Sarah Glazer looks back at her own memories of the fifties
As a child of the 1950s whose family didn’t own a TV, I loved watching cowboy westerns whenever I visited the home of my male cousins. But as soon as Leave it to Beaver came on--a popular comedy about an idealized suburban family--my cousin switched channels. His mother had declared that we were NOT ALLOWED to watch that program.
Even at the age of 8, I saw the irony of the prohibition. Shoot 'em up westerns were appropriate children’s fare, but an anodyne sit-com like Leave it to Beaver was not? At the same time, I instinctively grasped the reason: Beaver’s mother, June Cleaver, was a lovely housewife who mainly stood around in an apron and seemed to have lots of time to read magazines on the couch.
She was totally different from our mothers. My mother was a writer; she would emerge from her typewriter looking tense, having smoked a rare cigarette to calm her nerves. My aunt was getting a PhD in archaeology in an era when women were having a hard time breaking into that field. My cousins spent much of the summer parked at our house while their mother was off digging excavation holes in the hot Mexican sun.
So what was the true life of women in the 1950s? Was it the housewife in the apron who wanted nothing more than to care for a husband and her children? Or were the '50s a time when women were starting to have careers?
This question came up recently at our Salon for women writers in London, where our guest speaker was journalist Rachel Cooke, author of Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties—a book profiling women who had important careers in England during that era.
As Cooke observes, Mad Men has given us a '50s image of a “compliant, smiling creature who knows little or nothing of sex, and stands no chance of getting to the top of advertising or any other career.”
But fifties women weren’t all unambitious, prudish or obsessed with baking, Cooke points out. Women comprised 30 percent of Britain’s workforce in 1956. And the British women profiled by Cooke achieved prominence against all odds, including lawyer Rose Heilbron and archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes.
At the same time, women faced enormous obstacles. In England at the time, a woman could not take out a mortgage in her own name. She had to produce a marriage certificate in order to be fitted for a diaphragm.
Virginia Nicholson, author of Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in the Second World War, pointed out that the deprivation of the war years in England meant that women—and men—yearned for domesticity and felt a nostalgia for the period between the world wars when families had not yet been sundered by battlefields and death.
I was struck by how important that yearning was upon reading President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous 1953 speech on the “Chance for Peace,” warning of the dangers of a growing arms race with the Soviet Union. In the victory shared by Americans and Russians at the end of World War II, Ike spoke of “all these war-weary people” who shared a common goal for the post-war period: “the only fitting monument--an age of peace.”
The Nazi horrors perpetuated against my Polish Jewish cousins were yet another reason to be focused on having babies. For young Jewish women who had survived the near-death experience of the camps, the big question after the war was whether their bodies had been so damaged by starvation and abuse that they would be unable to bear children.
My mother told me how our Jewish camp survivor cousins, upon arriving in New York City, had reprimanded her newfound taste for modern, natural wood furniture. Eating off a bare wood table? There should be a TABLECLOTH and a BOWL OF FRUIT as a centerpiece!
These symbols of domesticity were the true hallmarks of civilization in their eyes. And indeed what could be a more triumphant answer to Hitler’s plan of Jewish extermination than to produce a healthy family that would live on, with tablecloths yet, producing future generations?
At my Salon the other evening, the discussion of fifties women quickly turned into an impassioned debate about whether women are once again choosing domesticity over careers—re-channeling all their education into raising the perfect children instead of work. And whether that is a defeat for women.
But I’d argue that women still don’t have a free “choice.” As sociologist Pamela Stone discovered in Opting Out?-- her interviews with career women who dropped out--an important reason that women quit careers and head home is that their employers make it impossible to continue once they have children or stigmatize them for doing so.
And trying to care for one’s children remains one of the single biggest threats to economic survival for working women at the bottom of the ladder. As the recent Shriver Report points out, those women are often only one sick child away from losing their job and falling into poverty. Indeed, one-third of American women are now living at or near the brink of poverty.
As women scholars start to take a second look at the fifties, we’re finding the picture is more complicated that we once thought—both then and now. As women, we’re still struggling between the dual pulls of work and family because society continues to make it so hard to have both.