Cold War Literature
November 23, 2014
Confessions of the Cold War Contradiction
Throughout the Cold War, the people of the United States prided themselves on their difference to the Soviet Union. They reveled in the contrast between a freedom-providing democracy and an enslaving communism. However, at this time there were many American citizens who felt that their democratic rights were being infringed upon, all in the effort to eradicate any sign of communism from their society. The majority of these citizens were women, and the rights which were being affected were concerned with the issue of privacy. The poetry of Anne Sexton provides insight into this social and political contradiction affecting feminine life in Cold War America. Through confessional poetry, Anne Sexton reveals the paradoxical position of women – specifically housewives – in Cold War society as staples of American democracy and freedom, while at the same time remaining slaves to social oppression.
During the Cold War era, Democracy was idealized and Communism condemned. Furthermore, many Americans believed that an essential function of a Democracy was to provide citizens with the right to privacy. Unlike a Communist dictatorship, Democracy in America promised citizens the freedom of self-determination. The ever-elusive “American Dream” was thought to be the ultimate culmination of an autonomous life, and this was most often represented in the ideals of the nuclear family and the home. However, this idea that one could – and must – work toward this goal also required a right to privacy, or a right to determine one’s life without influence or scrutiny from the outside. In her article, “Beyond Privacy: Confessions between a Woman and Her Doctor”, Deborah Nelson states: Privacy was frequently hailed as one of the characteristic rights of a democracy, one that defined the United States in opposition to the Soviet Union. Between 1958 and 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in land-mark cases that protected privacy in all areas of an individual’s life: the home, workplace, school, public places, and with regard to data collection and law enforcement. (280)
The right to privacy was one of many benefits to living in an American Democracy which separated the United States from the Soviet Union; and nowhere was this right taken more seriously and cherished more fiercely than in the domestic sphere.
The home has long been considered a place of retreat from the stress of everyday life. In Cold War society, this was a specifically male vision of the home. Since men spent the majority of their days and weeks working in offices or in big cities, the home was their treasured sanctuary into which they could hide from the rest of the world. It is for this reason that the home was one arena which was most fiercely protected from political scrutiny. In yet another article on privacy in Cold War society entitled “Penetrating Privacy: Confessional Poetry and the Surveillance Society”, Nelson notes how the Supreme Court even equated the home with the man’s own body. That the bedroom is at least as private to a man as her body is to a woman. The house, then, or at least the bedroom, becomes analogous to the woman’s body. To allow the police to penetrate the bedroom is to allow them to figuratively penetrate the man’s body. (101)
Here Nelson acknowledges the fact that the home itself had become at this time a political and social priority over the very woman who lived within it. The Supreme Court often ruled in favor of maintaining privacy when the potential for police occupation of the home became a possibility. While confined to the role of homemaker, it is the home itself, rather than the woman within it, which the American government sought to protect from invasion.
The American home, along with the picture-perfect housewife who maintained, beautified, and perfected the home, became staples of American freedom and Democracy. The American housewife had reached an almost sanctified position during the Cold War. In “Images of Domestic Madness in the Art and Poetry of American Women”, Carolyn Seifert describes this depiction of women in the home at this time. The result is an image of the housewife as the guardian angel of the hearth, holy center of the kitchen, and the sole caretaker of material goods. This popular print was engraved twice. The "angel of the hearth" appealed to the new American middleclass which demanded an easily accessible art that supported its value system. (1)
However, through this idealization of the woman in the home, women were often denied the very rights which Democracy itself had promised. Nelson notes that: While elevating domesticity to a sacred and quintessentially American virtue, the idealization of the home silenced the experience of women, the citizens who were to occupy this realm as their exclusive domain. In this context, their anti-metaphorical representations of the home placed women confessional poets at the crossroads of the politicization of the home, its silencing, and its surveillance. (89)
Cold War society often considered women as mere extensions of the homes they made, not as functional and participatory citizens of society. This popular view of women effectively “silenced” them. It was unacceptable at this time for a woman to demand a life of her own outside of the home. Her duty as a woman was to her husband, her children, and her home. This form of imprisonment contradicted the very ideals of freedom for which the woman in the home was supposed to represent. Anne Sexton, among several other notorious confessional women poets, reveals this Cold War hypocrisy and paradox through her work.
In one of her most famous poems, “Self in 1958”, Anne Sexton describes the loss of autonomy many women confined to the role of housewife had felt during this time. Someone plays with me/plants me in the all-electric kitchen/Is this what Mrs. Rombauer said? /Someone pretends with me---/I am walled in solid by their noise---/or puts me upon their straight bed. /They think I am me! /Their warmth? Their warmth is not a friend! /They pry my mouth for their cups of gin/and their stale bread. (Lines 21-30)
Sexton likens the experience of a housewife to that of an inanimate doll, and the house itself to a doll’s house. There is an element of pretend in which many were compelled to participate in this Cold War society. Seifert asserts that in this poem, “the house is a doll's house, an artificial womb that has entrapped the housewife, one from which she will never be born” (2). That quintessential American value of self-determination and individuality is consistently denied to the American housewife. Sexton’s confessional poetry provides readers with insight into the reality of this particularly female experience during the Cold War.
Sexton further develops this theme of pretend in her poem “Live”. This became a perjury of the soul. /It became an outright lie/and even though I dressed the body/it was still naked, still killed. /It was caught/in the first place at birth, /like a fish. /But I played it, dressed it up, /dressed it up like somebody's doll. /Is life something you play? /And all the time wanting to get rid of it? /And further, everyone yelling at you/to shut up. (Lines 25-37)
Through this poem, we see an image of the housewife as being exposed and controlled. Sexton describes feelings of detachment from her own body, as if it were not her own – which is true in many ways. From the moment of her birth, the woman’s life has been pre-determined for her. Furthermore, society during the Cold War effectively silenced the woman who would desire a life outside of the home. Although she not only lives in, but stands as a representation for a society which places great value upon the ideals of freedom, self-determination, autonomy, and privacy, the housewife is left enslaved, exposed, and controlled. Seifert likens the experience of the housewife to that of a prisoner, with the home itself acting as the prison. She notes that the very “Walls, ceilings, floors, and open windows are used as images of incarceration and confinement…The housewife is a prisoner of her own sanctity” (3). When the housewife had been placed upon the pedestal of freedom, democracy, wholesomeness, and comfort, it became impossible for her to reject the position. To lack the desire to fulfill such a holy and good role was to desire something backward and un-American. Due to political and social pressure, woman living in the Cold War era had little to no choice in her own occupation: housewife. Out of fear of becoming like the dreaded Soviets they had so despised, Americans during the Cold War emphasized ideals of Democracy, freedom, autonomy, and privacy. However, in their efforts to secure these values for society, they had effectively removed such liberties and rights from the lives of their women citizens. Sexton’s use of confessional poetry has revealed the position of the American woman caught in between these values of democracy and the denial of the same. Works Cited
Nelson, Deborah. “Beyond Privacy: Confessions between a Woman and Her Doctor.” Feminist Studies. Vol. 25, No. 2.1999. pp. 279-306. Feminist Studies, Inc.
Nelson, Deborah. “Penetrating Privacy: Confessional Poetry and the Surveillance Society.” Homemaking. New York and London 1996. Garland Publishing, Inc.
Seifert, Carolyn J. “Images of Domestic Madness in the Art and Poetry of American Women.” Woman's Art Journal. Vol. 1, No. 2. pp. 1-6. Woman's Art Inc.