We are lead to believe through various forms of media that the 1950s was a time of vast economic growth, a time of social change and awareness, and a time where women were particularly satisfied returning to their place in the home after the Second world War. Only part of this understanding reigns true. The concept of conformity is arguably a strategic move in an aim to prevent suspicion of being allied with the enemy of the decade; communism. Surrounding women with materialistic “necessities” to improve the home and the emphasis on family life and gender roles within the 1950s quickly showed women their place within society. Although white, middle-class, suburban women of America were presumably happy, they had everything they had ever wanted; the social expectation to conform to gender roles had consequences.
The political climate within the post- World War II decade was chaotic. The fear of communism manifested in many aspects of daily life, deeply rooting the concept of conformity with Americans. In the fight against communism, Senator Joe McCarthy allowed for a series of witch hunts against those he considered working with communists. Characteristics such as being a member of a liberation group, being homosexual, having differing political views and simply going against the grain were all considered plausible reasons for communist accusation. With the consequences of such accusations being job loss, being socially ostracized and in some cases, public named, it therefore became increasingly crucial to fit in. The paradigms of what was considered normal began to rapidly shrink. The expected characteristics of women such as beautiful, healthy, with an education that is relevant but does not exceed that of her husbands, were emphasised. There as an expectation to stay home and care for the children and home and that a Woman’s happiness relied primarily on her children, home and husband. There was also an increasing emphasis on what was considered feminine, often making note that women in the workforce was unfeminine. National heroines such as Rosy the Riveter were replaced by pictures of homemakers. Not conforming to such understanding of femininity made way for suspicion of communist activities, which was an accusation many could not socially or monetarily afford.
Betty Friedan’s research into the lives of 1905s middle-class, white, women within the United States allowed for a new kind of understanding of American women within the 1950s. Friedan’s research emphasized that women were in fact, incredibly unhappy. Friedan initially refers to this as ‘the problem that has no name’, and tries to intricately analyse every aspect of white, middle-class life, in order to address such a problem. Friedan explains that women are “kept from growing to their full capabilities” and explains that the problem, which she later calls The Feminine Mystique, is more significant than any form of mental health with America at that time. Through copious firsthand accounts, Friedan defines the problem as “feelings of failure and nothingness”, feelings of “is this all”, guilt, and a longing for some unknown absence. Women regularly felt guilty for experiencing such feelings when they were told by society that their happiness relied on the happiness of their children and husband. Magazines such as Good Housekeeping printed articles such as “Why I Quit Work”, playing upon the notion that women with careers should also feel guilty.
With the new idea of femininity as the idea of working within the home, women with careers were therefore not conforming to social expectations. Women that were blacklisted by McCarthy, such as Esther Brunauer, Dorothy Kenyon and Mary Jane Keeney all arouse attention through the media through the accusations towards them of communist relations. Newspapers were quick to reveal the job status and accusation of each woman. Making the cases of each of these women public increased the chances of them being both socially ostracized and losing their jobs. It is therefore plausible to assume that not conforming to social expectations aroused suspicion regarding the woman’s place within society, and possibly her involvement with communist associations. In cases such as Esther Brunauer, personal threats were made against her and her family, after the case was made against her in 1951. Job loss, becoming social outcasts, and being labelled a communist was questionably enough to make women conform to social expectations.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. (W.W. Norton: New York, 1963)
Friedan, Betty. Life So Far: A Memoir. (Simon and Schuster, 2006)
Coontz, Stephanie. A Strange Stirring: The feminine Mystique and American Women at te Dawn of the 1960s. (basic Books: New York, 2011)