The Stepford Wives examines the resistance that American society in the mid-20th century showed toward female ambition. Joanna is a semi-professional photographer, and though she certainly isn’t famous or celebrated for her work, she has had some success selling her pictures to well-known magazines. And yet, it’s very clear that her artistic career has been placed on the backburner and that she’s not so sure about moving from New York City to Stepford—she worries the move will “diminish” rather than “enrich” her life. Once the Eberhart family has settled in the suburbs, Joanna struggles to make time for her photography, and the implication is that her life in the city was more conducive to her artistic work. Her husband Walter, on the other hand, is surrounded in Stepford by other career-oriented men, many of whom work at law firms—just like he does. Joanna soon realizes just how hard it will be to hold onto her personal ambitions in Stepford, where women are expected to aspire to little more than housework. In fact, Joanna learns that most of the wives in Stepford used to care about things like gender equality, but something about living in Stepford has depleted their ambitions outside of the household. It’s later revealed that the women have lost these ambitions because they’ve been turned into robots, and though this is a farfetched, dystopian plot point, the novel ultimately emphasizes the pressure that American society placed on women in the mid-20th century to abandon their interests and goals in order to focus exclusively on domestic concerns.
Female Ambition vs. Societal Expectations ThemeTracker
Female Ambition vs. Societal Expectations Quotes in The Stepford Wives
She was about to say a time-saving no, but hesitated: a full answer, printed in the local paper, might serve as a signpost to women like herself, potential friends. The women she had met in the past few days, the ones in the nearby houses, were pleasant and helpful enough, but they seemed completely absorbed in their household duties. Maybe when she got to know them better she would find they had farther-reaching thoughts and concerns, yet it might be wise to put up that signpost.
“And I’m interested in politics and in the Women’s Liberation movement. Very much so in that. And so is my husband.”
“I’ve changed my mind; I’m joining that Men’s Association.”
She stopped and looked at him.
“Too many important things are centered there to just opt out of it,” he said. “Local politicking, the charity drives and so on…”
She said, “How can you join an outdated, old-fashioned—”
“I spoke to some of the men on the train,” he said. “[…] They agree that the no-women-allowed business is archaic.” He took her arm and they walked on. “But the only way to change it is from inside,” he said.
They spent a morning calling on women together, on the theory (Bobbie’s) that the two of them, speaking in planned ambiguities, might create the encouraging suggestion of a phalanx of women with room for one more. It didn’t work.
“Jee-zus!” Bobbie said, ramming her car viciously up Short Ridge Hill. “Something fishy is going on here! We’re in the Town that Time Forgot!”
“Hey,” she said, shifting uncomfortably and smiling, “I’m no Ike Mazzard girl.”
“Every girl’s an Ike Mazzard girl,” Mazzard said, and smiled at her and smiled at his pecking.
She looked to Walter; he smiled embarrassedly and shrugged.
“These things came out nice and white, didn’t they?” She put the folded T-shirt into the laundry basket, smiling.
Like an actress in a commercial.
That’s what she was, Joanna felt suddenly. That’s what they all were, all the Stepford wives: actresses in commercials, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleaners, shampoos, and deodorants. Pretty actresses, big in the bosom but small in the talent, playing suburban housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real.
“I’m not joking,” Charmaine said. “[My husband’s] a pretty wonderful guy, and I’ve been lazy and selfish. I’m through playing tennis, and I’m through reading those astrology books. From now on I’m going to do right by [my husband], and by [my son] too. I’m lucky to have such a wonderful husband and son.”
Walter wasn’t particularly surprised to hear about the change in Charmaine. “[Her husband] must have laid the law down to her,” he said, turning a fork of spaghetti against his spoon. “I don’t think he makes enough money for that kind of a setup. A maid must be at least a hundred a week these days.”
“Joanna,” Bobbie said, “I think there’s something here. In Stepford. It’s possible, isn’t it? All those fancy plants on Route Nine—electronics, computers, aerospace junk, with Stepford Creek running right behind them—who knows what kind of crap they’re dumping into the environment.”
“What do you mean?” Joanna said.
“Just think for a minute,” Bobbie said. She fisted her free hand and stuck out its pinky. “Charmaine’s changed and become a hausfrau,” she said. She stuck out her ring finger. “The woman you spoke to, the one who was president of the club; she changed, didn’t she, from what she must have been before?”
“Even if I’m wrong,” Bobbie said with her mouth full, “even if there’s no chemical doing anything”—she swallowed—“is this where you really want to live? We’ve each got one friend now, you after two months, me after three. Is that your idea of the ideal community? I went into Norwood to get my hair done for your party; I saw a dozen women who were rushed and sloppy and irritated and alive; I wanted to hug every one of them!”
In her immaculate kitchen she said, “Yes, I’ve changed. I realized I was being awfully sloppy and self-indulgent. It’s no disgrace to be a good homemaker. I’ve decided to do my job conscientiously, the way Dave does his, and to be more careful about my appearance. Are you sure you don’t want a sandwich?”
He came closer to her. “There’s nothing in the water, there’s nothing in the air,” he said. “They changed for exactly the reasons they told you: because they realized they’d been lazy and negligent. If Bobbie’s taking an interest in her appearance, it’s about time. It wouldn’t hurt you to look in the mirror once in a while.”
She looked at him, and he looked away, flushing, and looked back at her. “I mean it,” he said. “You’re a very pretty woman and you don’t do a damn thing with yourself any more unless there’s a party or something.”
“[…] Now look, I’m trying to see this from your viewpoint and make some kind of fair judgment. You want to move because you’re afraid you’re going to ‘change’; and I think you’re being irrational and—a little hysterical, and that moving at this point would impose an undue hardship on all of us, especially Pete and Kim.”
“I’ve begun to suspect—” Joanna said. “Oh Jesus, ‘suspect’; that sounds so—” She worked her hands together, looking at them.
Dr. Fancher said, “Begun to suspect what?”
She drew her hands apart and wiped them on her skirt. “I’ve begun to suspect that the men are behind it,” she said.
“It sounds,” Dr. Fancher said, “like the idea of a woman who like many women today, and with good reason, feels a deep resentment and suspicion of men. One who’s pulled two ways by conflicting demands, perhaps more strongly than she’s aware; the old conventions on the one hand, and the new conventions of the liberated woman on the other.”
“You must think we’re a hell of a lot smarter than we really are,” the man in the middle said. “Robots that can drive cars? And cook meals? And trim kids’ hair?”
“And so real-looking that the kids wouldn’t notice?” the third man said. He was short and wide.
“You must think we’re a townful of geniuses,” the man in the middle said. “Believe me, we’re not.”
“You’re the men who put us on the moon,” she said.
“Who is?” he said. “Not me. […]”
She was wrong, she knew it. She was wrong and frozen and wet and tired and hungry, and pulled eighteen ways by conflicting demands. Including to pee.
If they were killers, they’d have killed her then. The branch wouldn’t’ have stopped them, three men facing one woman.
Bobbie would bleed. It was coincidence that Dale Coba had worked on robots at Disneyland, that Claude Axhelm thought he was Henry Higgins, that Ike Mazzard drew his flattering sketches. Coincidence, that she had spun into—into madness. Yes, madness.
When had it begun, her distrust of him, the feeling of nothingness between them? Whose fault was it?
His face had grown fuller; why hadn’t she noticed it before today? Had she been too busy taking pictures, working in the darkroom?
“Oh no,” Joanna said. “I don’t do much photography any more.”
“You don’t?” Ruthanne said.
“No, Joanna said. “I wasn’t especially talented, and I was wasting a lot of time I really have better uses for.”