Ira Levin The Stepford Wives (1972)
Ah, cultural memory. I've neither seen the films (1975; 2004) nor read the book before now but the concept of a 'Stepford Wife' is nevertheless embedded in my consciousness.
...Kit said, folding the T-shirt. "These thngs came out nice and white, didn't they?" She put the folded T-shirt into the laundry basket, smiling.Like an actress in a commercial.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 suburban housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real.
This is a very clever little book - Levin takes contemporary anxieties about the effect of the feminist movement on women as home-makers and turns them into a horror story. The men in this book, for the most part, give lip service - and what often seems like far more than lip service - to the emancipation of women, but all along they're plotting. Against us...
Joanna moves to the inordinately perfect town of Stepford (Connecticut) with her husband and child. She is a photographer who has had some successes with her work. Her husband is a traditional provider figure who goes off to the city to work, but he is keen to support her enterprises. This is, after all, the early 1970s and women are getting a grip on their 'rights'. When Joanna attempts to set up some - to her - familiar women's groups in Stepford she runs into a strange phenomenon: almost all of the women she meets express a lack of interest in outside activities. They are content to stay in their homes and they have no time for meeting with other women because they must clean their homes.
Joanna asked, "Were the Women's Club meetings more boring than housework?"Kit frowned. "No," she said, "but they weren't as useful as housework."
Why are all their husbands spending so much time at their men's club? The charmingly messy Joanna slowly becomes suspicious of their wives' automaton-like devotion to housework. And, ominiously, slowly but surely all of the recent arrivals in Stepford are also changing into sort of fantasy housewife sex-bombs with housework obsessions who won't go out at night as they've got to scrub all the floors. Again. And again.
[Bobbie] looked the way she had on Sunday - beautiful, her hair done, her face made-up. And she was wearing some kind of padded high-uplift bra under her green sweater, and a hip-whittling girdle under the brown pleated skirt.
In her immaculate kitchen she said, "Yes, I've changed. I realized I was being awfully sloppy and self-indulgent. It's no disgrace to be a good homemaker. I've decided to do my job conscientiously, the way Dave does his, and to be more careful about my appearance.
Can Joanna save herself from the fate of a Stepford Wife before it is too late?
A thoroughly enjoyable satire on the hidden perils of suburbia. This book makes one uncomfortable enough that I think it should nowadays also be considered a seminal text within the history of the women's movement.