No Suburban Housewife: The Other Women of the 1950s

The dominant social construction of womanhood from 1945 to 1960, which became the dominant historical image of women later on, was one of the suburban housewife and mother — white, middle-class, straight, and patriotic, she was content to cook, care for the home, and raise children.[1] But as Not June Cleaver, edited by historian Joanne Meyerowitz, demonstrates, the postwar era was far more complicated. Women were politicians, workers, union organizers, and strikers; they were Communists, peace activists, and secret abortionists; women were city-dwelling Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, black Americans; they were lesbians with cultural creations, Beatniks who ran away from home, the poor just trying to survive, and tireless organizers pushing for civil rights and gender equality, whose efforts would expand in the 1960s.[2] Though an anthology with the works of many historians, Meyerowitz’s text argues that women had more agency and more diverse experiences and ideologies than the historiography acknowledged; it “aims…to subvert the persistent stereotype of domestic, quiescent, suburban womanhood.”[3] She further demonstrates that the postwar literature and “public discourse on women was more complex than portrayed” in works such as Betty Friedan’s famous The Feminine Mystique, which positioned women as well-trapped in the home, thanks to inculcating cultural messaging.[4] Yet, as we will see, magazines and other media could in fact push back against the gender ideal and show this other side of the age.[5] Let’s look closely at three papers in the text, each revealing how women broke the mold.

Donna Penn’s “The Sexualized Woman: The Lesbian, the Prostitute, and the Containment of Female Sexuality in Postwar America” examines the lives of lesbian women of the era and the larger society’s changing reactions to their existence. For a time adorned by the stereotype of the heterosexual wife, there was considerable effort — in films, books, articles by social scientists, and so on — expended on vilifying lesbianism in a harsher manner compared to prior decades, for instance by beginning to link gay women to the pre-established categorization of prostitutes as fallen women, sexual deviants in a criminal underworld.[6] “Many prostitutes,” one expert wrote, “are latent homosexuals insofar as they resort to sexual excesses with many men to convince themselves that they are heterosexual.”[7] Lesbians were often prostitutes, prostitutes were often lesbians, it was asserted — and prostitutes, as everyone knew, were of the wicked underbelly of society.[8] This was different from the dominant prewar image of lesbians as refined middle-class women with lifelong female partners, otherwise respectable.[9] Though some lesbians took assumptions of sexual depravity to heart, struggling with sexual identity under restrictive social norms and pressures, others pushed back against demonization.[10] Defiant appearances in public, building community at lesbian bars, writing lesbian pulp fiction and articles, and more signaled a right to exist and to live true to the self.[11] More intimately, a culture of “sexual ceremony and dialogue” developed that gave lesbians a coded language to express interest beyond the repressive gaze of the larger society, and which also subtlety subverted gender norms when butch women, who mirrored the man in heterosexual relationships, made giving pleasure, rather than receiving it, their “foremost objective.”[12]

In “The ‘Other’ Fifties: Beats and Bad Girls,” Wini Breines shows the extent to which women and girls sought to escape from their dull, prescriptive futures as homemakers. Rather than happy in their place, as the standard image of the postwar era suggests, some dreaded “a life where nothing ever happened. I looked around me and saw women ironing dresses and hanging out clothes and shopping for food and playing mah-jong on hot summer afternoons, and I knew I couldn’t bear to spend my life that way, day after drab day, with nothing ever happening. The world of women seemed to me like a huge, airless prison…”[13] So, like boys and men, girls and women became or imitated Beats, the free-spirited artists, writers, and musicians of New York City who rebelled against mainstream society, its conservatism, materialism, religiosity, male careerism, and so forth.[14] Women and teens enjoyed rock and roll, jazz, sex, intellectual discourse, racial integration and black culture, bad boys, drugs, artistic creativity, Buddhism, and other experiences that they described as “Real Life,” an existence “dramatic, unpredictable, possibly dangerous. Therefore real, infinitely more worth having.”[15] Not only did these exciting countercultural lives undermine the happy housewife trope, they contradicted the hegemonic ideal of girlhood — properly behaved, virginal, neatly dressed and done up, hanging out “around the malt shop” — found in magazines, novels, films, and other cultural outlets.[16] Rebellious females also contradicted the notion, pushed by social commentators, that problem children of this generation were exclusively boys, who, unlike girls, were expected to make something of themselves, but were failing to do so after falling into delinquency, hipsterism, doping, and the rest.[17] Although the stories of female Beatniks would not be well-captured until memoirs printed in the 1970s, the 1950s saw films like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause, which displayed girls’ interest in troublemakers and bad boys.[18]

Finally, there’s Deborah Gerson’s “Is Family Devotion Now Subversive? Familialism Against McCarthyism,” wherein the mainstream construction of American womanhood is shattered by women running their households without their husbands, organizing, and speaking up for Communism and free speech. When the Smith Act of 1940 eventually sent leaders of the Communist Party to prison or into hiding over their political and revolutionary beliefs, their wives formed the Families Committee of Smith Act Victims, which gave “financial, material, and emotional assistance” to each other, their children, and the prisoners.[19] Fundraising allowed for childcare, trips to visit fathers behind bars, birthday presents, and more.[20] But the Families Committee also existed to fight anticommunist policies and practices.[21] It denounced the imprisonment of Reds and the FBI’s continued harassment and surveillance of the wives and children.[22] In a sense, the Smith Act blew up the postwar ideal, creating single mothers who had to enter the workforce, become heads of households, and return to the world of organizing they had known as young Communist women.[23] The Families Committee seized the opportunity to publicly turn American ideology on its head, through pamphlets, articles, and letters.[24] To be a true American, a good mother, a healthy family in the 1950s was to be anticommunist — patriotic, loyal, conformist.[25] But the U.S. government was, in its persecution of dissenters, attacking families and ignoring stated American values.[26] “No home is safe, no family life secure, as long as our loved ones are persecuted and imprisoned for exercising their constitutional right to speak out for their political ideas,” the women wrote in one pamphlet.[27] It was the Communists, in other words, who were fighting for secure, whole families, and the First Amendment. (Language that centered families, one should note, was a new tack for the Communist Party, which long focused on how power impacted workers; and the Committee itself represented a greater leadership role for women in the CP.[28]) The all-female Families Committee continued its support network and its campaign of familial rhetoric until the late 1950s, when the Supreme Court ruled imprisonment over beliefs, even revolutionary ones as long as no specific plans for violence are made, to be unconstitutional, and Communist leaders were freed or returned from hiding.[29]

Overall, while Not June Cleaver reveals women’s diverse identities, perspectives, and activities, Meyerowitz of course does not deny the conservatism of the era, nor the domestic ideal.[30] But the work makes the case that dominant ways of living and meanings of womanhood (there were of course many white, middle-class, suburban housewives) were not as dominant as the historiography suggested. There were rebels and countercultures enough to toss out myths of homogeneity. There was sufficient diversity of postwar literature to question notions of textual ideological hegemony. We mentioned lesbian pulp fiction, blockbuster films with rebellious male and female teens, and articles by and about Communist women in newspapers. Meyerowitz, in her study of nearly 500 magazine articles from Reader’s Digest, Atlantic Monthly, Ebony, Ladies’ Home Journal, and more, found that “domestic ideals coexisted in ongoing tension with an ethos of individual achievement that celebrated nondomestic activity.”[31] “All of the magazines sampled advocated both” housewifery, motherhood, and other stereotypical experiences and women’s advancement beyond them.[32] Indeed, 99 articles “spotlighted women with unusual talents, jobs, or careers,” such as in politics or journalism.[33] Another 87 articles “focused on prominent entertainers.”[34] Compared to magazines of the 1930s and 40s, there was in fact less focus on the domestic sphere.[35] But glorification persisted of the woman — sometimes the career woman — who was a “good cook” and “never a lazy housewife,” who was beautiful, married, motherly, soft-spoken.[36] The postwar era, then, was less a regression for women who found new opportunities and independence during World War II (the ranks of working women actually grew after the troops came home[37]), less a time of a universal gender ideology and a concretized women’s place, and more a clash of recent progress, new ideas, and different experiences against the larger, traditionalist society.

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[1] Joanne Meyerowitz, ed., Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 1-3.

[2] Ibid., 3-11.

[3] Ibid., 1-2, 4, 11.

[4] Ibid., 2-3.

[5] Ibid., 229-252.

[6] Ibid., 358-372.

[7] Ibid., 370.

[8] Ibid, 370-371.

[9] Ibid., 369.

[10] Ibid., 372-378.

[11] Ibid., 375-378.

[12] Ibid., 374-376.

[13] Ibid., 389.

[14] Ibid., 382-402.

[15] Ibid, 391-392.

[16] Ibid., 385-386.

[17] Ibid., 382-383.

[18] Ibid., 396, 398.

[19] Ibid., 151.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 157, 160.

[22] Ibid., 152, 157-158, 165.

[23] Ibid., 162, 155-156.

[24] Ibid., 164-168.

[25] Ibid., 152.

[26] Ibid., 152, 165.

[27] Ibid., 165.

[28] Ibid., 166, 170-171.

[29] Ibid., 165.

[30] Ibid., 4, 9.

[31] Ibid., 231-232.

[32] Ibid., 231.

[33] Ibid., 232-233.

[34] Ibid., 232.

[35] Ibid., 249.

[36] Ibid., 233.

[37] Ibid., 4.