Women of 1950s. The Truth behind White Picket Fence

Essay, 2014

17 Pages, Grade: 5.0


Table Of Content


Suburbia’s Domestic Divas of 1950s and the Politics of Domestic Containment

Repressive Hypothesis - Social Obsession with Purity

Ugly Face of the Repressive Hypothesis

The Impact of Household Containment and Repressive Hypothesis on 1950s Housewives

The Attitude of Americans towards Depression and Mental Illness in 1950s



If you were a woman reading this magazine 40 years ago, the odds were good that your husband provided the money to buy it. That you voted the same way he did. That if you got breast cancer, he might be asked to sign the form authorizing a mastectomy. That your son was heading to college but not your daughter. That your boss, if you had a job, could explain that he was paying you less because, after all, you were probably working just for pocket money (Gibbs, 2009 online).

Susan Levine, in her book Degrees of Equality: The American Association of University Women and the Challenge of Twentieth-Century Feminism claims that “by most accounts, the women’s movement died during the 1950s. Described by some as ‘the doldrums’ and by others as an era in which the search for security after two decades of depression and war led American women to focus on family life to the exclusion of public concerns, the 1950s appears to be a decade of passivity and domesticity” (Levine, 1995 p. 67).

We can obviously say that it is true, however, there was the other – stronger, political force, which actually caused that situation and it would be short-sighted to claim that the women were actually the ones that shaped the world around them to become safely stuck in suburban houses as domestic divas of 1950s. In reality, the American social culture at the time was entirely based on the family. In that respect, the social organization relied on the traditional notions of the male and female role in the family: it was a model of community based on stereotypes.

In this paper I intend to present the American society in the 1950s, with special focus on the women’s situation in that era. In order to achieve this, I will at first discuss how the development of the contemporaries’ dream – living in suburbia, led to the phenomenon of the domestic containment. Next, I will focus on the social obsession with purity, which was dictated by the political situation of this period. With that, I would like to stress how loneliness in suburbia, combined with politically warped morality influenced the psyche of the American women. I will explain the issue of the ‘repressive hypothesis’, as well as the problem of Valium-like substances abuse by the housewives. The final aspect which I will deal with is the 1950s’ attitude towards mental breakdowns and illnesses, which, due to previously mentioned issues, were common among the American women.

Suburbia’s Domestic Divas of 1950s and the Politics of Domestic Containment

Marriage in that period became an unbelievable powerful institution; young people were not concerned if they were going to get married, but when and with whom? Young women were not supposed to doubt whether having babies is fine with them, but only how many babies they were going to have. According to Harvey, the Americans were getting married earlier than ever and “the median marriage age dropped from 24.3 to 22.6 for men and from 21.5 to 20.4 for women” (Harvey, 2002 p. 69).

Most young couples had children as soon as they got married and Lambs states that women had “an average of 3.2 children before their late twenties” (Lambs, 2011, p. 9). The author of The 1950’s and 1960’s and the American Woman: the transition from the “housewife” to the feminist makes it clear that in contrast to common beliefs, large percentage of the housewives were actually highly educated women, nevertheless the widespread social perception that “family and books don’t mix” was still extremely rooted in people (Lambs, 2011 p. 10). One can ask, what were the factors that were behind this frenzy rush into domesticity? It seems important to realize that after the war, which was the time of difficulties and deprivation, young people simply were attempting to rebuild a normalcy, have lives immersed in the new post-war prosperity. However, there was more than that which was in fact making the Americans early couples with bunch of children; “it was a general attempt to elevate family and domesticity into a national obsession, as Lambs claims” (2011 p. 10).

There is also the reasonable question ‘Why did the young Americans agreed to those marriages and parenthood with such enthusiasm and dedication?’ The fact is that scholars and observers of the postwar era often point out to the connections between the cold war politics, suburban development, race relations, and the domestic ideal. Accordingly, the context of the cold war refers to earlier unnoticed link between political and familial values. According to Elaine T. May “Political opportunists like Senator Joseph McCarthy preyed upon these anticommunist sentiments. McCarthyism targeted perceived internal dangers, not external threats. […] Anticommunist crusaders called on Americans to strengthen their moral fiber in order to preserve their freedom and their security. A society weakened by luxury and decadence would be vulnerable to subversion from within” (May, 2008 p. 12-13).

From that, there were only minute steps towards re-shaping the political containment into domestic containment in which there was only one type of ‘casualty’ – women, locked out in the new surrounding of comfortable suburbs.

Jane De Hart has explored the theme of domestic containment more fully in several essays that explore gender relations and national identity during the Cold War. She also is certain that in times of national crisis “formative configurations of gender, sexuality and nationhood” are “often reasserted, sometimes coercively, in constructions of national identity” (De Hart, 2001 p. 143). Domestic containment operated in the 1950s at a time when “fear of communism permeated American life” and policymakers believed that “stable family life [was] necessary for personal and national security as well as supremacy over the Soviet Union” (125).

Referring to 1950’s “dream come true”, which was by all standards living in the suburbs, G. Matthews says that: “Critics of suburbanization point to a number of problems they believe it created. For a housewife in the1950s, a suburb was frequently lonely and isolating in those years before women went out to work in large numbers” (2000, p. 304).

On the other hand, during her research for actual references regarding the lifestyle and feminine feelings in the 1950’s, B. Harvey describes some women’s reflections on finally getting a house for their families: “The house was surrounded by a lake of mud. But I was thrilled – it was a very exciting thing to have a house of your own. And everything you dreamed about was there, everything was working, brand-new, no cockroaches. You got a beautiful stainless steel sink with two drains, cabinets, drawers, a three-burner General Electric stove with oven, a Bendix washing machine. The only thing I had to buy for the house when we moved in was a fluorescent tube over the kitchen sink- the fixture was even there!” (Harvey, 2002 p. 113)

With that picture in mind – new house, new appliances, everything ‘cookie-cutter’ pretty, the life in the suburbs looked encouraging, if not tempting. It is obvious that people were relatively further from the city centers but all job opportunities were still available, families lived in comfortable houses, had nice, big gardens and the social life was blooming between all of those who moved there. As Lambs presents it: “Barbecues, associations, cocktail parties and different types of popular activities were a part of everyday life for these families” (Lambs, 2011 p. 5).

Furthermore, many people believed that their children would receive a better education in suburban schools (Matthews, 2000 p. 305).

In this society driven by the need to reproduce as much as one could – just to fight back the Communists, children were the obvious center of the suburban life, as well as the reason why so many families decided to leave big cities and transfer to these areas where the feeling of safety and community were dominant. Lambs quotes Carol Freeman’s recollection of suburban life in 1950s: “It was a warm, boring, completely child-centered little culture. We sat around in each other’s kitchens and backyards and drank a lot of coffee and smoked a million cigarettes and talked about our children” (Lambs, 2011, p. 6). In the early years, the suburbs were not connected with the cities by means of public transportation and still not many people owned cars. That actually made neighbors even closer, when they helped each other and shared cars to transport their children. Accordingly, women were forming tight groups which mutually helped and supported each other.

But isolation was there, ever-slightly looming, creeping to all those women left for hours in the suburbs, with their brand new TV sets booming scary information regarding the potential communistic threat. And, to add to this isolation, there was another aspect which bound the women of 1950s to become nearly schizophrenic – they were supposed to remain pure morally, stick to submissive role of wives eagerly awaiting their husbands arrival from work.

It is the fact that, the role of the women in the 1950 – a unique template of perfectness was created for the purpose of all society that all women had to identify with. Women needed to be ideal mothers, caring wives and smart homemakers. However, this perfection was deeply connected with social standards, due to the fact that raising of the new generation was extremely important at this time, therefore the women worked diligently to make it happen and to make it successfully.

Such model of the society, stemming from the striking division between the masculine and feminine roles was, as it was explained above, created by the government but it was cleverly propagated by the means of communication such as TV, magazines or radio programs. The verbalism of this model, nicknamed by B. Friedan as “feminine mystique”, was one of the main missions as far as the women’s magazines of the 1950’s are concerned. In her renowned work, B. Friedan writes:

The image of woman that emerges from this big, pretty magazine is young and frivolous, almost childlike; fluffy and female; passive; gaily content in a world of bedroom and kitchen, sex, babies and home. The magazine surely does not leave out sex; the only passion, the only pursuit, the only goal has woman is permitted is the pursuit of a man. It is crammed full of food, clothing, cosmetics, furniture, and the physical bodies of young women, but where is the world of thought and ideas, the life of the mind and spirit? In the magazine image, women do no work except housework and work to keep their bodies beautiful and to get and keep a man (Friedan, 1997 p. 82).

In order to support the opinion, that media had its huge role in solidifying the image of ‘domestic diva’, N. Walker explains the importance of feminine magazines in the construction of a national definition on women’s role in society and the standards of middle-class: “A survey of the magazines’ contents from 1940 until the late 1950’s shows both an expanding definition of the domestic – to include national holydays and psychological adjustment- and an increased emphasis on the possibility of improvement in all areas of life” (Walker, 2000 p. 31).

In 1950’s Home Economics textbook intended for the high school girls, taught how to prepare for married life. In accordance with it, women had the sole purpose of creating the heavenly port for their husbands, where everything was working perfectly and was centered around breadwinner – husband.

And so – although contained in their suburban realms and living both the dream life of wife in modern house and a scared woman in the nuclear threat era, 1950’s housewives had another aspect to be aware of – the moral standards they had to keep up.

Repressive Hypothesis - Social Obsession with Purity

As it was already discussed above, it was the social desire to form the unified front of purity, moral values and the image of family which would be strong enough to overpower lurking threat of Communism. However, the shape it took, the determination of those involved in the whole process, cannot solely be ascribed to fascist-like approach of Joseph McCarthy to sexuality and purity in general.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Women of 1950s. The Truth behind White Picket Fence
Jan Kochanowski University of Humanities and Sciences in Kielce
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ISBN (Book)
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American women, 1950, repressive hypothesis, domestic containment, housewife, malady, depression, drugs, politics, mommy's little helper, sex, feminism
Quote paper
Marta Zapała-Kraj (Author), 2014, Women of 1950s. The Truth behind White Picket Fence, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/288329


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