Used as an attributive modifier, Stepford denotes someone who is regarded as robotically conformist or obedient.
It is from The Stepford Wives (1972), the title of a novel by the American author Ira Levin (1929-2007), in which Stepford is the name of a superficially idyllic suburb where the men have replaced their wives with obedient robots.
This novel was the basis of a popular film adaptation (1975) directed by Bryan Forbes, starring Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss and Peter Masterson.
On Wednesday 4th October 1972, the Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Indiana) published Did Magic Change Wives?, the review by Miles A. Smith, of Associated Press, of Ira Levin’s novel:
The Stepford Wives. By Ira Levin, Random House. $4.95.
Joanna Eberhart, her husband Walter and their two small children move into the nice suburb of Stepford, not realizing it has some strange characteristics.
Joanna has some ideas about Women’s Lib, and is upset to learn that the only civic organization in town is the Men’s Association, which seems to run the place. She also discovers that the Stepford wives all seem to be engrossed endlessly in scrubbing, cleaning house and looking after the creature comforts of their husbands.
The only exceptions are Charmaine and Bobbie, two wives who are recent newcomers to the town. The blow comes when suddenly Charmaine turns into a meek Stepford wife. Bobbie thinks maybe someone — at the instigation of the Men’s Association? — has put a chemical, or maybe a hormone, into Stepford’s water supply, that turns women into zombies. And then Bobbie herself turns into a Stepford wife, much to Joanna’s horror. Will she be the next victim?
Levin’s previous work, and a very popular one, was “Rosemary’s Baby,” on a theme of modern witchcraft. Witchcraft has long been an acceptable, plausible theme for fictional plots. The present work, however, has to depend on a rather vague hypothesis that technicians who once worked on nerve gas and on Disneyland robots have come up with a magic formula.
The story has its suspense, and of course no one can miss the implications of the war between the sexes. It is sharply written and easy to read.
On Friday 27th October 1972, Le Mars Daily Sentinel (Le Mars, Iowa), in its review of the new books at Le Mars public library, made an interesting comment on The Stepford Wives:
A novel of slowly uncoiling menace, irresistible in its suspense, terrifying in its final implications.
It is one of those rare novels whose very title may well become part of our vocabulary. For, after reading it, you will never forget Stepford and the horror it contains; and there is a certain kind of woman who, from now on, will be known as a Stepford Wife.
The earliest transferred use of Stepford wife that I have found is from My Friend Mary, The Compulsive Housecleaner, published in The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of Friday 16th March 1973, in which Deborah Wickes explained that her friend, Mary Hanes, was suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder:
Mary Hanes is no Stepford wife happily confined to typical suburban limits. She has a full-time job, is in the midst of writing her second book, and is a very attentive mother. To maintain her compulsion cuts severely into what should be valuable sleep time.
The earliest instance of Stepford used as a modifier of another noun than wife that I have found is from Head of Household (Female) Wants a ‘Husband’ She Can Call Her Own, by Dorothy O’Connor, published in the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) of Thursday 27th March 1975; the author explains that, although she has been a single mother and the sole breadwinner of her household for the past eight years, she does not want to marry a man who would force her to return to housework:
It was while I was chewing over this dilemma that I saw “The Stepford Wives”—and lightning struck.
Now, I wrestle no more; I’ve got the answer. I’m going to find a bright, enterprising fellow who’s a genius at engineering and he’s going to design me a real, genuine, walk-around “Stepford Husband”—built, of course, to my exact specifications.
After I’ve taken my robot home, every morning I’ll do whatever I must to charge his batteries. Then I’ll send him out the door with a good, hot cup of mountain-grown coffee and a big, fat kiss. Out the door and off to Corporationville to make lots of money.
At last, freed from my responsibility as head of household, I’ll do all the things I’ve been secretly dying to do for the past eight years.
The meaning of Stepford husband is unclear in the following from Teen Talk, in The Treynor Record (Treynor, Iowa) of Thursday 20th March 1975: