The Misperception of Women in the Postwar Era
In the years between 1945 and 1960, modern history's typical view of American women is that of a subordinated, suppressed and acquiescent group struggling to obtain the ideas of domesticity and conservatism portrayed by popular culture. Many assumptions are made about changing gender roles and their affects upon women as a whole during this period. To us, women in the postwar era are most easily and commonly represented by the image of the ideal wife and mother, who spends her days maintaining the perfect household in which she lives and caring for the family she loves. Much is made of the changes that occurred during World War II, when women occupied a large portion of the workforce, and in the 1960's, when the feminist movement came to fruition. The changes that took place between these periods are often neglected or simply not noticed, but more often they are overshadowed by the dominating stereotype of the homemaker. Many women of the time did not fit the mold of housewife, and were actually continuing the feminist movement that was given new life with symbolic figures, such as Rosy the Riveter, during World War II. Contrary to popular belief, the feminist movement saw great changes in the 1950's.
In Not June Cleaver, Joanne Meyerowitz says "historians have long acknowledged that increasing numbers of women sought and found wage work, albeit in traditionally female jobs, in the postwar era." The feminist movement did not simply disappear after women returned to their homes at the end of the war, but rather remained as a somewhat underground fixture of the cultural climate. According to William H.
Chafe, author of The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970, "the most striking feature of the 1950's was the degree to which women continued to enter the job market and expand their sphere." Though these changes did in fact occur, they seem to have been disregarded in favor of the victimized image of women that we know today, party due to such popular books as The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. Though The Feminine Mystique was an astounding accomplishment as a protagonist for the feminist movement, it used the stereotype of the submissive woman of the time to force social change and inadvertently became the widely-accepted version of events. According to Friedan, postwar cultural influences urged women to retreat into the home and give up the accomplishments gained during the war, and few protested. In researching the postwar era, I have discovered that this version of events is not entirely accurate, that it is actually more of a gross misconception than a simple generalization. Many magazines, which were all very popular and widely read at the time, contained interpretations of gender and women's role in society and challenged traditional ideologies; many of these were written by men as well as women. They reached hundreds of thousands of Americans and were read by members of many demographics. Though magazines of the 1950's can also be used to paint the opposite picture and seem repressive rather than progressive, this only adds to the contradictory nature of the times and further suggests that they were times of change. Some of these articles supported women's presence in the home and duties of motherhood, while others encouraged women to seek public success. The fact that both sides of the debate were
being argued displays the fallacy of Betty Friedan's generalizations; women were not being forced into domesticity, but given the opportunity to obtain professional recognition. Though many women did choose to remain in the home, a significant number were part of the workforce and actively participated in the furthering of the women's movement as well. In a review of The Feminine Mystique, featured in the New York Times Book Review, Lucy Freeman states, "despite the baby boom and...
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