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Women in the 1950s

AP.USH:
ARC (Theme)
,
KC‑8.3.II.A (KC)
,
Unit 8: Learning Objective F
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.squared

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.cubed 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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Pagi Porter
    What would widowed women do in the 1950s?
    (8 votes)
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  • leafers sapling style avatar for user Adi.price
    Was it a law in that time period that all woman couldn't have a job or was it just white woman?
    (4 votes)
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    • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Benzion Chinn
      By the mid 20th century, there were few laws formally on the books that directly discriminated against women. The challenge that women faced was more at a social level. Businesses were not interested in hiring women for career positions. Lower class women worked as maids. Middle-class women worked as teachers or secretaries for a few years after school until they got married, had kids and their husbands managed to got started on their own careers. Then these women stayed home to raise the kids.
      (10 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user ac7504
    Were there signs of discontent with the status quo of the 1950s? What were they?
    (6 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Jorge Daniel Garcia
    Has the gap between opportunity for white and black women been eliminated by now?
    (2 votes)
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    • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Lachesis
      Not even close. If we use relative earnings as a proxy of general opportunity (not perfect, but not bad for a short answer), the IWPR (using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) reported the earnings of full time workers in different demographic categories as a percentage of white male (the highest paid category) earnings. White women earn about 82% of what white men make; black women earn about 68% of what white men are paid. Latinas earn about 61% of what white men make.
      (8 votes)
  • starky seedling style avatar for user Alyssa
    What happened to Latinos in the 50's? Were they categorized as "black?"
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user KaileeBug
    What is expected of the husband and/or father? Of the
    mother/wife?
    (3 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user 21owolf
      The men of the families were the breadwinners; they were the ones with the jobs, providing for their families. Women were expected to care for the children, cook, clean, shop, all those great domestic household duties.
      (3 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user Olivia Lambrigtsen
    Why were women expected to comply with society's gender roles?
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user Kayana M.
    was their any other woman at the time besides the woman who played Lucy that was a famous high achiever of that time.
    (0 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Perspective 😁
      Another high achiever was Rear Admiral Grace Hopper of the United States Naval Reserves. She was a genius in the realm of mathematics and computer engineering. She helped develop a computer for the army, Mark 1. She also helped to develops UNIVAC 1, the first commercially produced computer in the United States. Her work with computer coding led to her developing the FLO-MATIC system, most of which would later be turned into COBOL, the chief coding system of the 20th century. 26 years after she died she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama. Many people believe that Rear Admiral Hopper was one of many woman who was a victim of the Matilda Effect. The Matilda Effect occurs when a woman’s achievements are overlooked simple because of her gender. Hope it helps!
      (7 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user 19valladaresd
    What made women become so suppressed, did they know and didn't care or was it because of their social status that they couldn't? Also,why did people subject/conform to these social norms?
    (0 votes)
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    • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Roslynn
      Women just weren't considered equal to men, they were lower than men, and since they weren't equal, they couldn't do anything about it. Because that had always been how things were, no one protested against it, because there was nothing to protest. That was just regular life. That happens in eastern countries too, especially China, where boys are way more valuable than girls.
      (5 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Angelina Nguyen
    what does whitewashed mean?
    (1 vote)
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