Gender and Consumerism in Postwar Canada

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During the Second World War, both married and unmarried women worked in wartime industries and factories to take the place of men who joined the service. Although women didn’t play a significant role on the battlefields in Europe compared to males, it would be logical to conclude that women played an integral role in the participation and victory in WWII both at home and abroad. Yet when one considers their contribution, it is hard to imagine how much more they could have done given the conservative views of gender role at that time. In the context of traditional gender roles and boundaries, women conceivably maximized their wartime efforts by working in a variety of jobs including industry, volunteering, and serving as support staff for servicemen in Europe. What is striking however is how gender roles and consumerism contributed to the marginalization of women during the postwar era given their input and sacrifice that led to the economic boom. The difference between the commercially portrayed media ideals and the actual reality of family life were considerable, and throughout the 1950s families strived to acquire and consume to close the gap between commercial expectation and the reality of family life in order to live the “good life.” This paper will attempt to show the negative effects of consumerism on women and the positive effects for men, and the reasons behind the paradox. Furthermore, mothers and wives were isolated, discriminated against, and reduced to an idealist and traditional view of who they were supposed to be and how they were supposed to act in the postwar period.

When the Axis forces surrendered to the Allies in 1945, Canada was under the Liberal leadership of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Our contemporary understanding of the term “liberal” should not be confused with Mackenzie King’s and his successor Louis St. Laurent’s government at that time. Canadians by and large held conservative, traditional beliefs and values, specifically regarding women and their role in society.1 While women worked men’s jobs during the war, many married women returned to the home and contributed to the baby boom by having children and becoming homemakers. Although the number of women entering the workforce slowly increased, the gendered division of labour seemed normal, and what reason would they have not to think this way?2 It was after all a catastrophic World War that necessitated women to enter the workforce in the numbers they did. So for many, the natural course seemed to favour women going “back to their domain” once peace resumed. Men often thought that women should leave the paid workforce to make room for the returning soldiers who were thought to be the “real breadwinners” of society.3 Those that did work out of the home faced lower wages and less chance for promotion.4 These same women who kept factories and industry production from slowing from 1939 to 1945 were now being discriminated against during peacetime. Employers argued that the sudden availability of male workers, women were best suited for work that tended to be more tedious. Not only that, but they were more “fussy” regarding work uniforms as men would more easily accept a pair of coveralls while needing less break time. A general higher rate of absenteeism and less responsibility were also reasons that employers stated to shy away from female workers.5 Employers were not the only force driving women back to domesticity. Churches stressed a healthy family life as a cure for delinquency and illegitimate births.6 Mothers who stayed home to raise children were thought to be better caregivers than their counterparts who earned a wage. The wage-earning women had a real uphill battle, as the household responsibilities didn’t stop because she went to work. Most working women were secretaries, nurses, clerks or in retail. Very few held careers that were considered professional.7 However, for those that did decide to earn a wage, the chores...
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