Housewives, workers, or both? Women in postwar America.

Written by Tina Kong

The word “housewife”, despite being simplistic and unholistic, portrayed the stereotypical woman in the 1950s, or the conforming woman at the time when the American pursued happiness and prosperity.



After a long World War, and even longer than that, one must not forget about the Great Depression that hit the states towards the end of the 1920s.


The United States finally lifted its weary head and looked ahead at its future for the first time- not that of the Far East or Europe, but solely the future of its own society and economy.


During the war, women had taken up many different jobs while the men were away at war, and between 1940 to 1945, over 5 million women entered the workforce, in the defense industry, factories, and taking up office jobs.


Some of these new opportunities served as epiphanies for women as they realized that they are capable of working in, what was previously thought, jobs exclusive to men such as the aircraft industry. And although it was a hassle to manage their children and work at the same time, women were not restricted from stepping outside of their doors.


In fact, to combat this problem, President Roosevelt approved the Community Facilities Act of 1942. Under this act, the government built its first childcare facilities. But, the above applied to whites only.


Colored women found it much more difficult to find jobs; society at the time was heavily segregated as people regarded African-Americans as the minority group. Some were able to earn higher wages working in factories and plants; however, most remained as domestic maids.


After the war, many women were laid off as men returned to fill their original positions.


The 1950s society was filled with popular culture (see the section below) that evoked and encouraged the idea of domesticity.


Women, especially white middle-class, were portrayed chasing the ideals of being housewives: giving up their employment, looking after their families, feeling loved.


However, in reality, the majority wanted to remain in employment, and by 1950, over ⅓ of the workforce were women.


So, was domesticity the real status quo, or was it just plain solitude and boredom that arose from war trauma, cold war thoughts, and the prolonged separation between loved ones?


Were women at the time fulfilling the pleasures of their husbands or those of themselves?


Although domesticity did not take its place in most women’s lives, women were redefining their motherhood. Births skyrocketed as one family averaged 3.2 children - Baby Boomers, they are called - and median marriage age dropped to 20.


Despite this, women did not believe that having a family clashed with their careers, and many remained in the labor force.


Popular culture and media


'Leave It to Beaver' was a popular family television series at the time, and it was the embodiment of postwar domesticity.



In particular, the highly-educated mother June Cleaver reflected the archetypal traits of an American housewife in the 1950s.


However, she makes it clear that she was not forced to become a housewife, which mirrors the society at the time; women did have the choice, and many did take up career-driven lives.


Nevertheless, even by governments, women were encouraged to return to take care of their families - a choice that June Cleaver willingly took up.


Opposing this view is Freidan’s book 'The Feminine Mystique'. It portrayed domesticity, and suburban houses in particular, as “comfortable concentration camps.”


Against the traditional roles of women, this book includes desperation and helplessness of “housewives” at the time, which helped give rise to feminist ideas. Freidan states “[a woman] was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – Is this all?”



Sources:

1) The 1950’s and the 1960’s and the American Woman: the transition from the ”housewife” to the feminist, Vanessa Martins Lamb

2) https://1950s.weebly.com/womens-roles.html

3) Women and Domesticity in the 1950s, Wendy Gamber


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