Although Phyllis McGinley was born in Ontario, Oregon, her family moved to a ranch near Iliff, Oregon, when she was only three months old. Both she and her brother felt isolated and friendless there because of the remote nature of her home. Although she entertained herself by developing a love for reading, she was much happier when the family moved to Ogden, Utah, after her father’s death.
After her graduation from the University of Utah, McGinley taught school in Ogden. Because she had won numerous literary awards in college, she began submitting her poetry to various national magazines. She later moved to New Rochelle, New York, and began teaching English at a junior high school. At first, her poems were lyrical and serious. An editor at The New Yorker, however, encouraged her to begin writing light verse—which had the advantage of paying more than serious poetry did. After the principal of the school objected to her moonlighting as a writer, she gave up teaching and moved to New York City, first working at an advertising agency and then accepting a job as the poetry editor at Town and Country magazine.
In 1936, McGinley married Bill Hayden, and the couple moved to the New York suburb of Larchmont. Her first daughter, Julie, was born in 1939, followed by Patsy in 1941. McGinley enjoyed her role as a housewife and mother. She incorporated her experiences into her poetry, continuing to send her work to a wide range of magazines and publishing several volumes of verse. The triumphs and tragedies of daily living became the source of much of the humor in her work.
Because McGinley often championed the role of the suburban housewife, she was frequently viewed as a defender of domesticity against the attacks of such writers as Betty Friedan, who in The Feminine Mystique (1963) equated the role of a housewife with a type of mental illness. Although McGinley, as well as some of her critics, pointed out that as a successful author, she was hardly a typical homebody. Her two books of essays, The Province of the Heart and Sixpence in Her Shoe, present witty and charming pictures of coping with daily life in the home.
After her husband died in 1972, McGinley moved to an apartment in New York City. She resided there until she died in 1978.