“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 cleansers, shampoos, and deodorants. Pretty actresses, big in the bosom but small in the talent, playing housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real.”
Katharine Ross stars in the 1975 movie version
Joanna Eberhart is an accomplished photographer. A woman comfortable with herself, in love with her husband, and raising two charming/rambunctious children. They decide to move to Stepford, Connecticut an idyllic community full of successful people and beautiful scenery. In an attempt to get to know her neighbors she soon discovers that the women are too busy waxing floors and ironing clothes to really spend time with her. They are friendly and will offer her a cup of coffee, but they are driven to keep working as they chat.
These women have singular ideas and no ambition outside of pleasing their husbands and maintaining their households. WEIRD even in 1972.
The men have a club that is truly a men’s only affair. This is irritating to Joanna, but after some discussion they decide that her husband Walter should join the club to initiate change from the inside. Joanna does start to talk to the local women about picketing the club and forcing the organization to allow women to participate, but she is met with stoic indifference. She does meet one woman named Bobbie who is different from the robotic devotion of the other women in the community even to the point of having a *gasp* dirty house. With the aid of her new friend Joanna tries to get support to resurrect a women’s club that went away many years ago that failed, not surprisingly, due to poor membership numbers.
Her husband Walter meanwhile is spending more and more time down at the club.
Nicole Kidman stars in the 2004 movie version
Walter brings home Dale Coba, president of the men’s club and a famous artist named Ike Mazzard whose sketches of woman set an impossibly high ideal of what a woman should look like in all the women’s magazines. The group does allow Joanna to participate in the conversation and while they are talking Ike Mazzard sketches her. He gives her one of the sketches and Joanna is disconcerted at this idealized portrait of herself.
It turns out all the women have one. Blueprint?
Dale Coba gives Joanna the heebie jeebies. He used to work for Disney and as events unfold it becomes more and more clear what a large part he has played in making Stepford an “ideal community”.
This book is considered a thriller satire. It certainly makes fun of the idealized female portrait of the 1950s when women supposedly did housework in poodle skirts and kept their hair, nails, and figure in immaculate condition. I’m sure there are still men who would like their women to meet that criteria. They might even pine for a woman to fetch them a beer when they hear him crushing an empty can from his recliner, but most of us enjoy the equality of women with jobs, with careers, with interests, with hobbies, and able to discuss with us more than just what’s for dinner. This book made such an impact that now “Stepford” is a part of our popular culture language used to describe a submissive housewife. I impulsively decided to read this book when I discovered that my local library did not have a copy of Ira Levin’s even more famous book Rosemary’s Baby. Sometimes detours are as fun or more fun than the originally intended destination.