Mad Men, June Cleaver and Biblical Womanhood

I have a confession to make. Recently, I watched “Mad Men” for the first time.

For some this may sound like a confession of moral laxity; for others it’s a confession of being horribly out of touch and having lived the last five years in a cave. Still, apart from the rampant licentiousness, unchecked greed, and ubiquitous alcoholism, I have to admit that it’s a pretty engaging show, especially as it captures the glamour of mid-20th century Manhattan—the perfect pencil skirts, the tailored three-piece suits, the sleek cars, and the poolside lunches at the Astoria. In its attempt to be historically accurate, “Mad Men” is also quick to make (and overstate) the point that this was a world dominated by men, a world where housewives were vacuous ninnies, and the only women with any sense of power were the “hens” at the office who knew how to get a man to do what they wanted.

Of course “Mad Men” is interesting in itself, but it’s been particularly interesting as my exposure to it coincides with the ramped up conversation surrounding traditional gender roles. With the release of Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womahood, everybody and her cousin seems to be parsing conservative interpretations of gender via the late 1950s and early 60s. Evans explains how she understands conservative mores here:

The term “Biblical womanhood” is basically a reaction to feminism. It means a woman who stays home and submits to her husband. It’s a remembrance of June Cleaver—not what we see when we actually read scripture.

Now I can’t speak to Evans’ experience, but this correlation is funny to me. It’s funny because, despite being a woman who identifies as a conservative, I’ve never once thought of myself as June Cleaver. And the main reason isn’t because there’s anything wrong with June or even with women who care for their families fulltime. (I’m a SAHM myself.) The main reason my conservative understanding of gender has never led me to recreate the 1950s is because of what was happening below the surface. In short, June was June, not because of conservative gender roles or because she stayed at home; June was June because of what broader society was pursuing at the time—stability and comfort.

June Cleaver vs. Kingdom Values

During the 1950s, the United States experienced relative peace and prosperity for the first time in over two decades. In this context, Ward and June became icons of stability, comfort, and ease; they represented a generation who had known deprivation their entire lives, who as children had endured the Great Depression, and who came of age through the atrocities of WWII. By the time the 1950s rolled along, they were also a generation desperate for “the good life.” In this context, a woman’s role was naturally reduced to being a comforter, a nurturer, a source of emotional stability the same way that a man’s role was reduced to being a source of financial stability. (Think how important it was for a man who had grown up in the leanness of the Depression and watched his mother and sisters work in the factories during WWII to be able to make enough money to enable his wife to stay at home. And think too how important it would have been for women—who only a decade before had welcomed broken men home from war—to provide them with some sense of domestic normalcy and peace.) In this sense, gender roles weren’t simply about men oppressing women as so many Millennials think—although as “Mad Men” is quick to point out it was very easy for selfish men to do so—no, gender roles of the 1950s were a way to work toward the societal values of rest and stability.

So here’s my question: Is June Cleaver really synonymous with a conservative Christian understanding of gender?

I grew up in a very traditional home. I was taught to respect my father as head of the family and my mother spent years at home caring for us. But despite being traditional in their understanding of gender, my parents were very non-traditional in their view of the world. Instead of teaching their children to pursue stability and comfort, they taught us to love God, to sacrifice for his kingdom, to seek heaven’s riches over those of this earth, and to never forget where we were heading. The effect was that these kingdom dynamics created a different paradigm in which I applied conservative gender norms. Instead of thinking that the greatest good for me was to marry, have children, and rear them in a comfortable suburban environment, I grew up believing that the greatest good for me was to follow Christ, to devote myself to His service. That might very well mean marriage and children, but it could have as easily meant working overseas, pursuing post-grad degrees, or relieving the sick and oppressed. June Cleaver never once entered the conversation.

So I don’t think the problem is as simple as conservative gender roles. The problem comes when we use conservative gender roles to further our own comfort, our own sense of stability, or our own sense of ease. And my guess is that this is what many of my peers are confusing when they associate a conservative reading of gender with the 1950s. Ironically, conservatives fall prey to the same mistake when they insist on shaping applications of gender after a Cleaver-esque domesticity.

No Stepford Wives

Because let’s be clear on one thing: the kingdom dynamics of love and sacrifice call us to apply gender roles very differently than we would if we were pursuing lives of ease and stability. When you believe that you’re pioneering a new country, when you believe that you’re pushing back the boundaries of brokenness, when you believe that you are fighting to see the kingdom of God reign in the hearts of men, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be content as June Cleaver.

Instead your role models for womanhood will be women like Katharina von Bora, who singlehandedly managed her family estates thus enabling her husband (Martin Luther) to do nothing less than turn the known church on its ear. Your role model for womanhood will be Abigail Adams, great-granddaughter of Puritans, whose minister father insisted on her education and who by her intelligence and grace helped her husband (and son) establish the very foundations of our fledgling government. You’re more likely to look to a woman like Caroline Ingalls who sweated alongside her husband, built her home with her bare hands, plowed fields, and tamed the frontier all for the sake of a dream. And you’re more likely to model your understanding of Christian womanhood after someone like Elisabeth Elliot who rejected the opportunity to be June Cleaver and went instead with her husband to live and die in the jungles of Ecuador—all to tell those who had never heard that Jesus lives.

These were no Stepford wives.

And yet, neither were they feminists in a political sense. (As a former nun, Katharina von Bora’s most revolutionary act was marrying and having children.) No, they were simply strong women who embodied all that it means to be human—they embraced their femininity, their capacity to bear and nurture life, their minds, their husbands, and their individual callings all in pursuit of goals and glories greater than their own private issues.

Deeper Issues

Today, the easiest way to undermine a conservative understanding of gender is to align it with 1950s domesticity—something that that both liberals and conservatives are prone to do. But we must acknowledge that applications of gender are simply an expression of deeper values; poor June Cleaver was really only ever a presenting issue. The deeper question is what is driving us: Are we being motivated by our own needs or our own fears? Are we looking for lives of ease and comfort? Are we willing to use others to achieve that for ourselves?

Or are we pioneers, pilgrims on a journey from this world to the next? Are we men and women working together in pursuit of the kingdom of God? Are we captured by a greater vision and a greater dream of what God is doing in the world? When our churches are motivated by finding comfort in this life, it’s very possible that we would end up recreating a 1950s context; but as we concern ourselves with service and love, as we valiantly pursue the kingdom, June Cleaver with all her niceties and comfortable stability will have little place in the conversation. Until then, let’s put a moratorium on associating her with a conservative understanding of gender; and as a first step to that end, maybe we should all watch a little less “Mad Men” from now on.

[node:bio/handerson body]

3129 reads

There are 8 Comments

Jim's picture

Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (an early reality show!), etc are but caricatures of life in the 50's. 

About my parents generation. You said: "a generation who had known deprivation their entire lives, who as children had endured the Great Depression, and who came of age through the atrocities of WWII."

  • My wife's parents (Father b in 1914 and Mother in 1917) had it worse off economically than my own (growing  up in rural Wisconsin (Mattoon). Kathee's Father knew first hand the Civilian Conservation Corps (a depression era job's program). Because he was a father he was exempt from the service but he did serve his country wiring submarines in Manitowoc . Later he was an electrician on the Dew Line
  • My parents (Father b in 1918, Mother in 1920) were raised in Alto Michigan. Dad was drafted 1 year before Pearl Harbor and was in the service through WWII
  • Our parents didn't have much of an education. Only my Mother and my wife's Father graduated from High School. Both Fathers were somewhat self-made / self-educated. Kathee's Father as an electrician who later worked and retired from G.E. and my Father as an engineer who retired from A T & T
  • What we called "middle class" back then would be called lower class today. My wife was born into a home with no indoor plumbing. My first home (the home I was brought into at birth) was a pull-behind a car trailer with the plumbing only when parked at trailer parks. 
  • To have a home with indoor plumbing was middle class. Here's the home my parents moved into in the early 50's.
  • You mentioned "the atrocities of WWII". Neither family experienced them. My Father reached the rank of Staff Sergeant but never saw combat (interestingly my son is now a Staff Sergeant in the MN National Guard). 
  • Neither Father was a Ward Cleaver and neither Mother was a June. The Cleaver house (I saw it once on a tour of Hollywood) was probably 4 times the size of the house I grew up in! Dad did wear a suit to work but I can assure you the coat and tie came off when he arrived home. 
handerson's picture

Certainly, I didn't mean to imply that all homes of the 1950s were mirrors of the Cleavers but that they represented a goal to achieve; they represented the distillation of the American Dream which after The Great Depression and two World Wars morphed to one comfort and stability. In previous generations, the "American Dream" meant forging a place for yourself or coming to the US for freedom and opportunity. I think there's a case to be made for how that shifted post-WWII.

Also, I suppose I relied a bit on my own history--I grew up hearing stories of my grandparents who struggled through the Depression and WWII. I remember hearing how my grandfather was sent from the city to live on a farm and at times ate blackberry cobbler for dinner because blackberries were all they had. Later, he insisted that his family never go hungry and abundant, good food became a central element of our family's sense of security.

I also cleaned house for an older gentleman who had been shot down over Italy in WWII. He said that he had almost froze to death and that he decided he would never be cold again--he meant it. Whenever I came to clean, the thermostat was consistently set near 80!


Wayne Wilson's picture

I can so relate to all this.

I grew up exactly like the Beaver and that was my favorite show as a boy.  Yep. I had one brother about number of  years older as Wally. My "Wally" had a wretched best friend Kenny who was just like Eddie Haskell.  I wore a baseball cap every where I went, even to church, but not inside.  During the week, my mother stayed home, though she didn't clean house in a dress with pearls, My dad never went to college but wore a suit to work. Came home every night.  We lived in the suburbs in the Midwest, in a small town made richer by the presence of a large University.  Life for me was school, baseball, a paper route, church and friends. It was an exceedingly good life, and who can blame people for wanting that for their children? 

Now my grandparent's generation...that was different.  My mother was raised by a "Mammy" in Virginia, not because they were rich, but because both her Mom and Dad worked long hours in the cotton mills.  Little education, though my mother made it to college.

My father grew up in a three room tenement in Brooklin, NY. Five children altogether.  Grandfather worked for the city in public transportation, running a train.  Simple people.  Hard working all the way around, who wanted something better for their children and grandchildren.  That's exactly what happened.  For me the "caricature" was quite real.

It makes sense to me that people would want stability and ease for their families.  Is it not the true blessing of the Lord when "each of them will sit under his vine, and under his fig tree, with no one to make him afraid"? America's greatness provided just that for many people at that time.  Looking back, I regard it as a blessing.

 But, no, it wasn't living for the Kingdom.  I envy Hannah that aspect of her upbringing.  Kingdom service is much more important, and can happen anywhere under any conditions.  But I don't think it's wrong on a human level to work for something like the Cleaver household.

handerson's picture

I was reading in Jeremiah this last week and came across his message to the Jews in captivity in Babylon. Through him, God told the remnant to 

Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace. (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

This convicted me because if I'm honest, I trend to struggle with a Messiah complex --trying to "save the world" all by myself. I don't know if I would ever settle down if left up to me. My husband, on the other hand, tends to more stability--he loves his gardens and plans and dreams for a long, sustainable future for our family and church. To me, it's a joy to balance each other--he keeps me grounded in the reality that home and comfort are blessings from God's hand, and I can get him all excited about the ways that God could use us to change the world and see people brought to faith. I'm afraid our kids are going to grow up learning that mommy's the starry-eyed dreamer and daddy's the steady rock that remembers to pay the bills.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Hannah, appreciate your thoughtful writing, as usual.

One question... you use the word "kingdom" in interesting ways. I'm not sure how you mean them sometimes. What do you mean by "kingdom values" and why is "kingdom values" a better label for them than, say, Christian values or biblical values?

handerson's picture

That's a fair question given that people use it often in a post/amillennial sense of "bringing Christ's kingdom" to earth. I don't mean it in that sense. When I speak of "kingdom values," I'm alluding to the ever present awareness that we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom that presently is under seige. We rest in the security of our citizenship at the same time that we understand that part of our responsibility as citizens is to seek the expansion of Christ's rule through evangelism and discipleship. It's easy to either sit back and wait for Christ's return, not realizing that the kingdom already exists.

handerson's picture

I realized that I didn't address why I used "kingdom values" instead of Christian or biblical values. Part of the reason is rooted in what I mentioned above. Also in context of discussing gender roles in light of American values c.1950, I wanted to remind us that we are not first and foremost citizens of American but of the kingdom of heaven. While there are many metaphors and allusions that address how Christians should conduct their life, the metaphor of the kingdom strikes at the heart of the "American Dream" in a way that other metaphors may not as strongly.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Thanks, Hannah. Makes sense.

Something in me is a bit bothered by kingdom language... I suppose because some overuse it, and I get the feeling that some who use it most are not attaching much meaning to it. At least on the listening end, I often find that I really don't know what they mean by it.

But it does occur more than 150 times in the NT.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.