The "Golden Era?" A Look at the 1950s
by Brenna Sandeen, HIST-475: The Modern American Presidency
by Brenna Sandeen, HIST-475: The Modern American Presidency
The family of the 1950s has been revered by those wishing to bring back the “traditional” family. The marriages and families of the 1950s are looked upon with fondness and give people a sense of nostalgia. Examples of this can be seen in reruns of 1950s television shows such as “Ozzie and Harriett,” “Father Knows Best,” and “Leave it to Beaver.” These television shows are still popular today because many people wish that marriage and family life could go back to “the way things used to be.” The problem with these sentiments is that they are not grounded in reality. It is true that many women in the 1950s stayed home to raise their children. The view that all women stayed home, however, discounts the fact that the 1950s also saw a rise in married women entering the workforce. Nostalgia ignores the contradictions placed on women’s roles by the Cold War and the rising need for dual-income families. Most importantly, and despite popular belief, the 1950s was not the “golden age” of marriage because there was a lack of real communication between married couples and because of the unhappiness of women. Communication was not high on the priority list of many married couples in the 1950s. Articles from magazines, like McCall’s and Science Digest, published during the 1950s prove this point. Authors of these articles give readers tips on how to communicate better with their spouses. These authors also allude to the unhappiness and resentfulness of women. This unhappiness is probed further by more contemporary authors such as Stephanie Coontz and Sara Evans. It is made clear by each of these authors that marriages and families from the 1950s should not be looked back upon with nostalgia.
Marjorie Holmes was a writer who contributed articles to Today’s Health magazine during the 1950s. Of the several articles she wrote, “Why Women Can’t Talk to their Husbands” illustrates the lack of real communication between husband and wife during the 1950s. Her main argument stems from a belief that “…maybe nature never intended for the sexes to talk.” Ms. Holmes tries to expand her theory by arguing that, “It’s extremely difficult for married people to talk to each other, simply because they know each other so well.” Her thought process behind this statement simply comes from the belief that once the chase of the courtship is over, the mundane chores of marriage stop the flow of communication. Ms. Holmes also discusses why men do not want their wives to think seriously about deeper matters. She writes, “So that when and if she does sow sign of thinking seriously and serious matters and strives to have an audience with him, he is disturbed…but fearful most of all lest he learn things about this woman he’s come to take for granted that it would be actually more comfortable not to know.” Holmes also alludes to the unhappiness of women in a 1950s marriage. She says that, “Women who are forced to stay home all day with no more mental stimulus than settling children’s battles become bored and lonely.” Ultimately, Ms. Holmes comes back to her original thought about nature being the cause of the lack of communication between married couples. She concludes with, “After all, nature managed mattered manners so that same sexes converse most honestly and comfortably together, anyhow.” Other authors from the 1950s thought communication was more important and tried to give their readers guidance.
Ida Davidoff and Priscilla Rosten were marriage counselors who sought to guide their patients and the readers of Parent’s Magazine to really communicate with their spouses. The authors paint a picture of what a typical couple might experience. They wrote, “Their words saying one thing, their emotions another… [they] have barricaded themselves off from each other behind walls of unexpressed feeling. Yet theirs is a ‘good marriage.’” The authors go on to make two arguments about why couples are unable to really communicate with one another. The first argument involves fear. Davidoff and Rosten argue that, “…much inability to talk freely in marriage is the result of fear. There is a general agreement, for instance, that one of our deepest and most crippling fears is that of losing love.” This implies that men and women are fearful that if they truly express their emotions, that they will lost their spouse’s love. The second argument stems from the “emotional baggage” a person brings with them into a marriage. The authors write that, “Every husband and wife brings to marriage a background of experiences, expectations, tastes, ways of reacting to men and women and as men and women, which stems in large part from influences in their own childhood families.” These authors point out in the title of their article that talk can save a marriage, but they argue that many couples are too afraid and/or carry too much baggage to communicate effectively with their spouse. Other authors from the 1950s argue that even when couples talk, the communication is often filled with resentment.
Constance Foster laments in Science Digest that men and women end up torturing their mate. Foster argues that, “There are many subtle cruelties that men and women inflict on each other, often unconsciously. Indeed, the perpetrator hardly knows he’s wounding his mate at the bidding of his unconscious hostility.” Ms. Foster believes that these “subtle cruelties” are the result of some psychological and emotional distress. She writes, “The whole thing is really just a psychological outlet we all use at times to work off uncomfortable inner tensions caused by guilt, fear, and frustration. It is the wounded ego’s or hurt pride’s way of retaliation.” Ms. Foster goes on to give an example of one woman who may lash out at her husband due to emotional distress. She writes that that the woman is, “…a modern career woman who gave up her job in a big advertising agency when she married Jim. But she resents playing the role of ‘the little woman’ and blames her marriage for forcing in on her.” While this is only one example, Ms. Foster implies that many women are resentful towards their husbands and their marriage because they were forced to give up their jobs. More contemporary authors explore this unhappiness even further.
Stephanie Coontz is the co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families and has written numerous articles and books about marriage and family in the 1950s. Coontz argues that, “Families in the 1950s were products of even more direct repression. Cold War anxieties merged with concerns about the expanded sexuality of family life and the commercial world to create what one authority calls the domestic version of George F. Kennan’s containment policy.” Coontz argues that this repression led to the unhappiness of many women. For example, she argues that “Women’s retreat to housewifery was in many cases not freely chosen.” Some of these women were subjected to horrific medical treatments because they did not fit the profile of a homemaker. Coontz reports that, “…institutionalization and sometimes electric shock treatments were used to force women to accept their domestic roles and their husbands’ dictates.” Many other women turned to less than desirable means to cover up their unhappiness. Ms. Coontz says that, “Tranquilizers were developed in the 1950s in response to a need that physicians explicitly saw as female: Virtually nonexistent in 1955, tranquilizer consumption reached 462,000 pounds in 1958 and soared to 1.15 million pounds merely a year later.” Overall, Ms. Coontz argues that many women simply felt trapped and identified with “the problem that has no name.” Other authors agree with Coontz about Cold War anxieties and the unhappiness of women.
Sara Evans best known for her work Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. It is in this book that Evans lays out her arguments for why marriage in the 1950s was not the “golden age” of marriage. She argues that, “The dominant domestic ideology, known to a later generation as the ‘feminine mystique,’ which defined women almost exclusively in terms of wife and mother, functioned smoothly both to shape changes in women’s roles and to deny their disruptive power.” In other words, women were pressured to fit in with what the dominant culture thought. According to Evans, this led many housewives to become unhappy. Evans writes that, “Untold numbers were cut off from extended networks of kin and friends who traditionally had offered support and solace...In such circumstances, many experienced isolation and loss of self-esteem.” While she does not come right and say it, Evans implies that this isolation and low self-esteem may have contributed to women staying in unhappy marriages. Other authors have blatantly said that the marriages of today are far better than those of the 1950s for the reasons talked about by Coontz and Evans.
Rosalind C Barnett and Caryl Rivers are big proponents of today’s American family. They argue that, “The new American family is alive and well. Both partners are employed full time, and according to the latest research, the family they create is one in which all members are thriving: often happier, healthier, and more well-rounded than the family of the 1950s.” Barnett and Rivers tout several reasons for why the family of today is better than that of the 1950s. The first reason deals with depression. The authors state, “The women [of today] are not experiencing the high depression and anxiety rates characteristic of women in the 1950s.” Barnett and Rivers also take aim at the men of the 1950s. They write that, “The men with whom they are partnered are not the distant, work-obsessed fathers of the 1950s, who often felt wistful about their lack of connection to their children.” While Barnett and Rivers champion the family of today and ridicule the family of the 1950s, argue that women can be depressed while staying at home or working.
Catherine E. Ross, John Mirowsky, and Joan Huber argued that, “…the effect of a wife’s employment on her depression and her husband’s depends on their preferences for her employment and on whether the husband helps with the housework.” This means that if a woman is forced to stay home, but wants to work, she is more likely to be depressed, and vice versa. The authors noted that, “In the 1950s growth in female employment reached the sanctum sanctorum—married women with young children. Throughout the century individual women were drawn into the labor force by contingencies: economic need, the availability of work, and the freedom to work.” Essentially, during the 1950s, a number of reasons could have brought women into the work force, but a woman was more likely to be depressed if her role as a housewife or as an outside worker did not match her preference. Other authors disagree with Coontz, Evans, and the like. A different school of authors argue that conflicting roles for women in the 1950s led to radical changes in the 1960s.
Susan M. Hartmann explains these contradictions in her main argument, writing, “The Cold War itself contained conflicting elements. While concerns about international instability helped sustain cultural conservatism in the United States, they also promoted gender role changes. Specifically, by focusing attention on the need for fuller utilization of the nation’s resources, the Cold War helped draw attention to women’s employment and education.” Hartmann sees the 1950s as a period where groups like the National Manpower Council (NMC) and the Commission on the Education of Women (CEW) sought to give women a new voice in society. She claims that these groups, “…aimed at changing popular attitudes…They hoped to make influential groups aware of the changes already taking place in women’s employment.” Hartmann concludes that the 1950s were a time period in which views about women were altered. She writes, “…the first fifteen years of the Cold War represented an important transition period for American women, promoting undercurrents that would emerge as dominant trends in the 1960s and 1970s.” Other authors agree with Hartmann that the 1950s were a contradictory time for women and that these contradictions would breed the feminism of the 1960s.
Carl Degler argues that the atmosphere of the post World War II era allowed women to go back to work, despite the fact that the dominant culture was telling them to stay at home. He writes that, “Ideology was absent when married women began to move in great numbers into jobs outside the home in the 1950s. In fact, that was the decade of the baby boom and the new emphasis in the media upon staying home and traditional roles for women.” Degler notes the media because they had great power to attack working women. Degler records that, “During the 1950s the attack on women as workers outside the home mounted even as the number of married women in the work force rose.” Degler also points out that society as a whole may not have been aware that the rise in working mothers would give way to the feminism of the 1960s. He concludes that, “Despite the celebration of home and children during the 1950s, however, the seeds of a feminist revival were germinating. The great outpouring of women-particularly wives and mothers-into jobs during the 1950s did not escape the attention of certain observers, however oblivious society at large may have been.” A final author agrees with Hartmann and Degler that the 1950s were full of contradictions and supported the seeds of radical change.
Steven Mintz argues that “The postwar family was envisioned not simply as a haven in a heartless world, like the Victorian family, but as an alternative world of satisfaction and intimacy. But this family, like its Victorian counterpart, had its own contradictions and tensions.” Mintz also recognized that the images of the 1950s are not what they seem. He writes that, “The images of family life that appeared on television were misleading; only 60 percent of children spent their childhoods in male breadwinner, female homemaker households.” Mintz reasoned that the tensions between economics and the ideal would eventually breed radical change. After reviewing all the changes that happened in the 1950s, Mintz concludes, “The expansion of schooling, combined with growing affluence, contributed to the emergence of youth culture, separate and apart from the family. Thus, the seeds of radical familial changes were planted in the 1950s.”Each of these authors has a different outlook on marriage and family of the 1950s. While each argument is believable, the arguments made by the authors of the 1950s, Stephanie Coontz, and Sara Evans are the most reasonable. Marjorie Holmes, Ida Davidoff, Priscilla Rosten, and Constance Foster all lived in the 1950s and voiced concerns over the lack of communication in marriages. Stephanie Coontz and Sara Evans argued that many were depressed and had low self-esteem during the 1950s. Today’s society would like to point to the 1950s as the “golden age” of marriage. Americans are frustrated by the unstableness of marriage in today’s society and they want a model to follow. The truth is that the decade of the fifties was an abnormal blip in the history of time. The economy was booming, the federal government made it possible for many young couples to own a home, and the marriage age dropped to its lowest age in modern history. While this may look like an ideal life, many women found it to be miserable. Women lacked real communication with their husbands and were often depressed. This is why the 1950s should not be considered the “golden age” of marriage.
Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers, She works, He works: How Two-Income Families are Happy, Healthy, and Thriving, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996, Cited by Benokratis, Nijole V., Feuds About Families: Conservative, Centrist, Liberal, and Feminist Perspectives, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2000, 258
Susan M. Hartmann, “Women’s Employment and the Domestic Ideal in the Early Cold War Years”, Edited by Joanne Meyerowitz, Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994, 86-87