Women and Work After World War II
During the Second World War, women proved that they could do "men's" work, and do it well. With men away to serve in the military and demands for war material increasing, manufacturing jobs opened up to women and upped their earning power. Yet women's employment was only encouraged as long as the war was on. Once the war was over, federal and civilian policies replaced women workers with men.
After the war, the birth rate increased dramatically. Although many people assume that the baby boom happened because peace and prosperity returned, historian Elained Tyler May points out in Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era that the rise in the number of births went far beyond what was expected from a return to peace. Previous periods of post-war prosperity, notably the period after World War I, had not led to such dramatic increases in marriage and childbearing. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Americans in their childbearing years had weathered the Depression and a devastating war, and they were living under a cloud of possible nuclear war. After studying statistics, personal testimony, and popular culture imagery and language, May concluded, "Americans turned to the family as a bastion of safety in an insecure world... cold war ideology and the domestic revival [were] two sides of the same coin."
Rigid Gender Roles
The dramatic dichotomy in gender imagery in the 1950s makes people laugh 50 years later. In Dick and Jane readers, advertisements, educational films, and television shows, post-war Americans saw feminine, stay-at-home moms cleaning, cooking, and taking care of children while masculine dads left home early and returned late each weekday, tending to their designated roles as lawnmowers and backyard BBQers on the weekend. In More Work for Mother, Ruth Schwartz Cowan wrote that psychiatrists, psychologists, and popular writers of the era critiqued women who wished to pursue a career, and even women who wished to have a job, referring to such "unlovely women" as "lost," "suffering from penis envy," "ridden with guilt complexes," or just plain "man-hating."
Yet Married Women Worked
With the international expansion of the American economy after the war, men's wages were higher than ever before, making it possible for the first time in U.S. history for a substantial number of middle class families to live comfortably on the income of one breadwinner. Yet the figures reveal that by the early 1960s, more married women were in the labor force than at any previous time in American history.
Domesticity and Money Pressures
The reality of many middle- and aspiring middle-class families' finances didn't match their dreams. Many families wanted extra income -- and required a wife's earnings — to afford the lifestyle they desired. Yet middle-class women felt the pressure of the culture telling them to stay home. Many also had little desire to work in the nine-to-five jobs open to them. They didn't want to be factory workers, secretaries, bookkeepers or department store salespeople in an increasingly bureaucratic, corporate workplace, which demanded that home and work life be clearly separated. In The Organization Man, a best-selling book of the period, William Whyte, Jr. wrote that organization men "are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life." How could a woman reconcile the ideal of female domesticity and the desire to earn?
Home-Centered and Lucrative
Tupperware home sales offered a solution, providing women with work they could do in their homes — part-time, for as many or as few hours as they chose, on flexible schedules that accommodated the needs of children and the demands of housework. Home party selling allowed women to do income-producing work they didn't need to call "work," but instead "having parties." When they joined "the Tupperware family," they didn't need to leave their own families behind.