“I Had Everything A Woman Was Supposed To Want… And I Was Miserable”- How the Social Expecation to Conform Impacted Upon The Lives of Women in 1950s America.

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.

      

Why conform?
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.

Friedan

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.

Betty Friedan

Career Women

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.

Further reading

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)

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6 comments on ““I Had Everything A Woman Was Supposed To Want… And I Was Miserable”- How the Social Expecation to Conform Impacted Upon The Lives of Women in 1950s America.

  1. This is an interesting discussion considering how common and often expected it is today for women to have careers, even those who are parents. I actually talking to friends recently about how my grandma for instance worked in the ammunitions factory during WWII and how, as shown in the movie ‘A League of Their Own’ women stepped up into mens’ roles, even in the baseball league, to account for the many men overseas serving their country. Possibly due to the generation I grew up in and the hindsight I have, it seems ridiculous that after having these jobs and experiences during war that women wouldn’t have found interests and have the desire to further their skills in the future. It’s like expecting a child to crawl everywhere once they have learnt to walk.
    Further inline with your research it is shocking to see the way women, who nowadays would be considered heroines, were condemned and named as communist due to their desire to have interests outside of the home.
    By providing clear headings for your points, this too make your blog easier to read and comprehend.

  2. olwenh12 says:

    Wow, this was so fascinating to read! I would love to read your whole essay. I had no idea that there were these kinds of pressures enforced on women to conform during this period. I mean I was always aware of the expectation that was placed on women to leave the work force but I had no idea of the extent.

    In your research were you able to find out why there was such pressure to throwback to a society since before the war? Was it linked to ideas of nostalgia (American society being better before 1930s) or was it for another reason, like concepts of masculinity and economic functionality which drove this ideal of women’s roles?

    Also in your opinion do you believe that it was these attitudes and as you stated, unhappiness which fostered a real need for change and liberation that came about in the 60’s and 70’s?

    Again really interesting topic!

  3. sarahdavies1 says:

    Thanks for the interesting post! Whilst I had assumptions that many women throughout this period would have felt professional unfulfilled, which would in turn lead to personal unfulfillment, I had never considered the link between ambitious and working women of the time and communist involvement.

    I feel sympathy for these women, who would have got a taste of freedom and their own ability during the war years, only to have it stripped of them when men returned and they were no longer needed. To associate those who continued to hold on to their independance with communist conspiracy would have added insult to injury.

    Your post was well written and interesting, and has inspired me to learn more about this period! Thank you.

  4. An absolutely intriguing read! As a male, I usually intrinsically avoid women’s history /feminist history, just because I find difficulty associating with it. The title of your research got me straight away “I had everything..yet I was miserable.” I’ve always viewed the 50s as the ideal decade. Where people (and especially men) had just few concerns. All they needed was a family, a house with the white picket fence, and a job. Yet it’s exactly this idea, the American dream for men, that you really convincingly argue is what made many women of the post world war two era so depressed. Conformity can provide a sense a comfort, indeed safety with the omnipresent threat of communism, but as you mention, the pressure to conform as explored by Friedan, limits the capabilities of women. I especially loved the idea that the emphasis on gender roles and social expectations of women causes a “problem with no name”, invoking ideas of a lost or forgotten history.

    What I really like and appreciate about this piece, is the inclusion and the acknowledgement of how the male role fits into this history. That one can’t just understand the male gender role, or the female gender role, without acknowledging the other. They are inextricably linked and effect each other. That the social order told women that “their happiness relied on the happiness of their children and husband.” Most of all, what I took away from this, is how the American dream is really not that. It’s the American male’s dream, that left women with an emptiness, and a desire for more. Really enjoyed it!

  5. brebailey92 says:

    This was a great blog post to read as it examines the role of historical memory and how two conflicting ideas of the 1950’s have been presented:
    1) America as a conformist, unified society; and
    2) A hotpot for disatisfaction.

    It is almost ironic that the 1950’s, a time symbolised by awareness, new technologies and social change, witnessed the subordination of women. The author has pointed out that this is mainly due to political purposes: the fear of communism lead to widespread, conformist ideas of how women were to act and respond. This is almost ironic considering that propoganda of communism stated that communist societies were identical and that nobody was unique.

    The question that rose for me in reading this blog post was ‘why was it that post war American society became so insular in its attitudes to women’? I think a study on nostalgia and a yearning for ‘simpler days’ would fit in well here.

    Overall a great blog post, I was really fascinated at the treatment of dissenting women. Well done!

    • I would have to agree with the above posts, your blog was a very interesting read. I have studied the representations of women during World War II in Australia for another subject and it is so interesting to note that although women enjoyed, the freedoms and ability to ‘live in a mans world’, whilst they were at war this still did not satisfy majority of women. Instead they chose to return to their traditional roles as domestic servants and child bearers. The politics of communism is very interesting as leaders and society would consider them outsiders, ‘communist’ if they did not return to their original roles before the war started.

      In Australia the government at the time were so worried that women would not conform, when their men returned that they used laws and propaganda to stress that this would only be a ‘temporary’ change and not to get too comfortable. Women’s history is very fascinating to me and to think being women of the 21st century a considerable amount of change has come out of the struggle for equality. Nevertheless, women all over the world are still being subdued to return to the original role of a woman.

      Well done!!!

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