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Sexism in America
Alive, Well, and Ruining Our Future
By Barbara J. Berg
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2009 Barbara J. Berg
All rights reserved.
THE AWAKENING OF AMERICAN WOMEN
The room is dark, the music is dramatic. Suddenly, on the screen a brick two-story house comes into view. The camera settles on this shot, imparting a sense of gravity and importance. We watch — as we are meant to — with the awe usually bestowed on one of the seven wonders of the world, but this is just a man's home.
Then the words appear: Father Knows Best. And there's a collective groan from my women's history class.
"They really believed that garbage?" someone mutters in the back of the room.
The answer is a resounding yes.
The World of Our Fathers
Television sitcoms of the 1950s reinforced the golden age of masculinity. Whether used to mete out punishment or to resolve a dilemma, the father's patient and all-encompassing authority reigned supreme. His wisdom was Solomonic, his judgment unquestioned. He presided over a world placid as pudding. Toddler hissy fits, mouthing-off teens, and frazzled wives had no place in TV land, with its subliminally consistent messages of order and tradition.
My class is quiet now as the show unfolds. We're introduced to the Anderson family: Jim (Robert Young), his wife Margaret (Jane Wyatt), and their children. Bud is the oldest, followed by two daughters with the unpromising nicknames Princess and Kitten.
A daring producer might have called this episode "Margaret Gets a Life — Not!" In it, we get a glimpse of restiveness lurking beneath the bodice of the wifely shirtwaist. Margaret, feeling incompetent because she's the only family member never to receive an award for anything, takes the daring step of entering a women's fishing contest. With help from a pro, she discovers — to her utter amazement — she's a natural. As the day of the competition approaches, Margaret's confidence soars. Victory is in reach. But rushing up the stairs to tell this to a neighbor, she trips and sprains her wrist, deep-sixing any hope of a trophy.
A hand shoots up in the classroom. "Do you think she fell because she was afraid of success?" "Maybe she was being punished for her self-assurance," another student suggests.
We debate these alternatives without coming to a conclusion. But either way, we agree on one thing: Margaret's sense of self will always be "the one that got away." Margaret's family, while sympathetic to her disappointment, minimizes the loss. Why is it so important to learn how to fish?
In the final scene, they give her the award they think she deserves: a frying pan engraved with the words "World's Greatest Mother." The gift establishes her rightful, really her only, role.
Sitcoms like Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and The Donna Reed Show are the perfect vehicles to show my students the social hierarchies of the idealized postwar family. However much individual episodes might have differed, they offered the same cookie-cutter characters: the benign breadwinning patriarch, a dutiful mom living in material suburban bliss, and a couple of kids whose missteps always found easy resolution within twenty-two minutes of airtime.
Even watching with my class so many years after these shows ended their spectacular runs, it's easy to understand their popularity. The cult of domesticity may have been light-years away from the reality of how most Americans lived, but it satisfied both private longings and political ideology.
DURING WORLD WAR II, some six million women were recruited into the labor force. Sixty percent were married, and the majority had young children. "There's not a job a woman cannot do," our government said, launching the propaganda effort to enlist women into the workforce. With her iconic bandana and rolled-up sleeves, Rosie was not only a riveter, she welded, cut lath, loaded shells, and handled acetylene torches like the strongest of men.
Uncertain at first, women found they liked their work, basking in the income, friendships, sense of self-worth, and newfound independence. When polled, a staggering 80 percent of these wartime workers said they wanted to stay on the job even after the men returned. As economist Caroline Bird noted in her 1971 book, Born Female, "Girls who started working during World War II never learned that some jobs belonged to men and others to women." But they were going to get that lesson soon enough.
Within two months of VJ Day, eight hundred thousand workers, most of them women, lost their jobs in the aircraft industry — a number matched by layoffs in the electrical and automotive industries. Major companies such as Detroit Edison and IBM restored the prewar policy of refusing to hire married women. New York Times reporter Lucy Greenbaum, noting these changes, declared "the courtship of women workers" at an end.
With postwar inflation high and memories of the Great Depression's soup lines fresh, experts worried that the economy couldn't support both the returning GI and the newly energized woman. "The war worker cannot be cast off like an old glove," protested labor expert Theresa Wolfson. But cast off they were. By the end of 1946, millions of women had been fired from heavy industry. And women, told one week they could operate cranes, were advised the next to go back to the kitchen and make jam.
The redomestication of the American woman became the driving purpose of prime-time television. Night after night predictable minidramas normalized woman's role as drudge-in-chief. That sitcom characters June Cleaver, Harriet Nelson, and Donna Reed scrubbed floors, chopped onions, and sorted through dirty laundry while implausibly dressed in pearls and high heels imparted a deliberate sense of glamour to their chores. But television women remained all dressed up with nowhere to go — hermetically sealed inside their houses like leftovers pushed into Tupperware and dumped in the deep freeze.
Over the decade, television's popularity surpassed movies and other forms of entertainment. In 1950, 4.4 million families had purchased televisions; ten years later 50 million sets had been sold. For advertisers, television proved to be immensely valuable. As Ella Taylor points out in Prime Time Families, it was a "home appliance used to sell other appliances," helping to secure consumerism as the centerpiece of the American dream. By promoting upwardly mobile individuals who had plenty of leisure time, television transitioned women from Depression-bred austerity into a new acceptance of spending.
Each 1950s sitcom episode integrated a subtle sales pitch, from the demure Harriet Nelson taking a salad out of her gleaming Hotpoint refrigerator to the riotous Lucy Ricardo ceaselessly coaxing Ricky into buying something for her or the house. Millions of American women were nightly sold a particular version of the perfect family and the possessions necessary to sustain it.
As women flocked to shopping centers loading up on toasters, washing machines, and ovens, they unwittingly aided our propaganda war with the Russians. In what has come to be called the kitchen debate of 1959, then–vice president Richard Nixon boasted to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev about the variety of appliances available to consumers, all "so our housewives have a choice," Nixon said. Proof positive, he believed, of capitalism's superiority over communism.
Throughout the 1950s the cold war menace loomed large. The Soviets were ostensibly a civilization opposed to everything our nation believed in — God, family, free enterprise — and actively plotting our destruction. Each news story sent our anxiety levels soaring. Senator Joseph McCarthy's frenzied reports of spies lurking in our midst seemed authenticated by the conviction of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, charged with smuggling our atomic secrets to the Soviets. Russia's launching of Sputnik, the first satellite into outer space, and Red China's role in North Korea's invasion of South Korea underscored America's vulnerability. We were engaged in a deadly game of brinkmanship, edging ever closer to nuclear annihilation.
The Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), the 1950s version of today's Department of Homeland Security, fueled terrors of a sneak attack. The screech of air-raid sirens blasted midday test warnings. Spotters rushed to rooftops to stand guard. Along our highways, billboards blazed with images of the searing flash, the mushroom cloud. At any moment, evil could blast from the skies. It wasn't a matter of if, but when. And Americans needed to be prepared.
Television and movie theaters carried cartoons of the ubiquitous Bert the Turtle — think Barney in today's world — pitching the "duck and cover" campaign. At the command of their teachers a generation of schoolchildren scooted under their desks, trying to imitate a turtle holed up in its shell.
"A clean building seldom burns," declared a CD Alert manual in 1951, ludicrously charging housewives with the task of scrubbing their homes to avoid a nuclear inferno. Our civil defense strategy rested on an unfathomable premise: Americans could prevail in an atomic war. And the key to survival could be found — where else? — in the individual family, divided along traditional gender roles. With women busily scouring and stocking up on emergency supplies, husbands were urged to build home bomb shelters where they and their loved ones could sit out the devastation.
Basements, backyards, garages — all these made for perfect fallout shelters, or grandma's pantries, as they were called, the name meant to evoke a comforting homespun image. Popular magazines used upbeat messages to coax their readers into accepting the family shelter as a part of everyday existence. Time magazine in 1959 had this advice: "When you're not using it for an emergency, it can be a perfect playroom for your kids!" And in the same year Life told its readers: "Fallout can be fun," featuring a couple who spent their two-week honeymoon in a steel and concrete room twelve feet underground.
While relatively few families actually constructed subterranean hideaways, what the New York Times called "shelteritis" loomed large in our collective consciousness. Homes became endowed with transcendent attributes; they were safe harbors, domestic shrines, possessing ineffable powers to nurture and protect. A bulwark against the ever-present threat of wholesale carnage, the idealized home seemed within easy reach of many Americans. The federal GI Bill, granting war veterans educational benefits, job assistance, generous housing loans, and highway construction jobs, hastened our retreat to the sheltering hearth. Sequestered and isolated, the family became invested with a religious aura.
When Father Knows Best's Jim Anderson wins his town's award as a model father, he daydreams of meeting St. Peter, who lauds Jim's status as head of his household, community leader, and scrupulous businessman. Such celestial sanction bolstered the prevailing ideology — men ruled, in both the domestic and political spheres.
Throughout the 1950s, masculine prowess was equated with an impenetrable America. The times called for supersized masculinity, the kind of tough men who populated Mickey Spillane's fiercely anti-Communist, bestselling thrillers — heroes who relished nothing more than murdering unarmed Commies.
Women's function was somewhat different. The only part they were expected to play in keeping the country strong was to maintain the hegemony of their men. And they did this best by being docile and compliant, by making the home a place of serenity, of calm — by living the fantasy they nightly saw on their television screens.
Being a caregiver was a time-honored role, dating back to the Bible. This was what women were meant to do. In the aftermath of war, countless women threw themselves back into full-time nurturing and enjoyed it. But what about those who didn't? What about those having trouble fitting their recently realized autonomy into the confines of extreme domesticity? They were held to the script by authoritative, expert voices.
How Are You Going to Keep Her Down on the Ranch (-Style House)?
"An independent woman is a contradiction in terms," said authors Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg. Their 1947 bestselling book, The Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, decreed motherhood to be woman's duty, civic responsibility, and true fulfillment. That Marynia Farnham herself enjoyed a successful career didn't seem to blunt her argument or widespread appeal. Women who challenged traditional roles put the nation's security at risk — a view given widespread support by an assorted array of professionals. Female fiends gleefully destroying nationhood and manhood crowded the pages of the prolific author Philip Wylie's books. Gaining international fame for his concept of momism, Wylie popularized the wholesale condemnation of women, but especially mothers, an overbearing lot, he said, raising ineffectual sons too weak to defend America.
The fearful label emasculating was stamped on outspoken, successful, or even knowledgeable women, effectively constraining female ambition. In this heyday of Freudian psychology, everyone knew the fate of "castrating" women. They ended up bitter and alone: old maids. By the end of the 1940s the term ball breaker, once used by our military to describe a grueling job, became the epithet of choice for a woman who sapped the masculinity from a man.
"I remember clearly being told, and more than once, that I should never win a tennis match against a boy, even though I was an ace player," a woman now in her eighties told me. "There was a long list of don'ts. Like don't ever let a boy know you're smart, and certainly not that you're smarter than he is."
"For the American girl, books and babies don't mix," admonished Newsweek magazine in 1946, while eminent psychiatrist Dr. Eustace Chesser, author of How to Make Success Out of Your Marriage, chided, "Certainly the happiest women have never found the secret of their happiness in books or lectures." Rather than trying to compete with men — a misguided endeavor doomed to failure anyway — women should stick to their own sphere and make that their life's work.
"Back then it was the two Bs," Gloria Gruber, a woman I interviewed, said, remembering her years as a young suburban housewife in Arlington, Virginia. "Having babies and buying. That's what we talked about, what we were told to do. The more of both, the better!" Lundberg and Farnham underscored this maternal imperative in their book by urging the federal government to award prizes to women for the birth of every child beyond the first.
As never before in our history, women were marrying at younger ages than their mothers. After one hundred years of decline, the birthrate soared in 1956 to a twentieth-century high. The number of women with three children doubled, those with four tripled, sparking the postwar baby boom. College girls proclaimed interest in only one degree — an MRS. In class they daydreamed — not of sex, not even of fairy tale weddings, but of setting the dinner table in a cozy ranch-style home, telling their children to wash up as their husbands came smiling through the door. Recalling her own fantasies, songwriter and singer Carly Simon said, "I was going to live in the kitchen and serve little pouffy mousses with demitasses to my husband."
The postwar consensus rested on the efficacy of the upwardly mobile suburban family to ensure the well-being of its members along with the entire nation. But the mythmakers of the 1950s got it wrong. A comfortable lifestyle remained beyond the reach of much of this country.
By the mid-1950s, some forty to fifty million people, 25 percent of our population, were living below the poverty level. Before Medicaid or any housing or food programs, the tobacco farmers of Appalachia, the African Americans laboring under institutionalized, legal, and vicious segregation, and the Mexican Americans just moving to our cities lived out their days in grinding desperation. This was the "other America" Michael Harrington wrote about in a 1962 book by that name. And its plight would soon "shake the windows and rattle the doors" of the richest country in the world.
And even for those living out the middle-class dream, the headlong rush into marriage and maternity didn't always deliver as advertised. All the Sears catalogs and the do-it-yourself home repair kits couldn't keep the bricks from falling off the hearth.
"It was that third B," Gloria Gruber remembered, "the one we didn't talk about: boredom. The terrible, unrelieved boredom of our lives."
The typical day for millions of American women was consumed by housekeeping and child care. Authorities urged making housework more creative and personal and, as a result, more time-consuming. In his 1950 book, Educating Our Daughters, Mills College president Lynn White told women to stop wasting their energies on studying abstract science and philosophy and study instead the "theory and preparation of a basque paella, of a well-marinated shish-kebab, lamb kidney sautéed in sherry, an authoritative curry."
Excerpted from Sexism in America by Barbara J. Berg. Copyright © 2009 Barbara J. Berg. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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