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From the roaring twenties through World War II, women lived autonomously and independently relative to their male counterparts. During these years, women fought for their place in society, challenging patriarchal norms to receive liberties in the spectrums concerning sex, employment, and voting. The postwar era brought about nineteenth century conservative ideals, encouraging women to not pursue a career and instead maintain their suburban homes and attend to their families. While these traditionalist ideals of domesticity were reinforced by consumer capitalism and the media, women stood at a crossfire between conforming to the norm and working outside of the home.
The stock market crash of 1929 sparked America’s entrance into the Great Depression. The overproduction of consumer goods, extension of consumer credit, and speculation of suspicious real estate brought the prosperous era of rapid mass production to an end. Ten million plus Americans lost their savings as mass unemployment caused the liquidation of assets. At the collapse of cities tied to the steel and auto industries, unemployment upset the balance in many families by undermining the traditional authority of the male breadwinner.
Many males deserted their families and moved southwest in search of employment. Women held onto their jobs more easily and although they earned less than their male counterparts as clerks, secretaries, maids, and waitresses, their jobs were more likely to survive amid the economic rigors of the time.
The United States’ entrance into World War II in 1942 ended the economic desperation American families faced during the Great Depression. As men joined the armed forces to fight the war abroad, labor shortages required the recruitment of women into the industrial workforce.
Women were encouraged to “take a job for (their) husband, son, brother” and to “keep the world safe for (their) children.” Originally dominated by males, the demand for labor drew women into the workplace, having the war recruit approximately ten million women into the defense industries. This increased the female labor force by more than 50 percent, reaching 19.5 million women in 1945. Companies opened positions for women in nontraditional jobs, serving as automobile and electrical workers, as well as soldiers in non-combat roles in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). Campaigns such as those of J. Howard Miller’s Rosie the Riveter, and news reels such as Glamor Girls of ‘43, created a united front that showed women working in the defense industry. The working woman was portrayed as a strong woman in her blue uniform with her union button displayed. At the same time, she wore makeup to represent her femininity. This spoke to the anxieties society had towards women replacing the jobs of men. It emphasized gender should not be taken into account in terms of work and how fulfilling these roles did not de-womanize women in any way. To further reassure that women entering the workforce would not change gender roles, the United States military subsidized millions of girls to be photographed in order to dispatch posters to military men. The 1943 Pinups consisted of women who were photographed dressed in revealing clothing and posed seductively, exhibiting an aura of extreme heterosexuality. It held to the promise that at the return of a soldier’s deployment, they would be welcomed by the femininity of their women.
While multiple measures were taken to put at ease the anxieties American society held, the worry still persisted. Norman Rockwell’s updated version of Rosie the Riveter depicted a more masculinized woman during her lunch break with a riveter slung across her lap and her foot crushing Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf. While her femininity still remained, represented in the makeup that she wore, the ambiance she gave as a woman who was working to support her family and male counterparts abroad, while at the same time becoming a woman who was becoming more aware of the world socially, instilled fear into American society of women becoming more than their husband’s accessory of a wife.
Both the Great Depression and World War II served as driving factors for movements of women to enter positions of equity as waged workers. At the end of World War II, the return of soldiers displaced women from their industrial jobs. The war served as the biggest money machine, pulling America out of its economic depression. To retain its position, funding was directed towards the military and industrial complex, producing commodity goods. While the presence of colonial culture was weakened abroad, civil uprisings formed against colonial repression in places like Vietnam, Central America, and Africa. Movements to establish democracy brought about George F. Kennan’s “strategy of containment.” At the time, Harry S. Truman viewed the Soviet Union as an aggressive expansionist and threat to American prosperity. As the Cold War intensified, the second wave of the Red Scare took over American culture, classifying radical and far left activity of any individual as communist. Kennan’s proposals to crush communism moved beyond the plans of establishing democracy abroad and entered the boundaries of the United States, causing repression of union organizers, dissenters, and homosexuals. The fifties became an era of fear, with atomic war and the end of post war prosperity as its main motivators.
The atomic culture of the time made people turn inwards, and a need for security from the outside world created a push for homogenous suburban communities. Suburban housing communities, like those of Levittown and Lakewood, emerged from the late 1940s through the 1950s with the start of loans and mortgages. Security in suburbia ensued from the idea of “after total war comes total living,” consisting of anticommunism, patriotism, and mass consumerism. The transition from a wartime economy to one of peace caused the reallocation of wealth, expanding the middle class. Within the confines of the suburbs, 600 square feet homes housed heteronormative procreative families. The autonomy women experienced during the years of the Great Depression and second World War was replaced with patriarchal control. The construct of happy wives depicted women of the 1950s as those of their ancestors in the nineteenth century: maintaining their homes, accommodating their men’s needs, and rearing their children. The nuclear family served as a model in molding individuals into building a strong society, thus forming the link between traditional gender roles and protection of the country’s principles.
Women working for wages was frowned upon. Popular opinion urged women to remain home and encouraged consumption of consumer goods. Society wanted women to view their lives in the suburbs as a reward from the hard work given from the prior years. An emphasis on happiness doing feminized jobs pressured women to fall into their roles. Failure to do so demarcated them as not assimilating to American ideals, thus being a communist. While these ideals of domesticity were reinforced by society and the media, many women found that these ideals did not reflect their everyday lives. Women worked for economic necessity; for millions of suburban families only two incomes could yield the middle-class life. By 1960, 40 percent of women were employed, and 30 percent of married women looked to supplement the family income.
Identifying with consumer culture became a way of being active and submerged in the Cold War. Women were encouraged to be active consumers in order to identify as patriotic Americans. Postwar prosperity caused new families to fall into spending sprees, and by the end of Truman’s term, two-thirds of American households had a television set. The television served as the main form of advertisement of commercial goods targeted towards the suburban woman. Advertisements focalized on household products that could better enhance the suburban woman’s home. The consumption of these products, either being the purchase of soap or underground bunkers, highlights how markets targeted women to fall into the traps of consumer culture in exchange for the suppression of the anxieties they held regarding the safety of their families.
Additionally, the television served as the linkage between media of shows that brought upon the conservative ideals of the 1950s. In I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball pursues job opportunities that take her outside of the household, each time met with disaster. While it underlined the traditionalist ideals that society held over women entering the workforce, I Love Lucy was a popular sitcom amongst families. Along with other shows that promoted the value of domesticity, the marketing of television sets emphasized their role in fostering family togetherness. It speaks to how consumer culture tied with the media immersed families into the societal ideals of gender and the home.
Marilyn Monroe serves as the embodiment of 1950s American anxieties of sex, gender, and family. As an actress, she was transformed to fit the American ideal that represented white sexuality and heteronormative desires. Her fame grew within the film industry because of her roles as a dangerous femme fatale. In her later movies (Don’t Bother to Knock, 1952), her sexuality became toned down, resembling the tension in containing women’s sexuality within the household. At the start of her career, she posed nude for a photographer. Initially, the photos were never released. Later on in her career, the photographer sold Monroe’s photos to Hugh Hefner, making her the centerfold of PlayBoy Magazine. While it was met with a positive reaction from the public, Marilyn had lost control of her image. Her personal life, consisting of failed marriages and miscarriages along with her work and health, greatly depicted how she could not fit her life into the realms of the procreative normality. The complication of who she actually was and what her public image represented draws parallels to suburban women and the clash between societal ideals and the roles they played in their everyday lives.
The depiction of the perfect suburban wife hid the dull duties of housework, child rearing, and boredom. In the 1950s, Betty Friedan found the reality of the lives of women varied from what they were trying to conform to. Her findings were later published in The Feminine Mystique which highlighted the frustrations of suburban women. Additional findings that demonstrated female defiance of the norms were the Kinsey Reports. The 1953 studies yielded information regarding the population acting in opposition to the set expectations for sexual behavior. Similarly, pulp fiction demonstrated the tensions between expectations and realities of sexuality regarding interracial sex, homosexuality, and preference to be single.
The growing autonomous woman from the eras of the Great Depression and World War II became replaced with the patriarchally controlled suburban wife. The postwar economic boom pushed for the creation of suburban housing communities to shield families from the dangers the Cold War brought. The marketing of consumer goods along with the media promoted traditionalist ideals during the 1950s. While these standards pressured women to assimilate to American ideals, they found that these standards were not in line with their everyday duties and in fact masked the dullness of their household routines. Books, and even that of the famous Marilyn Monroe, voiced the tensions in gender roles between expectation and reality.
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