughout history until the 20th century, a woman’s quality of life depended on her husband. Mrs. Bridge lives well, not because she is educated, but because she married a successful lawyer who provides for the family. Unless they were fighting in a war, men were essentially lifelines for their families.5 In these pre-feminist times, lest she acquire the derogatory brand of a spinster, a woman’s identity was defined through her husband.6
By the mid-20th century, rapid advancements in technology and innovation had extended into the home and reduced the time and back-breaking effort of household duties. However, as I mentioned in an earlier article, Side Effects of Civilizing, such advancements do not always bring more freedom from household chores.7 Yet, and especially for those with household employees, these changes freed up more of the workday for women in general.
With all of her physical needs met, Mrs. Bridge has abundant time on her hands. However, while Mr. Bridge is occupied with his fulfilling career, Mrs. Bridge is home with no guide or role model on how to fill all the empty days of her life. It is not a stretch to believe she is among the first generation of middle-class women in such a predicament. And, indeed, this unique role of suburban housewife crossed all socioeconomic boundaries; Mrs. Bridge and her country club set have their counterparts among housewives in the blue-collar population.8
A variety of sitcoms from the 1950s to 1970s showcased this new type of woman created by 20th century changes—the suburban housewife. “Leave it to Beaver”’s June Cleaver made this look easy—and, even fun! As did Carol Brady of “The Brady Bunch.” While TV idealized her role, the writer Evan Connell (1959) shined a more realistic light through his fictional character, Mrs. India Bridge, portrayed in our November movie.
Mr. and Mrs. Bridge based on Evan Connell’s Own Mother and Father
Though he never married nor fathered children, Connell understood the dynamics of a 20th-century, nuclear family. Having grown up in a Kansas City family, and with observation powers that must have rivaled Jane Austen’s, he truly captured the nuances of his parents’ marriage, deemed “typical” of upper-middle class America. With his mother strongly in mind, Connell wrote Mrs. Bridge in 1959, and followed it ten years later with Mr. Bridge in 1969.
In the novel, Mrs. Bridge, Connell highlighted the plight of married American women, whether in the 1930s or 1950s, who hadn’t much life outside a kitchen full of the latest appliances. It might also be thought of as documenting the repressed, compliant spouse, dependent for her opinions on her husband’s authority, and subservient to his will (Pritchard, 2013). Remember Ingrid Bergman’s character, Paula Alquist, in Gaslight?
Mrs. Bridge spends her days shopping, lunching, trying to figure out how to ease her feelings of inadequacy. The maid cooks and cleans, the laundress launders, the kids are self-sufficient. And though she wants to learn new things—she studies painting, picks up books—in the end she always retreats to the place she is most comfortable, behind her husband’s opinions (Grodstein, 2009).
Blessed with economic security and good health, Mrs. Bridge’s mind can drift to frivolous matters such as the image her family presents to society, which is what society demands of her. Wadler (1990) quotes Connell’s remark that his mother’s
principal concerns, for my sister and me, were that we have nice manners. She was terribly concerned with eccentrics and outrageous behavior.
When image consciousness is heightened, “nice manners, a pleasant disposition, and cleanliness” (Schwarz, 2010) are values of importance. (Don’t we wish everyone could understand and practice such displays of consideration for others—and not simply for the sake of image?) Mrs. Bridge has all the above, as she exudes social graces everywhere she goes. Along with “eccentrics” and “outrageous behavior,” confrontation of an active kind threatens serenity, so Mrs. Bridge avoids it at all costs. It would not do to blemish her reputation or complicate her life with conflict and anxiety.
Confrontation as the husband’s turf, Mr. Bridge handles all external aspects of contention; haggling with the real estate agent or car dealer, and negotiating bills. All major economic decisions are made by him because, “Father Knows Best” (Another TV Sitcom depicting a 1950’s family).
In Mrs. Bridge’s era, additionally, much of a family’s discipline was left to the husband (“Wait ’til your father gets home!”). Because Mrs. Bridge has a comfortable place in society, she naturally wants the same for her children; and, she is no different from any other parent in this regard. In America, a family’s wealth and status is not guaranteed across generations. Women of Mrs. Bridge’s era instinctively knew what keeping the American Dream intact required.
It required daughters to be refined, gracious, well-connected, and educated enough to attract the right men to marry. Women in general expected to be passed directly from their fathers to their husbands, thus Mrs. Bridge and her contemporaries have little chance to see what they are capable of on their own.
Keeping the American Dream intact required sons to be well-connected and maximally educated so they could follow in their father’s footsteps—and possibly go farther. Of course, as with everything else, some children cooperated and some rebelled. Evan Connell was among the latter (Walder, 1990).
Of the Bridges’ upper-crust world of strict conventionality and narrow morality, Connell, who recently moved to Santa Fe after living 35 years in the San Francisco area, says, ‘I just felt stifled by it.’ Expected to study medicine and take over his father’s practice, he instead dropped out of Dartmouth after two years and embarked on a solitary bohemian life. Yet now, drinking a martini in Santa Fe’s La Fonda hotel, Connell says, ‘I understand perfectly how those people feel. Everything was geared towards economic security. “Don’t rock the boat, we’ve got a good thing.” They don’t want any changes, and they all vote Republican, of course.
Connell acknowledged the work ethic it took for families to achieve success in America.
‘[My father] also taught me to do the best work I could, whatever it was. He was thoroughly honest. I don’t think he ever shortchanged anyone in his life.’
No Woman Immune to Boredom or the Era’s Rigid Standards
While Mr. Bridge has purpose in keeping his family afloat, Mrs. Bridge veers dangerously close to the fine line between purpose and boredom. Without purpose, as without water, we all simply shrivel up and die. Literally or figuratively. Mrs. Bridge has little meaning to her life. Sure, she has children and that gave her purpose and kept her busy for a while. But they grew up.
We now have unending examples of the era’s rigid standards. Last spring as the commencement speaker at Georgetown University, Luci Baines Johnson, former president Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, said that the school had given her “meaning and purpose.” At age 70, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the program that she started in the early 1960s.9
In 1965, she was pursuing a nursing degree at Georgetown when her boyfriend proposed. She was then forced to choose between marrying him or following her dream to become a nurse. When push came to shove, she chose to become a wife, since in Johnson’s time, according to labor historian Alice Kessler-Harris (quoted in Contrera, 2018),
‘ . . . many women understood that marriage was a life-changing decision, to have babies, not to work and to commit oneself to one’s spouse.’
Contrera goes on to say,
This was especially true for nurses, whose roles were considered to be “vocations” more than professions. . . . Georgetown’s no-marriage policy was not unique. Many nursing programs, then run by hospitals rather than universities, required women to live in convent-like dormitories and be on-call at any time of night. Sex out of wedlock was grounds for dismissal.
“First World Boredom” Drives Many to the Brink
First world boredom drove some women to the brink. In extreme cases, their lives were so devoid of purpose that they resorted to shoplifting to create excitement. In 1981, Oklahoma City police reported that shoplifting was becoming the crime of bored middle-class housewives (Hopkins. 1981). The detective reported that more than half of all shoplifting was committed by women.
First world boredom permeated to other family members as well, particularly children. For most of mankind’s existence, children quickly crossed the bridge from childhood to adulthood with no transition period due to the need for survival. Because of upward mobility in the US, this transition changed dramatically, and teenagers became a relatively new concept. American society is still adjusting to these young adults who are not children, but also are not full-fledged adults with responsibilities either. Teenagers with a lot of time and energy on their hands confound parents with their ways of passing time: alcohol, drugs, sex, among other risky endeavors.
A recently released movie, American Animals (Layton,2018), is a true story about four privileged college students who concoct a plan to rob Transylvania University’s library of the extremely rare folio, “John James Audubon’s Birds of America.” Chris Lee, writer for Vulture, suggested that they were driven not by a quest for cash, but by an urge to escape the suburban torpor of their privileged upbringings (Lee, 2018).
Despite Dramatic Societal Change, Mrs. Bridge Is Not Quite a Relic of the Past. Yet.
While the 19th Amendment in 1920 gave Mrs. Bridge the right to vote, a few decades more would pass before she and women of her station actively involved themselves in politics. (Politics is practically a synonym of conflict; and remember, conflict was a man’s turf for most of the 20th century).
Following President Trump’s inauguration, 4 million women gathered to march in the largest single-day protest in the US. This is astounding considering that it was just 1 or 2 generations back when women like Mrs. Bridge tended to leave all things political to their husbands. Today, women seem to have no qualms about political confrontation, especially when it comes to President Trump, deemed the greatest disparager of women by great numbers. In fact, some women have gone so far as to pose naked in a “Grab Them By The Ballot” protest against him (Goldstein, 2018).
Further, just less than 100 years after Susan B. Anthony and suffragettes successfully advocated for women’s right to vote, American women have filled every kind of elected office and nominated seat except for the Executive branch. That single exception has not been for a lack of trying.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the first female candidate for the presidency nominated from a major party. At the same time, the first female manager ran the successful campaign of her opponent, President Donald Trump. Women have arrived on the political scene, and they are here to stay.
And, it will happen. A woman will be sworn in as President of the United States of America. It is just a matter of whether she will be Democrat or Republican. This momentous occasion will culminate a 250 year journey from 1769 when the British colonies decreed that women could not own property or keep their earnings. It would be 131 years until these basic rights would be given to women in every state.
With Wyoming leading the way in granting women the right to vote in 1890, every state followed by confirming the 14th Amendment in 1920. Feminism was slow going for a while until momentum started gathering the 1960s, and went from strength to strength through the 1970s.
A significant milestone was clear in 1980 when “Paula Hawkins of Florida, a Republican, became the first woman elected to the US Senate without following her husband or father in the job” (Milligan, 2017). Whether women know it or not, that was the very point where the playing field was beginning to truly equalize.
Mrs. Bridge’s head would be spinning by the time Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Democratic Vice President Candidate Geraldine Ferraro, and Astronaut Sally Ride carried feminism forward through the 1980s. Things got even better through the 1990s and 2000s, and now Congress has a record number of women (104 female Representatives and 21 Senators.) (Milligan, 2017).
Dizzying progress, indeed. Feminists have not just broken ground but torn it up, and as a result, 21st century girls are growing up in a society that will let them become major players as politicians, engineers, doctors, lawyers, actuaries—the sky is the limit. And these girls know it. Halloween 2018 had mini Ruth Bader Ginsburgs trick or treating across America.
The book, The End of Men, written by Hannah Rosen (2010), describes how women are now graduating from college in greater numbers than men, and how women are taking over more leadership roles in the workforce.
And yet, with the world literally on their fingertips, women still struggle. The balancing act between career ambition and the wish to have a family still causes stress for women today. It takes a village to raise a child, but someone has to play a primary role during the day. A woman has to choose whether she will play the role or assign another family member, a nanny, a teacher in a daycare center, or a stay-at-home dad. It is a choice that can create agonizing guilt.
Today’s moms still manage households with or without help, whether they work outside or solely inside their homes. Yet rising expectations intensify family life, and women are expected to manage the increasing pressure with aplomb. Yoga, sports, book club, charity projects, and full- or part-time jobs fill their days, evenings, and weekends. Then, on top of that, they volunteer hours in abundance for their children’s schools and extra-curricular activities. (One mother remarked to me, “I volunteered my head off for [children’s school].”)
Now, before we rush to write off Mrs. Bridge as a relic of the past, let’s acknowledge positive things we can learn from her (Schwartz, 2010),
Anyone, however, who has limped through a dull dinner party, offering up chipper observations because it’s the socially decent thing to do; anyone who’s baffled by her own grown children, who finds herself mindlessly agreeing with the political opinions of her friends, who suspects there’s probably something better to do with her time—but has somehow neglected to develop the internal resources to figure out what; anyone who occasionally fears she may someday die ‘without ever having been made to see all [life] may contain’ and then allows daily trivialities to distract her, will realize otherwise.
It seems tragic, the unique and undiscovered talents Mrs. Bridge possessed that never saw the light of day. May we study history, so our daughters and granddaughters never take for granted that they are free to choose their place in the world, and that they are free to use their talents to prove their own identities without anybody else doing that for them.
1 Highest echelons would include the ruling class, the nobility in a feudal system, etc.
2 The “right conditions” refers to a government that gives people liberty and religious freedom to prosper. One is hard-pressed to find a class of Mrs. Bridge’s in countries under Communism or dictatorships. (e.g., Russia, China or Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran).
3 Some call the USA a democracy. Republic or democracy is a matter of personal preference.
4 Before we jump all over President John Adams for not including his daughters in his academic dreams for his sons, keep in mind that he lived in the 18th century, a time when a woman’s place was strictly home and hearth. He should be easily forgiven because his famous letters to Abigail Adams show great respect for his wife’s intellect.
5 For a brief period, while American men were off fighting the Third Reich in Europe, women took over much of the workforce. This ended as soon as World War II was over, and the men came home.
6 At Christ the King’s St. Jude’s Church Circle in the 1960s and 1970s, introductions were made by giving one’s name and what the husband did for a living. “My name is Lucy Cota, and my husband is a manufacturer’s representative.”
7 From Frederick (1926),
As immigration dropped sharply during World War I and many native-born women left domestic service for wartime jobs, middle-class women lamented the shortage of domestic workers. This spurred efforts to reorganize housework and a fostered a new breed of home economists who argued for ‘scientific’ housekeeping.
And, Cowan’s study (1983) argues that
modern conveniences—washing machines, white flour, vacuums, commercial cotton—seemed at first to offer working-class women middle-class standards of comfort. . . . it became clear that these gadgets and gizmos mainly replaced work previously conducted by men, children, and servants. Instead of living lives of leisure, middle-class women found themselves struggling to keep up with ever higher standards of cleanliness.
8 In 2016, Movies on Chatham viewed A Woman under the Influence. The movie sympathetically portrayed Mabel Longhetti, a wife and mother, driven to the point of insanity by society’s neglect of her as an individual person.
9 At age 49, she had earned a bachelor’s degree in communications.
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