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  • Stepford U.S.A:Second-Wave Feminism, Domestic Labor, and the Representation of National Time
  • Jane Elliott (bio)

Duration "in vain," without end or aim, is the most paralyzing idea.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean become soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present. . . . [T]he years no longer rise up toward heaven, they lie spread out ahead, gray and identical. The battle against dust and dirt is never won.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Significant critical attention was expended on the connection between feminism and time in the late 1990s and first years of the twenty-first century. Various essays investigated the uneasy relationship between different feminist generations, the dangers inherent in using reproductive metaphors to signal the persistence (or lack thereof) of feminism across time, and the implications of describing contemporary feminism through an apocalyptic image of violent closure.1 With very few exceptions, this criticism pinpointed the temporal tropes at work in contemporary feminist discourse in an attempt to generate new ways to approach the current state of academic feminism.2 This joint focus on both the contemporary moment and academic feminism made perfect sense, given the steady eradication of popular feminism as anything other than the absent cause of a backlash that now seems perpetual. Devoid of any feeling of feminist propulsion, the present appeared as a crisis situation, requiring an immediate intervention by academic feminism—that is, by the only feminism that seems to be left to intervene. [End Page 32]

In contrast, this essay argues that the current state of feminism, and by extension our current dilemmas, owes much to the role popular feminism played when it thrived, a role that I will argue had everything to do with the popular feminist temporalities evolved in the 1970s. In order to map these temporalities, I return to an iconic popular feminist text of the decade, The Stepford Wives, as represented by Ira Levin's 1972 novel and the 1975 film.3 Although activist feminists at the time rejected the film as a "rip-off" of the women's movement, the Stepford motif earned itself a permanent place in the pop culture lexicon, such that, even before the 2004 remake of the film, the word "Stepford" persisted as a widely understood descriptor for a person showing the effects of ideological brainwashing.4 The Stepford metaphor thus exemplifies the two most salient and troublesome aspects of 1970s popular U.S. feminism: its difference from activist feminism and its remarkable ability to define feminist politics in the national imagination for decades despite (and because of) that difference.

As I will argue in detail below, this popular version of feminist politics centers on the temporalized dilemmas of the white, middle-class suburban housewife.5 In particular, The Stepford Wives offers visions of housewifery reminiscent of the critiques offered a decade earlier in bestsellers by Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, in which housewives are seen as trapped in a nightmarish life of pointless repetition. While, by 1975, activist feminism showed little signs of this fixation, focusing increasingly on such issues as rape, domestic violence, and pornography,6 this vision of the housewife persisted in the popular imagination, becoming so embedded a feature that it has even been spoofed on The Simpsons: satirizing the opening of long-running soap opera the Days of Our Lives, The Simpsons' depicts a soap that begins by intoning, "Like the cleaning of the house, It Never Ends."7 Of course, this particular understanding of 1970s feminism as primarily an antidote to the dreary life of the white suburban housewife has been questioned by various thinkers, especially because it tends to present the feminism of women of color as coming after white feminism.8 Yet if 1970s activist feminism was never as limited to white, middle-class women as some accounts assume, it becomes all the more imperative to consider how and why the vision of feminism offered by such texts as The Stepford Wives came to substitute...