Cold War Femininity and the Study of Gender Roles

“They were wives and mothers, cleaners and cooks in the man’s castle, nurturers and chauffeurs for the children, the linchpin that kept everything running smoothly.”
 Mary C. Brennan
Wives, Mothers, and the Red Menace: Conservative Women and the Crusade Against Communism

Defining Womanhood in a Genderless Society

What does it mean to be a woman in 2018? More importantly, why does this matter? What does our country, or any country, gain from defining clear and inarguable definitions of what it means to be female?

From the time that we are introduced to the world and breathe our first unassisted breaths, women are taught and conditioned into a structured ideal of what society tells us we should be. Every day of our lives is filled with instructions from men, as well as other women, on how to behave, how to dress, what skills we should be mastering, what type of men we should be seeking, qualities and personalities that will make us more attractive… The list could go on for ages.

In 2018 we are surrounded by contradictions and blatant disregard to this feature of growing up female. Single mothers, highly educated female scholars, childless and independent “power women”, lesbians, pre- and post-op transgender men and women… Women have not only successfully and unapologetically “unsexed” themselves, but they had redefined what it means to be and act like a woman. We are defying and redefining gender roles, as well as both commanding and demanding a place in the larger dynamics of the world.

But why is this an issue? Why is the push back so great?

Aside from a rejection based on the desire for conservatives to hold onto what they believe to be the “traditional American way of life”, much of American society’s desire to retain gender roles solidified in the early years of the Cold War roughly 70 years ago. Among other things, gender and sexuality served as the foundation upon which the generalized “Us versus Them” arguments were based, declaring the cultural differences between the United States and the Soviet Union. Therefore, in a country that is not even 30 years out of the Cold War, ideas associated with gender roles and domestic strength – which in itself was largely determined by the capability of citizens to conform to these gender roles designated to them at birth – and the common narrative that the United States “won” the Cold War are often equated.

Thus, in order to understand the opinions on both sides of the gender and femininity argument, we must understand the mentality and narrative of postwar America.


Cold War Motherhood in Postwar Life

While it is incredibly important to understand the Cold War as a battle of international and economic ideologies (i.e. the capitalist West and the communist East), it is crucial to examine the domestic sphere as a battle ground for defining what postwar American society was. This domestic sphere, and most notably the American family, valued the role mothers had in producing the next generation of “perfect American citizens”. Finding a balance in child raising, particularly the raising of sons, was seen as crucial to the survival of American life and society. It was often believed that “Mothers who neglected their children bred criminals; mothers who overindulged their sons turned them into passive, weak, and effeminate ‘perverts’” (May, p. 93). The pressure put on women to marry and bear children was in accordance with rhetoric that discussed this role in terms of civic duties to one’s country. Doing so signified a dedication to one’s nation and a commitment to preserving it through raising the next generation of patriotic Americans in a well established and successful ideal nuclear family.

Even within the rhetoric of civil defense literature, motherhood and homemaking served an important role. By enforcing guidelines and expectations through encouragement of family preparedness, the U.S. government “brought women to the center of the militarizing project” as an extension of their already established duties of the housewife and mother (McEnaney, p. 77). While there are instances of women pushing back against the role of homefront defenders – see Dee Garrison’s essay in Joanne Meyerowitz’s anthology Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America – our country’s nostalgic recollection of the 1950s is typically pictured within this context. Rather, we envision them as the backbone of the American family, and it was their supporting roles along side their patriotic, blue collar husbands that helped prove American superiority over the Soviets.


Contextualizing Politics within a Woman’s Realm

Women who did decide to enter the “masculine” world of politics did so with caution. For much of American society, politics and the public realm was seen as an environment unsuited for the talents and fragility of the female mind and body. However, many women took to political activism in order to defend the use of gender norms as a way to control and manipulate the population. Postwar women, in order to justify their actions within the political sphere, blamed men for the advancements of communism across the globe, thus feminizing men and shaming their inability to protect the country the way women can protect a home (Brennan, p. 89). They saw their political activities as an extension of their domestic duties and the national desire to contain the spread of communism both internationally and internally.

Through this the politicizing of the female image, particularly within the Republican Party became popular among followers. In many instances “Club leaders added new symbols to their campaign slogans, like the Republican ‘saleswoman,’ which invoked both the growing importance of women to the retail industry as well as traits assumed to be intrinsically feminine, namely good manners and friendliness” (Nickerson, p. 40). This was seen primarily in the business of conservative bookstores that sold literature and were often repositories for grassroots movements during the development of the New Right. These jobs also worked themselves into the rhetoric of civil defense, in which wives and mothers saw opportunity for themselves to learn as much as they could about public policy and political actions in order to protect themselves and their families from possible attacks.


The Modern Woman and Today’s Gender (So What?)

So we come back, as with any successful analysis of practically any topic, with the question of “So what?” What is the take away from understanding gender norms and  social structures, specifically those related to women and femininity, from the postwar era when one is living in our current one? What benefit, or insight, does it show us as to why there is such a desire to restrict modern interpretations of what it means to be a woman?

To keep it simple, the answer is that these traditional characteristics have been believed for decades to represent a strong and successful democracy. The role women played during the Cold War was a product of an ideology that placed the family as the core power from which democracy and capitalism flourished and proceeded to make the United States into and economic and militaristic super power. Therefore many Americans in the chaotic and ever changing world of 2018 often look back with nostalgia to what they saw as the “glory days” in which American superiority was vibrant and well. As a result, many often see the changing of gender norms as not only a violation of American values, but as a destruction of American power upon the global stage.

While it doesn’t help in providing a clear write or wrong path on the subject of gender and sexuality, it does give us, especially those in the younger generation a small bit of understanding as to why our society is so reluctant to change. We are not even 50 years, one who generation, separated from a world in which the country’s survival depended upon a woman being confined to the role of mother and housewife. It hasn’t even been 50 years since women had to justify their desire to participate in political conversations in a way that underlined their purpose as being within the domestic sphere of the household.

In 2018 we are rewriting the narrative, and creating our own. We are learning from historians such as Joanne Meyerowitz that the stereotypes of the 1950s were often contradicted and ignored by women all over the country. We are establishing our own legacy in defiance of what we have been taught. And we are attempting to show the world, and ourselves, that socially mandated ways of being a particular gender are not the only ways to declare that your country is strong and to be admired.

Yet… In order to make change we must understand what, and why, we are changing…

So what? Where does the discussion go from here?


Read More »

The End as the Beginning

Well…. My project is done. For this class anyway. No, it’s not exactly where I think it could be, but it was an amazing experience and I am incredibly proud of what I accomplished. I’ve done more in 16 weeks than I thought wad going to be possible. And I ultimately did what I set out to do. 

However, the most important part of all of this is my new found passion for what I’m studying. My roommate called her’s a eureka moment, and I want to echo that. That feeling of seeing an end. But most importantly having a new drive and appreciation for what it is Im studying. And my is it beautiful. 

There are many peoole I wish to thank, but most importantly I wish to thank my parents. I’m a first generation graduate competing in a masters program because of their love and motivation. And I owe them more than just the words “thank you”. 

For those of you connected to BSU’s VPN you can check out my finished project on the digital history portal. For everyone else, please follow me on Twitter at @kngblogger.

This won’t be my last post… stay tuned for more to come!! 

Storming the Gates


An image from my ArcGIS map that will become a part of my semester project. Each dot represents a case study of what the United States government considered to be the “perfect” fallout shelter.  Notice the wind patterns. The darker the pattern, the more dangerous fallout conditions were predicted to be. Why is there no “example” for a shelter in the North West, an area ultimately closer to Russia than the rest of the country?

Where I am Now

There is a light at the end of this tunnel with this project. While it still does seem very far off, I can at least see it now. As it stands I only have a few loose ends to tie up in regards to my data and finalizing all of that. Other than those small things, the only major part of this project that remains is importing my narrative text blocks and uploading the actual website itself into the world of the Internet for everyone to see and judge. As daunting as this seems to me, I’m ready for it.

By no means has this project been easy. There was a lot of information that I had to unpack, repack, write, and rewrite. There was a lot that I had planned that had to ultimately be scrapped because I either didn’t have the time I thought I would or because the project itself didn’t go in the direction that I originally intended. Overall, however, I am pleased with what I have accomplished.


Current Problems

Formatting is my biggest problem. I feel as though my website is a bit bland and vague, which that might 100% be my own bias, but I feel like a lot more could be added to it. There is also a lot that I have to do as far as adding images and such that are a part of the Voyant and Cinemetrics work that I need to place within the coding. Which reminds me…

Coding has been the bane of my existence. As a historian, never did I think that coding would ever be something that I intended, or would ever, do. I honestly cannot say how thankful I am for people who do this for a living so that I don’t have to. As well, I cannot thank those in my cohort enough for the help and support that they have given me when it comes to this issue. Even if was just to hear me complain.

In the end though… I figured it out. And, for the most part, I am confident with what I am doing in regards to manipulating code. Certainly not enough to create a whole webpage from scratch… But enough to at least know that I am looking at, and working with, code and what to do to change certain things.


Looking to the Future

As I stated in the beginning of this entire adventure, this is merely the beginning. My creative project, the end project that will ultimately determine whether or not I am worthy of receiving a Master’s degree, will be a continuation of this. THIS is what excites me the most. As frustrated as I am at this point with all the things that have gone wrong, I am thankful for the opportunity to learn them now and begin to move forward with what I have to do for this much larger project. December 2018 is coming up fast, but I am ready.

Locating the Bunker


Like the young couple who honeymooned in the fallout shelter, postwar Americans set their sights on the affluent and protected home as the location of their own personal pursuit of happiness.

Elaine Tyler May

“Cold War, Warm Hearth”

Where I Am With The Project

I have made significant progress with the work that I have done in terms of this project. In the past month I have read through and analyzed the majority of my secondary sources, transcribed all but one of my videos, and have begun to insert my information into tools and maps that I plan to use to finalize this project. There have been some snags, as with most historical research projects, but I am still quite pleased with the work that I have accomplished and looking forward to the outcome.

Overall, these snags that I have mentioned are general questions that I have yet to really been able to answer. The map portion of my project seems to be giving me more trouble than what I initially thoughts, and I hope I will be able to find a solution to this soon. My main concern is with providing an interactive display of the information, whether that be images or a new layout for the map. Coming down to the end of the semester always makes me nervous when my projects are only half empty.

Other than that, the feedback I have gotten so far, especially after Thursday night’s presentations during seminar, have all been positive. The questions I received were more regarding clarification and inquiring about other information that I had left out of the presentation itself. Ultimately this assures me that my information and research is clear and easy to follow.

Reflecting back on actually giving the presentation, I am pleased with the fact that I was able to speak clearly and articulate what I have accomplished so far. As someone who has always struggled with giving presentations, it felt good to know that I did as well as I did and was able to present in a way that not only flowed well for the class to understand but also made myself proud.

Other Research News

As we get closer to the end of the semester, it both terrifies me and thrills me to be where I am in regards to this project. I do wish that I was further along, but the amount that I have gotten done at this point does make me proud of myself. I am still moving forward with trying to sort out the information for the fallout shelters which is my primary focus aside from finishing the secondary research as the holiday weekend gets closer.

Knowing that this is a staple in what will be my creative project, which I will complete to get my Master’s degree in December of next year, also makes me excited. I feel like working on this project has given me clear direction about where I would like to go with my final project. Also, it has furthered my interest in this subject and time era.

Atomic Warfare and American Values 


Civil defense was the means selected to persuade Americans to accept such an outcome if it, indeed, became a necessary one. Americans would have to be shown that at a minimum, they would survive a nuclear conflagration and, after an acceptable period of reconstruction of their homeland, they could resume their accustomed prewar existence.

Melvin E. Matthews, Jr.
Duck and Cover: Civil Defense Images in Film and Television from the Cold War to 9/11

Brief Reflection and Current Thoughts

As I am finishing up with reading over the secondary literature, I must admit that my excitement for the finished project is growing. The topic of civil defense propaganda, whether it be from the FDCA or through Hollywood, is not only an interesting part of our American history, but also a vital one to know and understand.

The role of civil defense within American cinema and television helped to warn and desensitize the American population to the threat of a possible nuclear war against the Soviets. As well, these films helped to indoctrinate citizens, starting with young school children, American values and mores that the government felt were important to promote and preserve (for more information reference Stages of Emergency: Cold War Nuclear Civil Defense by Tracy C. Davis). These messages, as Davis writes, primarily targeted children, women, and middle-class, working men who epitomized the ideal American nuclear family.

Keeping in mind these important facts, my research as taken shape with the goal of understanding what common messages these films had, and what values they told the citizens were the most important to preserve. Comparing this data to the knowledge found in the secondary literature will hopefully provide me with an thorough understanding of how much of an impact these films could have had on the culture of 1950’s America. I also look forward to seeing how the digital tools I plan to use will either contradict or expand upon whether the secondary literature.

Using Digital Tools

In regards to my use of digital tools, I have narrowed down the three that I wish to use, and hope that I will be able to have enough data and resources to use them accurately. The three that I think would be most beneficial to my research is Voyant, Cinemetrix, and Story Maps. Between the these three tools, I believe the information I will receive will illustrate points of my research that have not been deeply examined by previous historians.



The use of Voyant as a visual/textual analysis is extremely impressive for me (technology is still something even this 23 year old is adapting to in general, let alone for the use of research and emphasizing scholarship) but is something I am motivated to explore and employ in this project. The image above shows an example of what I have been working on. Though the OCR still needs cleaned, as well as my last few film transcriptions still need to be added, the results of this has proven to be very remarkable for me. Each circle represents a word in the transcription, with bigger circles belonging to those that are used more frequently. Though you can’t see it in this image, if one hovered over the circle, then they could not only see how many times the word is used, but also what words are connected, and how many documents (transcriptions in my case) the word shows up in. This tool, therefore, is interesting to use for it allows researchers to examine the connections between documents and their word choices.


The use of Cinemetrix will be particularly useful for my research. Aside from examining what is being said in the dialogue of a video, it is also important to look closely at what is being shown. Cinemetrix, therefore, will be used to track how many times a particular item or idea is shown visually on screen. For example, I will be able to track the number of churches that a video shows, or schools, or even how many times the Soviet flag is displayed. While I haven’t been able to use this tool yet, I look forward to seeing the outcomes that it will show.

Story Maps

Story maps is where I am finding the most difficulty in using. Or any map tool for that matter. My goal for this is to find specific data and locations on fallout shelters in the United States. Both the videos and the secondary literature – specifically authors such as Elaine Tyler May, Paul Boyer, and Tracy C. Davis – discuss the government’s continuous emphasis on the use and availability of fallout shelters in efforts of preparing the country for nuclear attack, I have yet to be able to find data on how many of them existed (or still exist) even in the state of Indiana (note: Grissom Air Force Base is located just 40 minutes outside of my hometown).  Though I do hope to hear from a representative of Gallup so that I have a little more data regarding fallout shelters in the 1950’s that I could add to this research.


Concluding Thoughts

Ultimately, as with any researcher, I wish I was farther along than what I am. Not only for the sake of keeping up with deadlines, but I also am incredibly excited to see what information I can gather from the use of this data and combining it with the digital tools that I mentioned above. I plan on providing another update to this blog when I get the final transcription done and added to the corpus of data I am putting through Voyant. However, until then it has been interesting exploring what the data has shown me so far.

I do however feel nervous about not having the data on the fallout shelters. It has certainly has been an obstacle in my workflow, but other than that everything is running fairly smoothly. As I move into November, my goal is to finish up the notes on my secondary research (almost done!), and really try to input the data into the tools.

Digital History Project Proposal/First Post

Short Introduction

A brief introduction before I get into talking about this project. I hope to update my about me page soon, so that way people can actually have some introduction as to who I am. With the semester hitting the midterm point, everything has been very busy, but I have noticed a sharp spike in my viewers since the airing of Justin Clark’s interview with me on his podcast, Reason Revolution, earlier this week, so I feel the need to not only put something here, but also to introduce myself and my research a little bit before I just jump right into discussing the current project.

My name is Kelsey Gordon, and I am a Master’s candidate at Ball State University. I study mid-twentieth century popular culture. This is generally the time period from 1945 to 1965, or as many historians refer to as “The Atomic Age.” Specifically, I study and examine methods of popular entertainment – i.e. films, television programs, literature, propaganda, etc. – that was produced and/or distributed during this span of 20 years. I also hold a Bachelor’s degree from Indiana University-Kokomo, also a minor background in Communication Arts, which is where I was influenced by a few of my professors and instructors to pursue the study of the topic that I do now.

My current program at Ball State focuses on the use and implementation of digital tools and programs to help better understand and visualize history. Essentially, this is to bring history to a new platform, one that can reach more people and help to provide an understanding that monographs and text books simply cannot. I am absolutely honored to be a part of such a movement and change within the history discipline, and hope to show all of you not only how the digital age has impacted my work, but also how it can impact the rest of the field of history as well.

The Project

For this semester, my digital history seminar is focusing on the basics of learning how to work digital tools and how to use them in the study of history. I have loosely titled my project Lessons of Atomic Survival: Mid-Century American Values in Industrial Propaganda Films, 1945-1965. I say loosely simply because more than likely this title will change as my research on the topic develops and strengthens. However, I feel like this topic is pretty clear to read and to understand what I’m studying. I am specifically looking at 9 films, there may be more added to this, that I feel embody the zeitgeist of the “Atomic Age.” My goal is to study these films and track the messages and overarching themes to see what they wanted to imply to their viewers.

By comparing this information to secondary literature, I hope to see whether these trends, once put through digital tools, either support or contradict theories held by historians such as Elaine Tyler May and Paul Boyer. This includes asking research questions such as:

  • What are some common themes among all of the films that have been viewed?
  • What messages are being promoted? Is there an overarching message that connects all of the films?
  • How did these messages influence and/or affect audiences?
  • Did these movies change common ideas? Or did they rather reflect already held assumptions?
  • How does this information, and these messages, compare to other forms of popular entertainment in the 1950s?

Through this project I intend to employ the use of tools such as Voyant and/or Palladio, Cinemetrix (almost positive I’m spelling that wrong, will edit later), and mapping tools such as Carto. This way those examining my project will get a textual, numerical, and spacial representation of my research and be able to easily understand my thesis.

For those who wish to keep updated on the progress of my project, please note that this is only one small step in what will be a much larger project to be completed by (hopefully) December of next year. THIS WILL NOT BE THE FINAL PROJECT. This is only a way to stay updated on my research, as well as another platform to ask me questions. 

I plan to tackle this project in a series of steps that will hopefully give me enough time to spread out the work so that I can focus on each bit individually without getting overwhelmed. As of right now I have selected 9 films to study, I have gathered secondary source material, I have begun taking notes on these sources, and I have decided on what tools I wish to use. By the end of October, I hope to have all of my secondary sources read with notes taken on them, as well as have notes taken on the films. I also aim to be in touch with a representative of Gallup regarding questions I have that their polls may have answers to, and also have selected a few scholarly articles relating to my topic. Therefore, November can be dedicated processing the data and information I have gathered and working them into the tools. If all goes as planned, the last few days of December before the project is due will be for final adjustments and putting everything together.

My main goal for this project is to explore the ways that the information gathered from studying these messages and central themes can be visualized digitally. This means also having the ability to deconstruct and pull apart key components of these films and describing them bit by bit. Rather than just discussing them briefly through the method of writing a book, showcasing them through digital tools helps to better understand the impact of these themes and how they were interpreted by the public. While these ideas can be understood through means of text and diagrams within a book, being able to explore them through the tools I mentioned above will help to explore them on a deeper and more personal level, where I will be able to track changes and links within themes, rather than just having them as broad concepts on a page.

Concluding Remarks

So this first entry is incredibly long, and I hope anyone reading this has understood the majority. Any questions please feel free to leave a comment or email me at I hope, again, to fill out the “About Me” segment soon. That might actually be a task for over the weekend. However, until then I am content with having this first post up and over with!