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?


Brennan, Mary C. Wives, Mothers, and the Red Menace: Conservative Women and the Crusade Against Communism. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2008.
May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 2008.
McEnaney, Laura. Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Nickerson, Michelle M. Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.
More Reading:
Critchlow, Donald T.  Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Echols, Alice. Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
Horowitz, Daniel. Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminist Mystique: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.
Meyerowitz, Joanne. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

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