Saturday, December 18, 2010

Women and the Media in the 1950s and 1960s

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 discuss the gap between how women's lives were portrayed in the media in the 1950s and 1960s and the reality.

Assertive women 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.


Few women experienced the lives portrayed on popular TV shows, but that was not for lack of effort. The median age for women marrying for the first time dropped to just over 20 years in mid-decade (the median age for men was around 22.5.) It became common for couples to marry shortly after high school graduation. No generation married at higher rates than those Americans who reached maturity during World War II. About 96 percent of the women and 94 percent of the men in that group married, with the average family having between 3.2 and 3.7 children during the course of the 1950s. The so-called “baby boom” years from 1946 to 1964 saw the birth of 79 million children. Births per year soared from around 2.5 million in the 1930s and the early 1940s to a peak of 4.3 million in the late 1950s.

Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton suggested that Americans in the 1950s had, because of anxieties produced by the war, the Holocaust and the beginning of the nuclear age, lost their faith that scientific discoveries would inevitably make life better, freer and safer. Lifton argued that Americans suffered from a numbing fear of nuclear annihilation in particular. Historian Elaine Tyler May believes that the baby boom of 1946-1964 represented a response to that anxiety. “Americans were well poised to embrace domesticity in the midst of the terrors of the atomic age,” she wrote in Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. “A home filled with children would create a feeling of warmth and security against the cold forces of disruption and alienation. Children would also be a connection to the future and means of replenishing a world depleted by war deaths.”

Sadly, marriage and children often failed to bring the emotional and material rewards to men and women as promised on television comedies. As in other eras, family life in the 1950s featured tragically frequent incidents of child and spousal abuse, infidelity, chemical dependency and poverty. Under state laws of the 1950s, wife-beating was not considered a crime and psychologists and sociologists largely overlooked issues like child abuse, even in states like Colorado where in one year police recorded 302 cases of battered children, and 33 died from beatings.


Even though the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, came to conflicting conclusions about the prevalence of incest and the sexual abuse of children by family members, Freudian psychiatrists in the 1950s tended to dismiss female patients accusing their fathers of rape, claiming that such women were indulging in sexual fantasies. Not believing their abuse claims, doctors often sought to sedate their female patients. A multi-million dollar industry manufacturing tranquilizers and sleeping pills underwent explosive growth in the 1950s, and females became the major consumers. Consumption of anxiety medications climbed from 462,000 pounds nationally in 1958 to 1.15 million pounds only a year later. Men expressed shock as they became increasingly aware of discontent among women. After being swamped with responses when the magazine ran an article called “The Mother Who Ran Away,” an editor of "McCall’s" remarked, “We suddenly realized that all those women at home with their three and a half children were miserably unhappy.”

Educated women in particular felt they were not free to express themselves intellectually. About 40 percent of Barnard College women in one survey admitted to “playing dumb” in order to attract men, but once in such relationships, they often experienced anger and frustration. In 1957, Betty Friedan began the research that led to her groundbreaking 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique," and she found legions of thoughtful middle- and upper-class women who spent their years after college graduation with nothing more mentally taxing to do than housework. A study of young female college graduates found that those who became full-time housewives after school suffered from a more intense fear of growing old, enjoyed less confidence, were more critical of themselves and had greater doubts about their skills as mothers than women who had paying jobs.

Many women hid inner turmoil under a passive exterior, one physician wrote in 1953, but behind the mask often lurked “an inwardly tense and emotionally unstable individual seething with hidden aggressiveness and resentment.” Male doctors at the time saw women as suffering from mental illness, but did not perceive as sick a society that denied smart, educated women a professional outlet.

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.


Lynn said...

Michael--do you have another section that deals with the representations of women of color in media at the time? This article primarily (solely?) discusses the experience of white, middle class women (though other classes, of course, were subject to many of the same expectations).

Michael said...

Lynn, I briefly mention depictions of African American women in this chapter. I will have a longer section on African Americans in the media when I write my 1960s and 1970s American culture and counterculture chapter.