The Overstated Red Stigma

by Adam Erickson, HIST-328 Cold War America SP 2007

Arguably, at no other point in history was the United States plagued by more widespread fear than during the height of the Cold War. Sparked by mutual lack of understanding, and fed by the fiery dispositions of politicians and economists who firmly believed that the American way of life was in jeopardy from Soviet communism, the cloud of fear that lingered over the nation penetrated deeply in the government circles. For some, it was at the forefront of their lives; for others, it was an afterthought. However, for a majority of American society, it was real. Historian Barbara Welter’s analysis of women during the nineteenth century, “The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors, and her society,” was applied to the Cold War era as well, where fears of communism in women were repressed by McCall’s Magazine and other sources in favor of their traditional position in the home.

This is the reasoning that Stephen J. Whitfield gives in his book The Culture of the Cold War: “The fear intensified the love, however, just as the love reinforced the fear. But what was the object that truly loyal citizens were supposed to love?” However, Whitfield’s assertion that the fear of communism and of communist spies passing secrets to the USSR from American soil was what dominated American domestic and societal life is not entirely accurate, according to several articles within the McCall’s Magazine, published during the height of the stigma of “Seeing Red.” According to McCall’s, many middle-class women, whether they held full-time jobs or were homemakers, were far more focused on maintaining a healthy, bountiful, and highly lavish lifestyle for their families, or for themselves if they were unwed. The communist stigma that was allegedly present at all levels of American life was downplayed by McCall’s Magazine to a “cult of domesticity” within the lives of American women during the 1950’s: they were focused a great deal more on the domestic policy of their elected officials, maintaining a good social network within the neighborhoods that they resided, and assuring their children and families a well-rounded and well-educated future. The primary reason for this downplaying of the Red stigma for women was the country’s desire to maintain its traditional values in the face of the antithesis of Americanism, even if they were archaic, as Welter’s article suggests.

            While much of America examined with scrutiny the foreign policy, stance on communism, and party affiliations of their elected leaders, according to McCall’s Magazine, many women in America were a great deal more focused on their leaders’ domestic policy, and whether or not their ideas would be good for their families and friends. In August 1957, Eleanor Harris wrote an article in McCall’s Magazine entitled “The Senator is in a Hurry.” This article chronicled the political career of Senator John F. Kennedy while asking the question: “Can he be President in 1960?” Of course, through a modern study of history, it is established that not only did John F. Kennedy get elected president in 1960; he was also assassinated while in office, approximately one thousand days later. However, at this time, it can be argued that no one in America even considered the possibility of assassination, and especially not the women, who by reading McCall’s Magazine, were excited about the prospect of a “Moderate democrat with a record of middle-of-the-road voting” becoming the nation’s next president. Through this article, women were shown to have a strong reaction toward policymakers who are not redeemable socially. Kennedy was different: “He gets along well with strangers at parties by firing direct questions at them.” A social individual, Kennedy was able to capture hearts and minds with his presence, and Harris capitalized on this quality in writing the article. Additionally, Harris referenced Kennedy’s early political career, and his record of voting with the people, based on the desires of the plebeian society. Based on the knowledge that contemporary American women also admired a good family life and a well-mannered upbringing, Harris also provided a brief biography of the Kennedy family, and his father’s estimated worth of $60,000,000.

Whitfield asserts with slight error that everyone’s hearts and minds were aligned with the anti-communist movement, and hardly any other qualities in an elected official were considered important. He states: “When [Adlai] Stevenson challenged the necessity of conscription and of nuclear testing during the 1956 campaign, he exceeded the perimeters of respectable opinion…” Likely, based on Harris’ article in McCall’s, the female voting population would be more concerned if conscription and nuclear testing did run rampant, for it would be their sons that would pay that price. It seems that women were more likely to vote for a president (like Kennedy) who could further positive American values and lifestyles rather than a staunch Cold Warrior. Given where the article was written and how, women seemed to be guided in this political viewpoint by the desire of America to preserve traditional social values: women did not need to worry over and involve themselves in matters of foreign policy or impending nuclear warfare.

            Being a woman’s magazine, McCall’s articles focus heavily on women’s relationships outside the home and with their neighbors, especially the married women who resided in close-knit Levittown neighborhoods while their husbands worked. In many of these articles based around the theme of togetherness, the threat of communism 10,000 miles away is never even alluded to, although there is one story in an early-Cold War-era edition of McCall’s that shared a woman’s testimony regarding how she was used by Soviet spies. The spin on this story of Elizabeth Bentley is that she was haunted by “loneliness and disillusion” which drove her to join the Communist Party in the 1930’s. Based on the lack of this type of portrayal of lonely women within the McCall’s magazines, it appears as if the standard that would keep women out of the spy network was marriage and a healthy social life with neighbors and friends.

An article entitled “How to Stay at Peace With Your Neighbors” focused entirely on domestic issues that were completely unrelated to communism, furthering the aforementioned “cult of domesticity” portrayed by McCall’s Magazine. A simple statement at the beginning of the article says: “Take noise, probably the number-one gripe among neighbors.” Whitfield has readers believe that the number one complaint in neighborhoods, the business world, and the government itself between acquaintances was a possible connection with communism. These two extremes that deal with interpersonal relations during the Cold War are a near-perfect representation of the divide that clearly existed in the culture of America: household wives complained about noise pollution, while right-wing Cold Warriors like those Whitfield discussed were deeply concerned with communist agents that might have “looked like the man down the block in Scarsdale or Evanston, the man in the office across the hall on Wall Street or State Street.”          

However, while also occasionally warning of communist tendencies, McCall’s also dealt with the relatively new aspect of working women, and their impact on the home life. Working mothers (and working women in general) were questioned by contemporary politicians who desired to preserve America’s traditional social values as well as McCall’s Magazine. One article entitled “Is a Working Mother a Threat to the Home?” examined this issue in depth. The author, Elizabeth Pope, spun the article in a direction that asks mothers, “Is it worth it?” She argued that jobs that mothers take outside the home to earn wages like their husbands are “a tough assignment. At best, it means getting up earlier and going to bed later. It means rushing through housework on weekdays, spending evenings and weekends trying to catch up on loose ends. It means double responsibility, double worries.” Throughout McCall’s, and this article in particular, the signs point to the idea that women should remain in the home, and allow their husbands to earn the wages. In this article, psychologists warn that a mother who works outside the home during the early years of her children’s lives does “a grave disservice to her children, although the harm may not show up for years.” Whitfield, in his book, makes several assertions that lead to an underlying point that any problems within the home, such as disruptions in the household lives of children by working mothers or a poor parental relationship could cause them to resent the American system and turn toward communism.

            During the Cold War, a huge emphasis was put on assuring children a well-rounded and intelligent future. Some historians, such as Walter LaFeber, in his book entitled America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2006, argued that this trend stemmed from Soviet advances in scientific technology, such as the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and their satellite Sputnik. McCall’s Magazine reinforces this view with several articles that describe an ideal life for children to have in the 1950’s, and hopefully beyond those years. An article entitled “Family ‘Y,’” a review of a then-new facility in Newark, New Jersey which combined the YMCA and YWCA into one building unknowingly provides an exemplary showcase of the emphasis placed on family life during the Cold War. It was described as “an unconventional experiment designed to serve the reborn American tradition of family living.” During the 1950’s, the YMCA and YWCA were symbols of the American social life; a Christian-based organization that helped families and children further American goals, lifestyle, and educational experiences. Arguably, communism was farthest from the world of the YW- and YMCAs across America. This article referenced the new push for standardized family living and enjoyment of life, and although Cold Warriors like Whitfield may profess that underneath it all, the YMCAs were defending American youth from communist thoughts, the idea of communism is never mentioned within the article. , In addition, providing women with increasingly lavish ways to maintain their children’s happiness and family orientation also helped preserve the familial values of Americanism.

            Education itself underwent a drastic revelation during the early part of the Cold War. With the government-recognized need of new and improved school buildings and educational methods, there arose new and modern suburban school buildings, which served as the inspiration for the McCall’s article “What’s Happened to the Little Red School House?” The author, Elizabeth Pope, shared a story regarding the transfer of a small and difficult boy from a hard-line, disciplinary-focused big city school to a small suburbia school, and he excelled in the new environment, both socially and academically. Somewhat surprisingly, this article reminded readers of the scholastic competitiveness that American children were subtly forced take seriously against their communist counterparts when Pope states: “Two UN delegates from India who were in town had heard about our new school and wanted to see it in operation.” The interest of the United Nations at this time in a new school building took McCall’s, and its readers, if just for a moment, out of the “cult of domesticity.” However, as the article goes on, it reinforced a great deal more the need for mothers to assure their children a bright future by sending them to new and updated schools. The education philosophy of the 1950’s was a huge alteration from the pre-WWII era education system as well as the late 1940’s. According to the article, “our educational leaders of today are convinced that, along with receiving a thorough training in academic subjects, children ought to enjoy school.” This revolution in school design and instructional methods made it possible for the United States to satisfy the Cold Warriors in competing with the Soviets scientifically, while also satisfying mothers in giving their children educated and well-rounded futures. In this case, the preservation of traditional values ironically advanced the youth culture radically.

            The “cult of domesticity” that McCall’s Magazine used to downplay the fear of communism that Whitfield argues was rampant in the country largely succeeded in keeping women, especially married women with families, focused on their own neighborhood social interactions, their politicians’ backgrounds and domestic concerns rather than foreign policies, and their family’s future success. Whitfield’s claim that communism penetrated every fabric of society and that no pro-American nor pro-Christian morality was without fear that communism could spread to the United States is inaccurate, to say the least. McCall’s proved that, given its articles that portray a “cult of domesticity,” it kept the overarching fear of communism away from women in the home and in their immediate social and familial circles, preserving the traditional role of women in America since the nineteenth century. Of course, there was the case of Elizabeth Bentley and the Soviet spy ring, but given McCall’s goals, it was likely simply used as an occasional example of what could happen if women did not continue to live their lives as normal, even under the communist threat.

Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” 1966, May 5, 2007, Available at:

Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, Second ed, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press 1996), pg. 53

Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, 1996, pg. 27

Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” May 5, 2007, Available at:

Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” May 5, 2007, Available at:

Eleanor Harris, “The Senator is in a Hurry,” McCall’s Magazine, Vol. 84, No. 11, August 1957, (New York, NY: McCall Corporation), pg. 45.

Harris, “The Senator is in a Hurry,” McCall’s Magazine, 1957, pg. 45

Harris, “The Senator is in a Hurry,” McCall’s Magazine, 1957, pg. 45

Harris, “The Senator is in a Hurry,” McCall’s Magazine, 1957, pg. 118

Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, 1996, pg. 59

Elizabeth Bentley, “How I was Used by the Red Spy Ring,” McCall’s Magazine, Vol. 78, No. 10, July 1951, (New York, NY: McCall Corporation), pg. 31, 120-127.

Will Bernard, “How to Stay at Peace with Your Neighbors,” McCall’s Magazine, Vol. 84, No. 10, July 1957, (New York, NY: McCall Corporation), pg. 56-66.

Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, 1996, pg. 27-51

Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, 1996, pg. 28

Elizabeth Pope, “Is a Working Mother a Threat to the Home?” McCall’s Magazine, Vol. 82, No. 10, July 1955, (New York, NY: McCall Corporation), pg. 29, 70, 72-73.

Pope, “Is a Working Mother a Threat to the Home?,” McCall’s, 1957, pg. 29

Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, 1996, pg. 27-51

Walter LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2006, Tenth ed, (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2008).

Don Murray, “Family ‘Y,’” McCall’s Magazine, Vol. 85, No. 1, October 1957, (New York, NY: McCall Corporation), pg. 12.

“A Brief History of the YMCA Movement,” YMCA: About the YMCA, May 2, 2007, Available at:

Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, 1996, pg. 27-51

Murray, “Family ‘Y,’” McCall’s, 1957, pg. 12, 14, 17

Elizabeth Pope, “What’s Happened to the Little Red Schoolhouse?” McCall’s Magazine, Vol. 83, No. 1, October 1955, (New York, NY: McCall Corporation), pg. 52

Pope, “What’s Happened to the Little Red Schoolhouse?” McCall’s, 1955, pg. 58

Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” May 5, 2007, Available at: