Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question for Discussion: How did World War
II affect women's lives in the 1950s?

Reading: Hymowitz, pp. 314-340; Hoffman, pp. 320-323,

Video: Century of Women: The 1950s,
The Leave it to Beaver Show

Daily Class Web Links

American women in the 1950s

Daily Class Outline

1. Women after World War II

2. Women in the 1950s

Daily Class Questions

1. What does Chafe mean when he argues: "Any change in the nature of male and female roles thus automatically affects the home, the economy, the school, and perhaps above all, the definition of who we are as human beings"?

2. How did the massive movement of married women with children into the workforce between 1940 and 1970 change women's lives?

3. How did working change the role of married women in their families and marriages?

4. What kinds of jobs were considered "women's jobs" in the 1950s?

5. What does Hymowitz mean when she argues that "so long as women were segregated in second-class jobs, men did not have to fear competition or assume greater responsibility for their homes and children"?

6. According toe Hymowitz, what was the image of women portrayed in the mass media in the 1950s? Did this image accurately represent the reality of women's lives?

7. In the 1950s, how did married working women describe themselves and their roles in society?

8. What does Hymowitz mean when she argues that there was a "feminine mystique" in the 1950s and early 1960s?

Daily Class Notes

"Any change in the nature of male
and female roles thus automatically affects the home, the economy, the school, and perhaps above all, the definition of who we are as human beings."
......William Chafe, A History of Our Time (224)

During World War II, millions of women entered the labor force. They were encouraged to work in industrial factories to help the war effort. The United States government even created a propaganda campaign to convince women they should now work in what were considered "men's jobs," because the same skills they used doing housework would allow them to work in factories. During the war years, millions of women discovered that they could do "men's work" and could earn the higher salaries usually associated with that work. After discovering that they could work in high-paying factory jobs, the majority of women did not want to give these jobs up after World War II. This worried American leaders, business leaders, and returning American veterans, who wanted to return to their traditional high-paying factory jobs.

Faced with the resistance of many women to voluntarily give up their jobs to men, and return to their traditional, low-status sales and clerical jobs, government and business leaders created a campaign to convince women that they should be patriotic and give their men their jobs back. Television and radio ads told women that they would be much happier if they went back home and had children and gave men their jobs back. Women were told that now that the war was over they should return to their more traditional roles as housewives and mothers. Women didn't really need these jobs, but men did. In fact, from the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s there was tremendous pressure on women to accept their more traditional roles as wives and mothers, dependent on their husbands, and committed to living their lives for their families, children, and husbands.

But this campaign to encourage women to return to traditional roles often went too far. As Chafe notes:

"Yet the shrillness of the campaign went too far, suggesting the schizophrenia of American culture and society as much as any uniformity of purpose. While countless suburban housewives (and husbands) carried out their roles as written, there were just as many others who sought new options and wanted to go on changing the world."(The Paradox, 188)

Examples of this campaign going too far were ads telling women that they should enjoy doing the laundry and that they should take classes on how to be good housekeepers. We can also see the American obsession with the traditional housewife in television programs such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Indeed, June Cleaver, in Leave it to Beaver, is never shown as having a life of her own; she is always there for Wally, Beaver, and her husband. How do we then explain this obsession with convincing women that they should remain in their traditional roles in the 1950s?

The answer lies in the dramatic changes women experienced in World War II. Many married women discovered that they could work in men's jobs, could earn a good salary, and could do much of the work that men were traditionally responsible for in the family. During the war, many married women were not only forced to work to support the war effort, they were also forced to do most of the tasks that men had done around the house. With their husbands gone to war, many women discovered that they were smart enough to balance a check book, maintain the car, and run the household as their husbands had always done. When their husbands came back from the war, they discovered that their wives were more assertive, confident, and less dependent on them. This troubled many American men, who did not like the changes they saw in American women and their wives.

Faced with the threat from changing women's roles, American men, government, and business went on a campaign to convince women that they should go back to the way they were before the war, they should forget all their experiences and changes that took place during the war. They argued that it was women's patriotic duty to give their jobs back to men. If women didn't stop working, then there would be an economic depression. Just as women were scapegoated for the Great Depression, with many men charging that there wouldn't have been a depression if women had not taken the jobs that rightfully belonged to men. But, in addition to giving up their jobs, American women and wives should also respect the wishes of their men who sacrificed so much during the war and return to their more traditional roles as wives and mothers, dependent on their husbands.

Ironically, despite the increasing success of this campaign to convince women to return to their more traditional roles, millions of married women in the 1950s continued to work, and millions more entered the workforce in the 1950s and 1960s. Why were white, middle-class women, married and with children, entering the labor force in record numbers in the 1950s if the larger society was telling them that they should stay home and be traditional wives and let their husbands support them? More middle-class wives were entering the workforce than working-class wives, who might need to work to support their families. Why, if their husbands were earning good salaries, did middle-class wives begin to enter the laborforce in record numbers? After World War II, these very same women were told to give up their jobs to men. But now they were rushing into the workforce.

In the 1950s, middle-class married women were taking jobs soon after their children started school and worked for the rest of their lives. Despite working, these women were still responsible for doing all their traditional work as wives and mother in the home. Despite the pressure to stay at home and be good wives and mothers, American women were increasingly forced to work in order to keep their families middle class, and allow them to have big homes, nice cars, send their children to college, and take long vacation. Thus, at the very moment when women were told that they should ignore the changes they were experiencing as a result of World War II and their increased presence in the workforce, women were struggling to reconcile their traditional roles with their expanding confidence and independence as working wives. Studies in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that women who worked has a greater say in the finances, in the marriage, and in the family that women who didn't work. So clearly working women were expanding their roles, demanding more equality and respect from their husbands and families.

Despite these growing changes in women's roles in the 1950s, Americans were told that while some wives might be working, their work wasn't important and it shouldn't get in the way of their responsibilities as wives and mothers. Many Americans were thus trying to benefit from women's increasing participation in the workforce while at the same time denying the social and cultural changes that women's expanding roles were creating. It is this contradiction, I believe, that explains the excesses of the campaign to convince women to be happy in their traditional roles in the 1950s. This campaign for traditional women became more determined and visible as more and more women entered the workforce in 1950s. It was as if Americans were trying to convince themselves that despite the growing changes in women's roles and lives nothing was changing, that women were still content being traditional wives and mothers.

In the early 1960s, many married women were increasingly unhappy with the burdens and the contradictions they faced. They were being bombarded with cultural messages that said that good mothers and wives did not work and dedicated their lives to supporting their husbands and children, but at the same time they were increasingly forced to work to make ends meet. Some women also felt the increased burden of now having two jobs, working outside the home and trying to still do all the work that they used to do inside the home. Many women refer to this as the "double shift." By the early 1960s, feeling guilty and confused about their new roles and responsibilities, many women began to question what Betty Friedan called the feminine mystique, which told women that "they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity." In her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, Friedan challenged women to question the social and cultural messages that told women they should accept their traditional roles as wives and mothers. She challenged women to discover who they were, and develop their individual selves as human being, and not just accept what society called their destiny as women to be wives and mothers.

The women's movement in the 1960s grew out of this increasing contradiction between the growing changes in women's lives and society's efforts to convince women that these changes weren't occurring. But the demand by women that they play larger roles in their families and societies also grew out of another contradiction. At the same time that Americans were told that it was a women's destiny to be a wife and mother, society did not value women's work raising children and supporting their husbands and families. Many women came to feel that they weren't doing anything of value with their lives if they were just wives and mothers. Only by getting educated, holding good jobs, and earning high salaries could many women gain the social respect they felt they deserved. This, of course, is a real tragedy. If society more highly valued women's traditional work as wives and mothers, then many women would not feel that, as Friedan charged, the home was "a comfortable concentration camp."

But the rise of the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s, as we will see, led to the growth of a backlash and a movement by conservative men and women in the 1980s and early 1990s to once again convince women that it is their destiny to be wives and mothers, dependent on their husbands, living their lives through their children and family. This backlash in response to the gains of the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s once again demonstrates that American society, especially men, fear changing women's roles and will work hard to try to keep women in their traditional places as wives and mothers. It was, in fact, a similar backlash after World War II that tried to convince women that their changing roles and lives weren't in fact changing at all, they were still happy being traditional wives and mothers. Why, then, does America tend to be so obsessed with limiting women's roles? What is it about women's traditional roles that is so important to the workings of American society and culture? We will look at the struggle over the women's movement and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1960s and 1970s to get a better understanding of this.

© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 5 Nov. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/fifties.htm
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