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Women and Families: Social History 1945-1965
A Very Important Era for Women in the USA

Senior Essay - 20th Century Social History Fall 2003
Florida Atlantic University
Bonnie Isham Willis

In 1945, World War II was over, and the men were coming home. It was a time to rejoice the return of the soldiers and the Allies’ victory. During the war, many women served their country stateside by supporting each other through difficult times and by working in the factories to keep the country and the war going. “The War most dramatically altered the wage earning patterns of women. The female labor force grew by over 50%, reaching 19.5 million in 1945.” Many women may have been happy to see the return of their husbands and sons, but there was independence in their absence that could not be replaced once the war was over. “Polled near the end of the war, the overwhelming 75% of women workers expressed a desire to keep working, preferably at the same jobs.”

Of course this image of the ideal woman working the factory during the war, and after, returning to the home to raise a family was not for every woman. Some women chose to serve their country directly by enlisting in the armed forces. Inspired by Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers, in May 1942, The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), later known as (WAC) was started. Other branches of the armed forces followed suit and more than 350,000 women served in WWII. Although they allowed women to serve in the armed forces, they continued to exert control and influence over the women. “The government feared the spread of immortality among women in the armed forces and closely monitored their conduct.”

On the home front, the last half of the 1940’s, were a restless transition period. As the war grew to a close, the government swayed public opinion and influenced society through the media, pushing women to return home and serve their families and country by leaving the workforce and managing the home. “…as many as 4 million [women] lost their jobs between 1944 and 1946.” The government stimulated economic growth with incentives. The GI Bill of Rights (1944), extended educational grants, low-interest mortgages and business loans, subsidizing the growth of suburbs. Young families grew quickly and began to move out on their own. “Young couples were marrying younger and producing more children than at any time in the past century.” Extended family living situations were ending and the American migration to suburbia began. Many young families could finally afford to have their own homes and found a feeling of safety and comfort in suburban life. Suburbs were planned communities, the first, Levittown in 1947, set the stage for a whole new kind of neighborhood.

Economic and familial expansion took us into the 1950’s. The age of consensus and consumerism was on its way and young families were buying it as fast as they could. “These two trends—the baby boom and high rates of consumer spending—encouraged a major change in the middle-class family.”
The 1950’s can be described by relating President Eisenhower’s policies and attitudes to those striving for the American Ideal. As far as Eisenhower was concerned, “…social harmony and ‘the good life’ at home were closely linked…to maintaining a stable and American-led international order abroad.” The war had done its damage and people wanted to find a safe-haven at home. Other keywords that describe the attitudes of the 50’s and Eisenhower’s policies were: ‘playing it safe;’ ‘middle of the road;’ and ‘business-like manner.’

The 50’s role models for women included Maime Eisenhower. “Mamie was a gracious and popular First Lady--so much so that, beginning in 1952, she appeared every year on the Gallup Poll's list of the Ten Most Admired Women in America.” Other role models like Donna Reed and June Cleaver epitomized the perfect and happy housewife on television. Stylish women on the silver screen, and spiritual leaders of grace set an impractical ideal for women. Mother Teresa set a high standard of goodness, as the pinnacle of spiritual fortitude and service. “In 1952 Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity began the work for which they have been noted ever since. …She and her fellow nuns gathered dying Indians off the streets of Calcutta and brought them to this home to care for them during the days before they died.”

The image of women during this time period was often more of a media image than a reality. “The suburban boom strengthened the domestic ideal of the nuclear family as the model for American life. In particular, the picture of the perfect suburban wife-efficient, patient, always charming-became dominant image in television, movies, and magazines. Suburban domesticity was usually presented as women’s only path to happiness and fulfillment. This cultural image often masked a stifling existence defined by housework, childcare, and boredom.” And in reality, many women worked outside the home in order to live the middle-class life. “By 1952, 2 million more wives worked than during the war. Gone, however, were the high-paying unionized jobs in manufacturing, most women found minimum-wage jobs in the expanding service sector: clerical work, health care and education, and restaurant, hotel and retail services. …younger women often worked for reasons of ‘economic necessity’ – that is, to maintain a middle-class standard of living that now required more than one income.” Women who chose to work or needed to work, were faced with opposition and discrimination from society at large.

The media push for the idealized image of the perfect housewife intensified as experts claimed that families suffered if mother worked. “Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia Farnham, in their best-selling The Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1947), attributed the ‘super-jittery age in which we live’ to women’s abandonment of the home to pursue careers.” Psychology experts jumped on board. “Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare (1946), outsold the bible, and advised women to devote themselves fulltime to maternal responsibilities.” Another expert is quoted to have said, “Women have many careers, but only one vocation – motherhood.” Arguments of a children’s well-being, a woman’s fulfillment, and even safety from communism were used to influence the choices women made. “Commentators even appealed for a return to an imaginary “traditional” family where men alone were bread-winners and women stayed happily at home, as a bulwark against communism. Noting that most Soviet women worked in industry, nervous writers insisted that American men and women must stop the spread of communism by playing complimentary but utterly different roles.”

Despite the appearance and media push for an American Ideal, many women did not fit into the image that seemed to go with “the Age of Consensus” or the comfort of suburbia. That was a world made up of young white “middle-class” women. Outside of suburbia, was a whole other world filled with African Americans, other ethnic populations, and the poor working class. “The employment rate charged comparatively little for African American women, 90% had been in the labor force in 1940. However, many black women left domestic service for higher-paying jobs in manufacturing.” The same opportunities and incentives were not extended to many of these “others.”

The populations of African Americans and the ‘Forgotten Minorities,’ experienced the era from 1945 to 1965 as a completely different life. “…other minorities as well had long been denied their civil rights. After World War II, Latinos, Indian peoples, and Asian Americans began making their own halting efforts to improve their political, legal, and economic status.” Underneath the quiet and peaceful suburban ideal, a storm was brewing as the civil rights movement was taking form. Women became a big part of the Civil Rights Movement and worked for the cause in every capacity. In the same way that the women’s suffrage movement was forced to release their fight for human rights in the early part of the century, during this time, the Movement put women’s rights and the rights of other discriminated groups on hold as they fought for the rights of their population as a whole. “The historic injustices of slavery, racism, and segregation gave a moral and political urgency to the black struggle for full citizenship rights.”

On the surface, consumerism and American ideals brought the 1950’s to a close. The image of perfectly serene suburban life masked the undercurrents of discrimination against other than white populations and women as well. New images for women were beginning to emerge. The introduction of Barbie, and its subsequent marketing as the ideal image of woman, sent a strong message to society and directly to the young women who played with her. “’Barbie You’re Beautiful’ is the 1959 theme song that introduced this 11 ½ inch doll into our lives four decades ago.”
As we ushered in the 1960’s, Jacqueline Kennedy became the image of the ideal for many women. Her charm, her style, her beauty, and her support for her powerful and charming husband won over America, and in 1963, after the assassination of the President, sympathy for his widow increased her popularity. “During her brief tenure in the White House, she brought an elegance to dressing, a style to American life.” The same year as the assassination, a report by the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women documented ongoing discrimination, marking a change in women’s quiet boredom with suburbia. Betty Freidan’s research on college campuses, found “a strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform.” This research led to her book, The Feminine Mystique (1963), which is credited for triggering the Women’s Movement, at least for the dissatisfied middle-class women.

Young woman fought their own battles as well. The stir on college campuses primarily focused on protesting the US involvement in Vietnam, but also included a spark of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement. Many young women were coming of age in an environment of protest and identifying with all that was different than their parents. “The first sign of a new kind of protest was the free speech movement at University of California at Berkley in 1964.” And the newly developed birth control, The Pill, opened a new world with a brand new attitude for young women. “We’ve discarded the idea that the loss of virginity is related to degeneracy….”

Although the media may have exhibited social control and set unrealistic standards that were impractically ideal, the influence of the 1945-1965 era is inarguably still with us today through some of the greatest of all time shows, movies and literature. For the first time in 1946, we saw It's a Wonderful Life; In 1947, we saw Miracle on 34th Street and read The Diary of Anne Frank, and in1949, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four predicted the future. The 50’s offered even more eternal entertainment with Disney's Cinderella (1950), The Catcher in the Rye from J.D. Salinger (1951), Peter Pan (1953), On the Waterfront, A Star Is Born and Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window in 1954, The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston (1956), and one of the most popular children’s books of all time, The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss was introduced in 1957. The first half of the 60’s also brought some very powerful entertainment like, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), and phenomenal theatre like West Side Story (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and The Sound of Music (1965).

Although on the surface, the 20 year era from 1945 – 1965 seemed serene and prosperous in Suburbia, there was a storm brewing underneath. The Civil Rights Movement began small before and during WWII, and slowly made their mark with legislation and support from the 1960’s Federal Government. Perhaps inspired by this movement, the groundwork was being laid for the Vietnam Protests and the Women’s Movement that would take us into the next era of drastic political and social change.

*Notes: The footnote format did not transfer to html - all resources listed below.


Faragher, J.M., Buhle, M.J., Czitrom, D., Armitage, S.H.(2000). Out of Many: A History of the American People: Third Edition. Vol. C: Since 1900. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.
Distinguished Women Website:
Weissman, K.N. (1999). Barbie: The Icon, The Image, The Ideal. Universal Publishers/
Wikipedia Website: