Sunday, June 06, 2010

Rosie the Riveter After the War

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe the status of women in American life in the period from 1945 to 1960.

During World War II, millions of women filled industrial jobs left by men serving in the military and played a critical role in producing military equipment and other products needed by the troops in Europe and Asia. Between 1940 and 1945, the number of women workers climbed by 50 percent. About 75 percent of women workers were married and most had school-age children. By 1944, the year before the war ended, 36.5 percent of women worked outside the home.

World War II profoundly affected women’s perceptions of themselves and of their career expectations. Poor, working-class, and especially African American and Mexican American women had been forced by economic circumstances to work outside their homes. In the 1950s, more than 40 percent of African American mothers of small children had no choice but to work outside the home. Before the war, however, many middle-class and upper-class white women at least perceived holding jobs outside of the home as an emergency option exercised when the family needed money. During the war such women experienced greater personal wealth, acquired new skills, enjoyed more freedom and experienced a wider social experience with their workmates than ever before. “Although 95 percent of the new women employees had expected when they were first hired to quit work at the end of the war,” historian Stephanie Coontz observed, “by 1945 an almost equally overwhelming majority did not want to give up their independence, responsibility and income, and expressed the desire to continue working.”

After the war, however, employers laid off female workers en masse, with the percentage of women earning wages outside the home dropping to 30.8 percent in 1947. Among women who stayed in the workplace, those who had enjoyed higher wages in manufacturing jobs during the war often found themselves consigned to lower-paid, more traditional positions as secretaries. Nevertheless, by the beginning of the 1950s, the number of women earning salaries began to inch upward again. In 1952, there were two million more women in the workplace than at the peak of wartime production. A decade later, 40 percent of women aged 16 and older held jobs. Driving increased female employment, at least in part, was a rise in consumerism, created in turn by a vast expansion of mass media and advertising in the late 1940s and 1950s. While spending on food increased only by a third in the five years following World War II, and spending on clothes climbed only by a fifth, purchases of household appliances and furniture spiraled 240 percent in the same time period. The dazzling array of household products paraded in newspapers, magazines, and nightly on television shows and the radio put pressure on family incomes. Women worked so families could keep up with what came to be called “the rat race.” However, even women who returned to a domestic life were influenced by their wartime experiences, and many taught their daughters that they could do whatever men could do. These women laid a foundation for the feminist movement of the 1960s.


Assertive women, however, were demeaned by American culture of the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, and blamed for a supposed rise in juvenile delinquency, homosexuality and other alleged social ills. Movies like Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Psycho (1960), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) depicted children raised by domineering mothers with no strong male in the house as liable to become at best dysfunctional and at worst homicidal monsters.

The popular situation comedy I Love Lucy depicted the ditzy title heroine’s dreams of a show business career as laughable. Lucy carried a mixed message. The title character, like many real 1950s women, desperately wanted a career and success outside of the boring housewife role the male-dominated culture thrust upon them. All of Lucy’s attempts to become an actress, a novelist, or a singer, however, ended in comic failure. In most family-centered comedies, however, women were portrayed as happy and fulfilled homebound wives and mothers. Shows like Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet featured men as the wage earners and decision makers of the family and adult women as perfectly dressed and bejeweled housewives with no life outside of keeping house and fretting about the children. In such programs, housewives did not come up with solutions to the problems facing the family but instead meekly deferred to their presumably smarter and wiser husbands. Inevitably, popular entertainment of the era suggested that single women wanted nothing more than to leave their jobs and find a husband.

In movies, unconventional women were portrayed in more sinister hues. In Rebel Without a Cause, the tragic hero of the film, Jim Stark, (played by teen idol James Dean) descends into juvenile delinquency in large part because of a weak father dominated by a bossy wife. At one point, Stark bitterly complains that his mother bullies his father, who in one scene wears a kitchen apron. She “eats him alive and he takes it,” Stark complains, later insisting that “if he had guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she'd be happy and then she'd stop pickin' on him, because they make mush out of him.”

Heavily influenced by the overt sexism of Freudian psychology, bestsellers like The Modern Woman, published in 1947, suggested that women who sought careers or higher education sought to symbolically “castrate” men. Psychiatrists regularly diagnosed women who defied the gender norms of the time by delaying childbirth, pursuing careers, or being insufficiently subservient to their husbands as neurotic or even as suffering from schizophrenia. According to Stephanie Coontz, the medical records of women hospitalized as “schizophrenic” in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1950s reveal that most of these women were subjected to forced commitment and electro-shock therapy in order to get them to accept their domestic roles and the authority of their husbands. Doctors also used electro-shock to “cure” women who sought abortions, which doctors interpreted as a sign of mental illness.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.