People & Events: Mrs. America: Women's Roles in the 1950s
American society in the 1950s was geared toward the family. Marriage and children were part of the national agenda. And the Cold War was in part a culture war, with the American family at the center of the struggle.
A Propaganda War
Embedded in the propaganda of the time was the idea that the nuclear family was what made Americans superior to the Communists. American propaganda showed the horrors of Communism in the lives of Russian women. They were shown dressed in gunnysacks, as they toiled in drab factories while their children were placed in cold, anonymous day care centers. In contrast to the "evils" of Communism, an image was promoted of American women, with their feminine hairdos and delicate dresses, tending to the hearth and home as they enjoyed the fruits of capitalism, democracy, and freedom.
The "M.R.S." Degree
In the 1950s, women felt tremendous societal pressure to focus their aspirations on a wedding ring. The U.S. marriage rate was at an all-time high and couples were tying the knot, on average, younger than ever before. Getting married right out of high school or while in college was considered the norm. A common stereotype was that women went to college to get a "Mrs." (pronounced M.R.S.) degree, meaning a husband. Although women had other aspirations in life, the dominant theme promoted in the culture and media at the time was that a husband was far more important for a young woman than a college degree. Despite the fact that employment rates also rose for women during this period, the media tended to focus on a woman's role in the home. If a woman wasn't engaged or married by her early twenties, she was in danger of becoming an "old maid."
Single and Pregnant
If remaining single in American society was considered undesirable, being single and pregnant was totally unacceptable, especially for white women. Girls who "got in trouble" were forced to drop out of school, and often sent away to distant relatives or homes for wayward girls. Shunned by society for the duration of their pregnancy, unwed mothers paid a huge price for premarital sex. In reality young women were engaging in premarital sex in spite of the societal pressure to remain virgins. There was a growing need for easy, safe, effective, reliable and female-controlled contraceptives.
Not only did most married women walk down the aisle by age 19; they also tended to start families right away. A majority of brides were pregnant within seven months of their wedding, and they didn't just stop at one child. Large families were typical. From 1940 to 1960, the number of families with three children doubled and the number of families having a fourth child quadrupled.
This was also the era of the "happy homemaker." For young mothers in the 1950s, domesticity was idealized in the media, and women were encouraged to stay at home if the family could afford it. Women who chose to work when they didn't need the paycheck were often considered selfish, putting themselves before the needs of their family.
Decades of Childbearing
But even for happy homemakers, pressures were mounting. In a departure from previous generations, it was no longer acceptable for a wife to shut her husband out of the bedroom. Starting in the 1950s sex was viewed as a key component of a healthy and loving marriage. Without an effective female-controlled contraceptive, young wives faced three decades of childbearing before they reached menopause.
The Pill Welcomed
By the late 1950s, both single and married American women were ready and waiting for a new and improved form of birth control. When the Pill was introduced, the social factors affecting women's reproductive lives contributed significantly to the warm reception women across the country gave the Pill.
previous | return to people & events | next