The Progressive Housewife: Community Activism in Suburban Queens, 1945-1965 (review)
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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, [End Page 1090] 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...