Learn about the myths and realities of women's lives during the 1950s.

Overview

  • Though the 1950s was in many ways a period of conformity with traditional gender roles, it was also a decade of change, when discontent with the status quo was emerging.
  • Popular culture and the mass media reinforced messages about traditional gender roles, consumer culture, and the Cold War ideal of domesticity, but the reality of women’s lives did not always reflect these ideals.
  • African American women faced particular difficulties in the pursuit of postwar material abundance and the “American dream.” Popular portrayals of ideal femininity and home life ignored the lives of minority women and families.

Conformity and the 1950s

The 1950s is often viewed as a period of conformity, when both men and women observed strict gender roles and complied with society’s expectations. After the devastation of the Great Depression and World War II, many Americans sought to build a peaceful and prosperous society. However, even though certain gender roles and norms were socially enforced, the 1950s was not as conformist as is sometimes portrayed, and discontent with the status quo bubbled just beneath the surface of the placid peacetime society. Although women were expected to identify primarily as wives and mothers and to eschew work outside of the home, women continued to make up a significant proportion of the postwar labor force. Moreover, the 1950s witnessed significant changes in patterns of sexual behavior, which would ultimately lead to the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s.

Changing social trends following World War II

Demobilization at the end of World War II brought a great many changes. Millions of women who had joined the workforce during the war were displaced by returning soldiers. Messages in popular culture and the mass media encouraged these women to give up their jobs and return quietly to domestic life. Most women, however, wished to keep their jobs, and thus women made up approximately one-third of the peacetime labor force.start superscript, 1, end superscript
During the 1950s, marriage and homeownership rates skyrocketed, so there is no doubt that many Americans were content to pursue the “American dream.” These trends were aided by suburbanization and the mass production of automobiles. Cars allowed Americans who lived in the suburbs to commute easily into urban areas for work. Cars not only changed work and housing patterns, but also facilitated the rise of new sexual norms. They provided young couples with a place to spend time together alone, away from the prying eyes of parents and other members of the community. This, in turn, led to a rise in premarital sex and birth rates. Thus, patterns of sexual behavior were changing even as the traditional ideal continued to insist upon marriage before sex.
Between 1946 and 1964, the largest generation of Americans, known as the baby boomers, was born. This demographic trend in turn reinforced women’s identities as wives and mothers. Despite societal norms that encouraged women to stay in the home and out of the workplace, approximately forty percent of women with young children, and at least half of women with older children, chose to remain in the work force.start superscript, 2, end superscript

Cold War domesticity and popular culture

Gender roles in the 1950s were intimately connected to the Cold War. The term nuclear family emerged to describe and encourage the stability of the family as the essential building block of a strong and healthy society. In this view, a woman played a crucial role in waging the Cold War, by keeping the family unit strong and intact. She could do this best, it was thought, by remaining at home to take care of her husband and children, and refusing to pursue a career. Thus was a link forged between traditional gender roles and national security.
Moreover, because the Cold War was also a competition between two very different economic systems, the virtues of capitalism were touted as proving the superiority of the United States over the Soviet Union. Capitalism revolved around the exchange of goods and services in the marketplace, and so identifying with consumer culture became a way of waging the Cold War. Women, traditionally expected to do most of the shopping for the household, were encouraged to identify as patriotic Americans by being savvy consumers.
Black-and-white photograph depicting actress Lucille Ball with husband and actor Desi Arnaz. Ball is holding a finger to her lips and opening her eyes very wide, and Arnaz is making an exaggerated pout. The photograph emphasizes their silly personalities.
Publicity photograph of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. I Love Lucy both confirmed and undermined 1950s gender norms for white women, as Ball herself was a successful entertainer but her on-screen character repeatedly failed at working outside the home. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The norms of consumer culture and domesticity were disseminated via new and popular forms of entertainment – not just the television, which became a fixture in middle-class American households during the 1950s, but also women’s magazines, popular psychology, and cinema.start superscript, 3, end superscript Shows promoting the values of domesticity, like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, became especially popular. These shows portrayed the primary roles of women as wives and mothers. Lucille Ball, in I Love Lucy, inevitably met with disaster whenever she pursued job opportunities or interests that took her outside of the household. On the other hand, the fact that every episode revolved around Lucy’s attempts to pursue outside interests indicated her discontent with remaining at home.start superscript, 4, end superscript Moreover, Lucille Ball, while playing the role of a hapless housewife on TV, was in reality a highly successful actress and producer, and thus challenged society’s expectations of women.

African American women in the 1950s

It is important to remember that the ideal of domesticity was primarily aimed at middle-class white women. African American women, as well as women of lower socioeconomic standing, were not portrayed in popular culture as wives and mothers; in fact, these women were hardly portrayed at all. Although African Americans have been hugely influential in popular culture throughout the twentieth century, the 1950s were a very “whitewashed” decade from the standpoint of the mass media.start superscript, 5, end superscript Additionally, many African American women were forced by economic necessity to work outside of the home, and were thus excluded from the postwar ideal of domesticity.

What do you think?

Who benefited the most from the postwar surge in material abundance?
Were there signs of discontent with the status quo of the 1950s? What were they?
How did the imperatives of the Cold War shape gender roles and society’s expectations of women?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. See "The Challenges of Peacetime," OpenStax College, U.S. History. OpenStax CNX. May 15, 2015.
  2. See "The American Dream," OpenStax College, U.S. History. OpenStax CNX. May 15, 2015.
  3. For more on gender roles and popular culture, see Susan J. Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1994).
  4. Paul S. Boyer, Promises to Keep: The United States since World War II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 87.
  5. See Aniko Bodroghkozy, “Television and the Civil Rights Era,” in Todd Boyd, ed., African-Americans and Popular Culture, Volume I: Theater, Film, and Television (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008), 141-164.