The period of American history that followed World War II is rife with images that, even now, Americans associate with ideal family life: white picket fences, cookie-cutter houses with neat green lawns, Mom and Dad with two kids (two-point-five, if you want to go with the statistics, but I sorta find the notion of half a child to be disconcerting).
These images of idealized life were reflected in the television families of the time. They were reflected through the fictional families of Donna Reed and Harriet Nelson.
But perhaps the most lasting ideal family of the time was the Cleavers.
Leave it to Beaver first aired on CBS in October of 1957 before moving to ABC in its second season and running until its cancellation in 1963. The show was moderately successful, never achieving number-one ratings or winning big awards, but never being in danger of cancellation due to low numbers once it made it to ABC. Ward, June, Wally, and Theodore (or "the Beaver"), in spite of experiencing only middle-of-the-road success, became one of the most memorable families on television--to the point that viewers even fifty-five years after the first episode aired know the show, the characters, and the style.
And even in 2012, women are still pointed to the prim and coiffed Mrs.Cleaver as an example of motherly perfection. She cooked, she cleaned, she catered to her husband and children, and she looked great doing it.
It's understandable, from a certain perspective. June Cleaver is beautiful. Her clothes are stylish; her house is spotless. Her children are, for the most part, well-behaved, and when they're not, it only takes a stern look from her husband to put them back on track. June keeps the Cleaver home running smoothly and does it all wearing perfect makeup, kitten heels, and a string of pearls. She's the portrait of a successful woman.
June, like most mothers in the 1950s and early 60s, didn't work outside of the home, but she was forever busy. The pristine Cleaver home, after all, didn't become that way of its own accord. And someone had to make sure that Ward, Wally, and The Beaver were fed, clothed, and seen off to school and work.
While, admittedly, June Cleaver was never shown to have any kind of final authority in the home and she didn't seem to have a true place outside the Cleaver house, June is never played insignificant.
It's impossible to imagine June being absent from the Cleaver family.
June is a shining example of the functionality of the stay-at-home mother. She glamorized, yes, and far too perfect to ever be possible. But she is what keeps the Cleaver home running. In the days when she graced the televisions of America, she was an idealized version of the normal. Women lived lives like June Cleaver's all over the country, and they saw in her themselves perfected.
Between the Feminist Movement of the sixties, the economic changes in American society, and the changes in the availability and stigma of divorce, its easy to see why it's harder to relate to Mrs. Cleaver. Many women want to pursue a career in addition to motherhood, and the women who do want to be stay-at-home mothers frequently find it difficult to manage financially on one income. The definition of a successful woman doesn't necessarily jive with June Cleaver and the way of life she's come to represent.
June Cleaver may no longer reflect the majority of women--and whether that's good or bad could be debated until the end of time without a definitive answer ever being reached--but she did capture the essence of the post-War era and embody that time's ideal of female perfection. Her example of motherhood is a traditional one; her life and identity revolved around her family, leaving little time for her to pursue the outside activities that later television mothers, and real women, too, were able to explore.
Feminism and the working woman may have ended June Cleaver's era as a prime example of American motherhood, but they opened the door to a slew of different types of mother. Next week, we'll take a look at a television mom that's about as different from June Cleaver as it gets: the blue collar mother of the 1990s, Roseanne Conner.