On October 15, 1951, the first episode of I Love Lucy debuted on national television, and audiences fell in love with a red-haired housewife named Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball), her enthusiastic husband Ricky (Desi Arnaz), their landlords and friends Ethel (Vivian Vance) and Fred Mertz (William Frawley). Over the course of six seasons on CBS, the show enjoyed tremendous success. It was the highest rated series on television for four of those seasons, and it never dropped below third in the ratings.
Television during the 1950s focused on the family and American domestic life, and sitcoms regularly depicted happy marriages cemented by traditional male and female roles. Audiences expected to see wives at home, cooking, cleaning, and nurturing children, while men worked in respectable jobs to support their families.
In many ways, sitcoms reflected the image of domestic life that Americans desperately sought after the devastation of World War II. As economic prosperity brought purchasing power and prominence for the middle class, they sculpted expectations about family life that defined women as only wives and mothers. In some ways, women seemed to embrace these roles. They gave birth to millions of babies in the 1950s, and the population increased by 18 percent over the course of the decade. Cities grew, and the Levittown model inspired builders to expand into the suburbs. Suburban land values skyrocketed, rising by 3760 percent in some places. The vision of the American Dream shifted to the suburban home, with a nuclear family living in a mass-produced home, complete with a picture window, thin walls, and freshly mowed green grass in the yard. Suburbia, along with cars, helped to create highways, shopping centers, and massive parking lots.
On the surface, life in the 1950s overflowed with prosperity, and family life seemingly benefited from women embracing their roles as doting mothers and loving wives. Historians have challenged the 1950s ideal of domesticity, however, moving past the perfectly manicured lawns and pushing open the picture windows to reveal legions of anxious and unhappy housewives who longed for fulfilling work. Prescriptions for tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and other drugs rose noticeably, and housewives—particularly college-educated women—silently seethed at the monotony each day held. It was no wonder that The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Freidan and published in 1963, became a wake-up-call for many stay-at-home mothers. As they made beds, shopped for groceries, and cleaned their bathrooms, countless housewives heard Freidan’s words echoing in their minds: “Is this all?” Other historians take their critique a step further, arguing that for many women, the housewife ideal never even existed. More women joined the workforce in the 1950s than ever before, and by 1956, twenty-two million women held jobs, a third of all jobs in the country. Half of these female workers were married, exposing the contradiction of the image of the 1950s woman as a non-wage-earning housewife.
Despite the inconsistencies historians have revealed about life in the 1950s, the image of traditional domesticity was powerful in the minds of American audiences, and I Love Lucy followed the formula well. Lucy was never the breadwinner, and Ricky passionately believed that Lucy ought to stay in the home. In a curious twist, however, the reoccurring plot challenged the script of domestic bliss. Lucy always desired to be more than a housewife, and in episode after episode, she rebelled against the constraints of her role—taking a job, scheming to make money, disguising herself to perform at the club, and generally messing with Ricky. The plots directly exposed the absurdity of the restrictions placed on women in the 1950s.
If each episode had ended with Lucy defeating the gender stereotypes pervasive in society at the time, audiences may have deemed I Love Lucy controversial. The writers on the show, however, were clever. They ensured that every act of rebellion attempted by Lucy ended in a ridiculous and impressive disaster. In perhaps the most famous scene from the series, Lucy and Ethel end up with hats and cheeks full—and comedy gold—when they struggle to wrap chocolate candies passing by on a swiftly moving conveyor belt. Audiences roared at the look on Lucy and Ethel’s faces when the supervisor returned, surveyed the empty workspace, and exclaimed, “My you’re doing splendidly. Speed it up a little!” Inevitably, Lucy and Ethel returned home, defeated by the demands of a factory job and with renewed commitment to their domestic role.
Because of the return to domesticity at the end of each episode, some critics argue that I Love Lucy was a conservative sitcom that reinforced the cherished domestic values of the 1950s. Others point out, however, that I Love Lucy remains one of the most beloved television series in American history not because it proclaimed traditional gender roles but because of Lucille Ball and her “irrepressible force of nature, a rattling, whirling blast of energy just waiting to explode.” The memorable aspect of each episode was not the resolution back to domesticity; it was Ball’s dynamism and her ability to mesmerize audiences with her comedic range. From this angle, Lucy’s return to domesticity was not submission. Instead, the fantastic chaos that Lucy created made the endings seem more like a joke, for Lucy could never be contained.
Assistant Professor of History
Sara Egge joined Centre’s faculty in 2012 as an assistant professor of history. At Centre, Egge teaches courses in late 19th- and early 20th-century American history, gender and women’s history, food history, and environmental history.Egge has a B.A. in history and Spanish, and a B.S. in history education from North Dakota State University. She received her M.A. in history and Ph.D. in agricultural history and rural studies from Iowa State University, where she studied the woman suffrage movement in the Midwest.