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The Progressive Housewife: Community Activism in Suburban Queens, 1945-1965.

The Progressive Housewife: Community Activism in Suburban Queens, 1945-1965. By Sylvie Murray (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. viii plus 252 pp.).

This fine book is the latest installment in a small but vital revisionist perspective on postwar American suburbs and the lives of the women who lived in them. Until quite recently, the academic and intellectual consensus--shaped early on by C. Wright Mills, Lewis Mumford, and especially Betty Friedan--was that postwar suburbs were homogeneous, conservative, inward-looking, and boring places, bastions of a suffocating domestic ideology that victimized the stay-at-home housewives and mothers who lived in the little boxes in Levittown and hundreds of other communities that were not so iconic. The centerpiece of the new perspective is undoubtedly Joanne Meyerowitz's 1994 edited collection, Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960, devoted to correcting the stereotype of the "domestic and quiescent" postwar suburban woman. (1)

Sylvie Murray's contribution to this revisionist view emerges from an intensive examination of northeast Queens (Bayside, Flushing and South Flushing, and other communities), a borough of New York City that in the 1940s and 1950s experienced suburban-style migration and development. She argues that northeast Queens was a diverse place--diverse in its built environment, which included homes, rental garden apartments (one of them occupied by Betty Friedan and her husband), and cooperative garden apartments; diverse in its mix of occupations; and, despite being "almost exclusively white" (31), the beneficiary of ethnic diversity, most of it provided by a large number of Jewish families in some locales; even a place of "ideological diversity" (59), where people disagreed on the desirability of low-income housing or debated the impact of the Cold War on civil liberties.

But the heart of her argument has to do with process. Murray's Queens is a beehive of collective activity, orchestrated by ordinary women operating through community associations and women's voluntary organizations and committed to the practice of "participatory democracy" (8). Most of the political activism was on behalf of issues close to home; the women of Queens campaigned for more schools and playgrounds for a burgeoning population, for traffic regulation to protect their children, and (usually) against public housing programs that would raise their taxes. Although they sometimes utilized "maternalist" measures such as baby-carriage parades to get the attention of the media, Queens women, Murray emphasizes, usually employed a no-nonsense, facts-and-figures, gender-neutral, rational approach to political advocacy rooted in the Progressive Era. Using the example of Volunteers for Stevenson, Murray suggests that the Queens model of political activism was also to be found at the national level. Successful in some ways, but frustrated by their inability to sway the New York City School Board and other institutions, after 1960 Murray's Queens housewives became disillusioned with the political process and, indeed, with government, abandoning New Deal liberalism for another, more conservative, set of values. Yet Murray's take on the Queens experience is fundamentally positive, rather than negative. From beginning to end, she rejects the Friedan/Mills depiction of "ordinary Americans as victims, devoid of agency," emphasizing instead the "historical agency of ordinary people" (166), undeterred by the obstacles and resistance they encountered.

To be sure, Murray has found political activism, and lots of it. But what does it mean? As she notes, Friedan saw it, too, and dismissed it in The Feminine Mystique as time-filling behavior, evidence of boredom. (2) Friedan's view now seems extreme, less an objective reading than a prop for the career emphasis in her 1963 best-seller. But I, too, am reluctant to interpret campaigns for a stoplight, a sewer, or a playground as signs of a "vibrant" political community. If Queens in the 1950s was "ideologically lively," how would Murray characterize the climate in Berkeley in 1970? The politics she describes does not seem to mark what she labels the "richness" (88) of politics, but rather some basic standard for what occurs in most American communities, most of the time. A politics of "richness" might mean a politics that dealt directly and meaningfully with issues of race, class and gender. There are moments when the women of Queens appeared ready to deal with such issues, only to back off. They defeated public housing--an issue with class and, in one Queens case, racial implications--by talking about the virtues of "self reliance" (52) and by expressing concerns about their own potential tax liabilities. They opposed a 1963 school integration plan by lamenting that school officials had not properly involved the community in the decision-making process. The gender-neutral discourse with which they approached almost every issue arguably served to contain the very real gender issues that no one disputes were percolating in the nation's postwar suburbs. And through it all, they consistently denied that they were engaged in "politics" at all--that is, in distributing resources, favors, and benefits. Politics was corrupt and dirty, the province of those with "ulterior motives" (101), and they had none. They were, they thought, selfless and nonpartisan, representatives of a "community interest" (102) that they believed everyone should acknowledge. Far from relishing politics, and far from representing its "richness," the activist women of northeast Queens--articulating their own, local version of the liberal consensus--denied its essence.

There is, finally, the question of agency. Historians have used the term often, of late, usually to suggest--as Murray does--that ordinary people were able to act and to shape their lives, even when faced with the "hegemonic power" (Murray's words) of corporations, bureaucracies, the image-making apparatuses of public relations and advertising, and, one might add--the postwar suburb. Did the progressive women of Queens have agency? If all ordinary people have agency, in all circumstances, and in equal measure, then it hardly seems useful to deploy the concept. To be a helpful idea, agency must be understood according to time and place; there are times, places, and situations where agency is inevitably almost non-existent or circumscribed: among prisoners of war, among asylum patients, among the unemployed at the height of the Great Depression--and, perhaps, among progressive women in a postwar suburb. In such circumstances, people do the best they can, but the best they can do, given the forces with which they have to contend, is often quite limited. If the women of northeastern Queens had agency, it was of that sort--confined, inward-looking, narrowly focused and self-interested. Given the mid-century suburban environment, the degree of agency demonstrated in Queens might be applauded. But its limitations should also be noted, and the environment--the forces of hegemony--recognized and elaborated. And to do so means giving the older, conformist view of the postwar years its due.

I hope Murray will pardon me for using a review of her book to raise some interpretive (and ultimately theoretical) issues. I was moved to do so by the excellence of her work. The Progressive Housewife is in many ways a model monograph: clearly organized, exceptionally well written, thoroughly researched, highly analytical, and consistently stimulating and evocative despite--or more likely because of--its detail and specificity. Scholars in urban and suburban studies, women's history, political history, and the postwar U.S. will find plenty to mull over. Although my first reaction was that the book's market would be confined to academics, a visit to my doctor's office, Murray's book in hand, gave me pause. A nurse, whose family lived in Flushing at mid-century, jotted down the title and was headed for They have it.


1. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960, ed. Joanne Meyerowitz (Philadelphia, 1994), p. 1 and passim.

2. Nor was Friedan alone. In a revealing endnote, Murray acknowledges that 1950s scholars made similar observations, attributing high levels of civic involvement to "the pressures of conformity and the decline of individuality" and other "social ills" (p. 178 n. 5).

William Graebner

State University of New York, Fredonia
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Graebner, William
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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