Monday, January 22, 2007

I like the 1950s

The 50s has sort of emerged as the nadir of gender/racial oppression in the US. I've been reading Fiancee's Gender Theory Sociology class materials. The theme is similar: the war ends, millions of American men return home, and turn their creative energies to the beating-down of housewives and black people. Other minorities wait in line for their turn to be repressed.

But, as far as I can tell, the 1950s was the LEAST repressive decade in American history.. UP TO THAT POINT. Lets just focus on women for the time being. What decade was an improvement? Women didn't even get the right to vote until 1920, after all. While there were some notable improvements to the status of women in the 1930s -- including in Social Security legislation -- everyone was really too preoccupied with staying alive, excepting some notable Socialists. There was no significant movement of women into the work force until the 1940s, during the war.

The 50s seems to get the attention because its milieu was what the early feminist movement rebelled against. Here's the summation from Wikipedia:
With radical political activity suppressed by McCarthyism, consumerism being fostered by the retooling of wartime factories for domestic use, and the nuclear family at one of its historic peaks, the scene was set for a major reconsideration of women's roles. The symbolic fuse was the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which critiqued suburban white women's socialization and experience as intolerable.
But this reconsideration was not made possible by the fate of women being at a historic nadir. Their legal status was at an unprecedented high. They could vote. Legally, they were given nearly the same rights as men. The social sphere might've been stifling, but it was also domestically tranquil: no major wars, no Depression -- a long period of economic prosperity that made it possible to consider liberalizing social arrangements. And don't forget that one of the major changes of the 1950s is that it was one of the few decades when literacy was universal. Women could band together to READ. It was also an era of unprecedented spending money -- revolution takes cash.

Still, it seems like the most important change was technological. The shift to consumerism is apparently one of the major problems with suburban life. Consumerism was a dramatic improvement! Labor-saving devices gave homemakers free time for the first time -- the vaccuum, telephone, dishwasher, refrigerator -- you weren't spending 12 hours a day scrubbing floors. Legal and available contraception meant that the era of 9 babies was over. Television and cars meant that housewives were no longer isolated in the home -- they were free to travel widely and meet similarly-bored women.

This is not to say that the 1950s were great. They were repressive. But they were nonetheless the least repressive era ever -- and they gave women the tools and time to rebel for even greater opportunities.


Rebecca C. Brown said...

Oh Kevin. Where to begin?

I'll channel my invective toward you two most preposterous claims. First, the idea that the vapid suburban 50s were valuable to women because it gave them something to rebel against in the 1960s is akin to celebrating slavery because it gave us Dr. King. (And, contrary to what self-congratulatory popular media nostalgia suggests, the women's movement of the 60s was led by a small number of "radical" women who were mostly rejected by their female peers.)

You also tout the role of appliances and cars in improving women's lives, claiming that, unlike in decades past, women were suddenly granted freedom of mobility and afforded bounties of extra time that they formerly spent doing housework. The fact is, no matter what "time-saving" toys humans have at their disposal, women spend as much time on housework now as they did in the 50s as they did in the 20s. Women were never "allowed" to travel freely in their cars - instead, they used those cars to run errands for their families. Appliances and cars just gave women another way to work for their husbands and children on the "allowance" their husbands gave them.

The war of the early 40s gave many women (and minorities) their first opportunity to earn and spend their own money, to feel productive and independent, and to have a sense of personal agency. The wave of GIs back into the states, and the subsequent preferential employment they were given, forced women back into the home as underappreciated mothers and homemakers.

You're so clearly ignorant of the history of women's rights, and you're seemingly so willfully unanalytical about gender relations in this country, that I won't take the time to further dissect your stupid claims. But I still like you as a person!

Tommaso Sciortino said...

It's true. History teaches us that revolutions aren't started by the poor and oppressed - they're started by the not-quite poor who remember what not being oppressed was like.

Kevin said...

"First, the idea that the vapid suburban 50s were valuable to women because it gave them something to rebel against in the 1960s is akin to celebrating slavery because it gave us Dr. King."

What a terrible thing to say! But that's not my argument. I'm saying that the 1950s gave them the TOOLS to rebel. If I wanted horrible oppression, I could look at any of the numerous centuries prior. The combination of economic freedom, education, and political ferment was something new: a necessary mixture to revolution. It's hard to rebel when you're knocked up, and you can't read. I'm not saying that these created some kind of 1950s utopia in themselves. If that had been true, there would've been no women's revolution! I'm saying that after centuries in the dark, things occurred to show women the light.

I am happy to concede that the 1940s was a taste of an America where women are much more free. But it's kind of an anomaly. All the men were GONE, being shot at. It's not sustainable. The real test is if a women's movement can withstand peacetime, when all the oppressive powers of men could turn against them.

It's no accident, after all, that the growth of women in the workplace coincided with the growth of white-collar work.. in the 1950s. I am happy to say that women could've run a superb female-only coal mine, but it was obviously easier to make inroads into offices.

"The fact is, no matter what "time-saving" toys humans have at their disposal, women spend as much time on housework now as they did in the 50s as they did in the 20s."

Interesting claim. It should be quantifiable. Here's a paper ( that finds a strong correlation between appliance adoption and female labor force participation. Here's a Slate article talking about the same (, and the economics article discussing the same (

Naturally, I can't prove that the increase in leisure time was at all responsible for the women's revolution. But it's very suggestive.

Kevin said...

Figure 3 in that last paper has the exact numbers on it. They make it hard to single out the 1950s.. things started in the 10s.. but it is suggestive.

Don't think that I'm implying that the 50s were NOT a time of amazing political and social oppression. I'm saying that there were corresponding technological/legal/educational changes that made the 1960s possible.

Paul said...

Yeah, Rebecca, I don't see where Kevin says anything like, "the vapid suburban 50s were valuable to women because it gave them something to rebel against." I see him as saying that the circumstances of the 50s better allowed them to rebel.

Similarly, though he does argue (or at least suggest the possibility) that technology gave women more time to do things other than house work - e.g., work - that just seems like a plausible explanation of the data. Where's the data that says women spend just as many hours per week doing housework now as they did 80 years ago? One of the papers Kevin links to refers to another paper that says that just from 1978-1988, the time per week women spent doing housework went from 29.1 to 23.6 hours.

I'm not sure I'd describe the trend as an increase in "leisure" time, since there's a good deal of paid work being done with that time, but I don't see the case at all for describing things as no better at all for women.

Kevin said...

I'm going to retract my claim that "the 1950s were the least repressive era for women ever"

I still believe it to be true, but it's really one of those retarded, non-provable wholly-subjective statements, and it's not necessary to my point.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

I'll admit that I'm being hard on Kevin, and my interpretation that he was contending that the 50s were great because they game women something to rebel against was misplaced. I think he'd made that conclusion semi-explicit in an IM conversation I'd had with him before he posted this, so I was still working off that.

Anyhow, I stand by my claim that saying the 50s gave the (tiny number of elite) feminists of the 60s the tools for reform is a weak argument. The feminist movement was not the result of Cadillacs and blenders, and the women who lead (and usually the ones who follow, too) women's movements have ALWAYS been the uppper-class education ones, so literacy and cash aren't major factors.

As for the research Kevin linked to, it brings up a point I thought of commenting on but omitted for simplicity's sake, namely the role of servants. Figure 3 of that PDF charts the simultaenous drop of house servants and amount of housework per week. It does not isolate the amount of housework that the wife does, which, according to everything I've read, has stayed fairly constant in the last 50 or so years. There was more hosuework to do back in 1910, but the stay-at-home wife wasn't doing all of it. From the body of this reports: "The amount of time freed by modern appliances is somewhat speculative," followed by a lack of data describing how appliances save time. Plus where the hell did they get these data?

The introduction of more women into the work force in tandem with the intruduction of more appliances is a specious correlation. There are additional economic and cultural variables at play. I might as well say that more women entered the work force as the number of sit-coms on TV increased; I mean, it's true, but it doesn't mean anything.

It's just really offensive to claim that women's lives were improved in the 1950s, not by giving them more political agency or economic independence, but by giving them a television and a vaccum cleaner. Plus I've never been a fan of the "It wasn't all that bad!" apologists.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Oh, another comment on the research about housework. The report you linked to seems to only be tracking time spent on cleaning the house. With the introduction of cars, community activities for kids, mega-super grocery stores, and so on, the realm of "housework" expanded from just cooking and cleaning into a whole host of duties that homemakers have to complete. Mom didn't have to pick her kids up from soccer practice in 1920.

(I also wonder if those data in that report include work done by rural women; the rural population has been decreasing steadily since 1900, and rural folks have more work to do than urban folks.)

Paul said...

Well, you're right that those studies only include what amounts to housecleaning, but if those numbers have decreased so dramatically, and you are correct that the total amount of "domestic labor", so to speak, has been unchanged, that would imply that other duties - shopping, driving the kids around - have become increasingly time consuming over time. (Much more so, in fact.) Is there some evidence of this? Remember that the decrease in housecleaning time isn't just from 1920, it's been a continuing trend at least through 1988.

Kevin said...

True, correlation does not equal causation.

But here's the thing about that. There are two (economic) reasons women would enter the workforce in large numbers. The first is demand -- that there was an unusual change in the demand for women. There is some evidence for this with the growth of female-friendly white-collar options. But if demand had greatly increased, you'd expect to see wages rise for women. This didn't happen. Wages for women sucked! And demand is more in line with the kind of social/cultural explanations you're going with.

It makes more sense to me that supply increased. That is, that more women were forcing their way into the workplace because they had the time and energy to do so. Certainly the growth of feminism was an elite, modern woman affair, but the growth of women in the workplace was not. These were not highly political people, for the most part. It seems to make more sense to me that they had the time and education to enter the workforce, not that the workforce demanded them.

Thinker said...

One minor correction, widely available and legal contraception was a creature of the 60s, not the 50s.

Although the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960, contraceptives were not available to married women in all states until Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 and were not available to unmarried women in all states until Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972.

As for employment, the supply was clearly there. The need for women workers during WWII, and women's response to that need, show the desire of women to join the work force. Most of them wanted to stay too, but with the end of hostilities, and the consequent demobilization of forces, they were pushed out by employers who replaced them with men. If you haven't seen it, look for Connie Field's 1980 documentary, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROSIE THE RIVETER. The women interviewed in this film give eloquent testimony that illustrates what life was like for US women in the 30s, 40s and 50s.