Homemakers and Activists in the 1950s

Kathleen A Laughlin. Women’s Rights: People and Perspectives. Editor: Crista DeLuzio. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

An estimated twelve million women were members of gender-segregated social, religious, or civic associations after World War II. Modest and un-controversial projects, the promise of self-improvement, and the availability of friendship networks drew women into voluntary associations in unprecedented numbers, transforming the elite study clubs of the turn of the century into a movement for civic engagement. The large number of disparate, active women’s clubs in the 1950s reflected an affiliation mania among women who embraced domesticity but also believed in responsible citizenship. Unions, civil rights organizations, and political parties provided other pathways to women who had multiple allegiances and identities. Through various organizational affiliations, women were able to develop important leadership skills and achieve some measure of political agency during a decade characterized as repressive and reactionary.

But this engagement was paradoxical: while these women did not live in quiet desperation in the suburbs, they were unable to transform mainstream politics or challenge gender norms in the 1950s. Organized women failed to shape public policy on the federal level, and remained on the margins of mainstream politics in the 1950s—a stasis that reflected not only the political conservatism and the power of social custom in postwar America, but also the fractures among national women‘s organizations divided by class, race, religion, and ideology. But women did not retreat from public life either, for World War II altered the missions and programs of organizations. In postwar America, a critical mass of housewives and working women maintained the high levels of civic engagement and voluntary services demanded during wartime, engaging in multifaceted forms of political activism without courting opprobrium for upending traditional gender roles. They did not completely foreswear individual achievement, nor did they question female difference or repudiate domesticity. They were housewives and activists.

Return to Domesticity

Several social, economic, and political changes in the postwar world contrived and reinforced women’s domestic roles during the 1950s. The 1950s encompassed both anxiety of the atomic age and the exuberance of a booming consumer economy; these two seemingly contradictory impulses endowed a powerful ideology that celebrated the American way of life. Fear of communism and the potential for atomic warfare increased feelings of vulnerability in postwar America. World War II taught Americans that the days of isolation from the rest of the world were at an end. The burden of maintaining American values in an unstable world fell on women, who were practically compelled to make full-time and unwavering commitments to domestic life. In this age of anxiety, women’s role as “moral force” within the family was elevated and politicized by experts, politicians, and in the popular media (Kaledin 1984, preface). Public opinion was generally unsympathetic toward any expansion of women’s role; pundits and experts not only discouraged women from entering public life, but also often condemned expressions of personal ambition. Many social scientists lent scientific credence to the domestic ideal. Prescriptive literature at its most extreme warned of the dangers to the future of the nation if women assumed traditional male roles. The implications of the domestic ideology were explored by Betty Friedan in her best-selling book, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. Friedan’s content analysis of popular media and her survey of the attitudes and life choices of her graduating class at Smith College supported an assessment of middle-class white women as being no more than victims of prescriptive literature and diminishing economic and educational opportunities.

The Baby Boom and the emergent suburban lifestyle transformed the domestic ideal into reality for a significant percentage of white women. These women chose family life during this period, either by freely abandoning employment, or in response to limited opportunities for job and career advancement, after government policies and employer and labor union practices effectively restored the rigidly sex-segregated labor market. Whatever the reason for a retreat to domestic life, women married at younger ages and had more children. The median age for marriage for women was 20. The fertility rate increased significantly to 122.9 per 1,000 women, up from 79.9 in 1940. The rapid expansion of the suburbs to accommodate commitments to the nuclear family placed insular domesticity at the forefront of American life. Federal policies contributed to this change by placing the suburban lifestyle within reach for millions of Americans. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly known as the GI Bill of Rights, mandated low-interest mortgages, and financed the educational pursuits of returning veterans. Federally subsidized road building projects, including an interstate highway system completed during the Eisenhower administration, stimulated building outside of urban centers. In the 1950s, suburbs grew by 45 percent, while the population of cities remained static. Suburban homes were locations for nuclear family units, breaking the bonds of extended families and community networks of urban life. This transformation further segmented the U.S. population by race and class; white men benefited from the GI Bill of Rights while men of color encountered barriers to economic and educational advancement.

Paid Employment and Voluntarism

Revised histories of the 1950s have suggested that women had social, political, and economic agency, despite the potency of the domestic ideal. Women’s lives were far more complicated and not nearly as bleakly isolating as Betty Friedan suggested in her feminist polemic. Public opinion influenced the worldview of middle-class Americans during the 1950s, but women asserted themselves in marriage, and relationships between husbands and wives were characterized by a “contested egalitarianism” rather than a passive acquiescence to traditional gender roles (Weiss 2000, 16). Relationships within the family were fluid rather than static. Nor was the media monolithic; popular magazines legitimized the domestic ideal but also publicized and celebrated women ‘s individuality. Women readers were not necessarily discouraged from pursuing wage work or entering politics.

Labor shortages in a rapidly expanding consumer economy eased barriers to married women’s employment. Married women with children pursued paid work in the 1950s to supplement family incomes because additional wages were needed to maintain middle-class status, albeit in acceptable sex-typed jobs in the service and clerical sectors. African American women were able to take advantage of changes in the labor market. In the North, black women in greater numbers left low-paid agricultural and domestic-service jobs for higher paid clerical and factory jobs. Women who remained in college pursued traditional female fields as social workers, librarians, and teachers. Ironically, government policies also facilitated the movement of women into the labor market, but without challenging sex roles. The National Manpower Commission at Columbia University legitimized women’s wage work as essential to continued economic growth in Womanpower, published in 1957. The Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor relied on Womanpower and internal studies documenting women’s need and desire to work to promote policies to encourage women to enter the labor force. In collaboration with the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BPW), Women’s Bureau director Alice Leopold created Earning Opportunity Forums to train women how to seek employment and introduce them to employers. By the early 1960s, 41 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 44 were in the labor force.

Upper-and middle-class women who did not seek paid employment also wanted to combine family life with meaningful contributions to society. Nationalistic collective identity, so powerful during World War II, continued in the 1950s, as containment of communism required a recommitment to civic duty. Women’s clubs, inclined to work on inconsequential study programs focusing on art and literature or charitable projects prior to World War II, intensified efforts to encourage members to become active, alert citizens during the 1950s. These efforts were punctuated with pleas from national officers to the rank and file to combine study with action. Discouraged from entering mainstream party politics by the antifeminist machinery of the 1950s, women embraced voluntary associations as locations for exercises in citizenship, especially in communities where the emphasis was on providing services. The Ladies’ Home Journal and other publications publicized club activities and encouraged women to engage in nonpartisan community betterment projects.

Federal civil defense agencies charged to prepare citizens for home defense in the atomic age also legitimized women’s civic engagement. The newly established Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) relied on public action to implement procedures and policies. Home defense initiatives presented women with another rationale for active civic engagement. Katherine Howard, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s director of women’s affairs and advisor to the FCDA, was a leading advocate for a partnership between government and women’s organizations. Meetings, conferences, and training sessions organized by civil defense advisors and government agencies in Washington, D.C. legitimized the programs of hundreds of women’s organizations.

Although most national women’s organizations maintained longstanding commitments to nonpartisanship throughout the 1950s, the politicalization and militarization of domestic life in the Cold War era placed politics at the forefront of programs and activities. After World War II, many national organizations became complex, bureaucratic political groups, subsidized through the membership dues of the millions of women seeking some form of involvement outside of the home. Organizational innovations to accommodate growing memberships stimulated political activism on all levels of government. The League of Women Voters reorganized from a loose collection of state associations into a powerful national body that instigated community activism. The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and the BPW hired professional lobbyists to work in Washington, D.C. Professional staff, through publications, workshops, and institutes, provided training in active citizenship. Although critics of women’s organizations found this emphasis on study and training frivolous, clubwomen took their responsibilities seriously. A renewed commitment to mainstream politics after the dislocation of the Great Depression and World War II revitalized the dormant Women’s Joint Congressional Committee (WJCC), a coalition group formed in 1920 to organize newly enfranchised women into a potent voting bloc. During the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, the WJCC advocated legislation that furthered women’s interests as a group.

The importance of the United Nations in contributing to increasing political awareness among women during this period cannot be underestimated. Eleanor Roosevelt ‘s emergence as a spokesperson and leader for the UN inspired women to become thoroughly informed about international relations. New international bodies and alliances offered women a foothold in public discourses about world affairs. After losing her appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations with the election of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower as President, Roosevelt created a grassroots campaign of support for the UN. Groups as disparate as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Republican-dominated BPW joined together to actively promote the policies of the United Nations and lobby for federal legislation to facilitate world understanding and free trade. International branches of national women’s organizations also facilitated collaboration abroad. At the same time, isolationist mothers’ groups formed in the 1930s opposed the United Nations. However, the extremist mothers’ movement, with its combination of anti-Semitism and anticommunism, found few adherents. Former isolationist activists sought an institutional home within more mainstream Republican women’s clubs.

Women engaged in autonomous political activism that combined an awareness of international events with action at home. The desire of suburban whites to construct homogenous enclaves elevated the importance of local governments and local issues. Local governments erected zoning laws and provided desperately needed educational, recreational, and municipal services. Community betterment efforts drew women into politics in significant numbers. Civic engagement to improve services, for families and children in particular, enabled women to enter public life without explicitly challenging the domestic ideal. At the same time, both women and men residing in the suburbs expected national, state, and local governments to be responsive to their concerns as citizens, homeowners, and parents. This well-developed sense of rights and responsibilities in postwar America led to an unprecedented commitment to civic and national life.

Female leaders in the Democratic and Republican parties sought to redirect womanpower into party work in the suburbs. Even though women made few inroads in mainstream politics in the 1950s and were denied leadership positions within both parties, activists continued to engage in partisan politics, marshalling an effective grassroots volunteer effort. A loose coalition of Republican women’s clubs organized under the auspices of the Republican National Committee orchestrated structural changes in the postwar years that paralleled the organizational adjustments of the League of Women Voters. In 1950, the National Federation of Republican Women became an autonomous national organization endeavoring to organize housewives into a political force to be reckoned with by the Republican leadership. Unconvinced that the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee, and other national women’s organizations were truly nonpartisan, Betty Farrington, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, attempted to introduce the Republican Party agenda to millions of organized women she believed were covertly aligned with the Democratic Party.

Even though the Democratic National Committee (DNC) disbanded its Women’s Division in 1953, female leaders remained party loyalists committed to addressing the ascendancy of the Republican Party with the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Democratic women hoped to disprove the perception that women were responsible for Eisenhower’s election, but, like women in the Republican Party, they organized outside of the party apparatus by working with Democratic women’s auxiliaries and clubs. Under the leadership of Katie Lochheim, head of the Office of Women’s Activities, a poor substitute for the Women’s Division, women became central to local organizing. Women’s role in partisan politics during the 1950s was largely confined to traditional voluntarism—registering voters, raising funds, distributing information and staffing offices.

Women in the Labor Movement and the Civil Rights Movement

The labor movement became influential and politically powerful even during the conservative period of the 1950s, especially within the Democratic Party. In 1955, the newly merged American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) represented 18 million workers, composing 35 percent of the nonagricultural workforce. Collective bargaining agreements expanded health and welfare benefits and raised wages, propelling blue collar, unskilled workers into the ranks of the middle class. Labor leaders abandoned militant postures characteristic of the 1930s and embraced mainstream politics as another means to represent workers. The importance of legislation in determining the future of the labor movement became dramatically apparent with the passage of anti-union legislation, the Taft-Harley Act (1947), and the Landrum-Griffin Act (1959). In the 1950s, labor unions became a location for the development of activist political agendas.

In much the same way as voluntary associations, unions offered women a means to enter public life where few opportunities existed. After World War II, the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) acquiesced to the demands of its female members and created a women’s bureau, which became a department within the union in 1955. The UAW Women’s Department supported a cadre of feminist activists who used similar strategies as women’s clubs to encourage the rank and file to become involved in union affairs. National conferences, training institutes, and publications solidified women’s presence within the labor movement. Other unions followed suit. The United Packing House Workers Union created an Anti-Discrimination Department in 1949. Women comprised 35 percent of the membership in the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE), a presence that gave them political clout within the union. Union organizing also occurred in the female-dominated labor market. Telephone operators, waitresses, teachers, and flight attendants considered the advantages of collective bargaining agreements. In addition, union auxiliaries, established in the 1930s to support striking workers, became powerful federations, an expansion of power and influence that mirrored changes in the women’s club movement. Women’s federations, like women’s clubs, elected officers and held conferences.

This activist cohort within the AFL-CIO promoted a legislative program to combat sex discrimination and extend benefits that would make it possible for women to remain in the labor market. These “ labor feminists “ sought to achieve “full industrial citizenship,” through provisions such as amendments to the federal tax code, to allow tax deductions for childcare and household help, and equal pay for equal work legislation (Cobble 2004, 4). A loose coalition of women’s organizations, trade unions, and the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor promoted the gender justice issue of the 1950s—equal pay for equal work. African American union leaders worked for both racial and gender equity. Addie Wyatt (United Packing House Workers of America), Gloria Johnson (IUE), and Lillian Hatcher (UAW) actively participated in coalition politics with women’s organizations.

In the 1950s, African American women provided organizational support and leadership within the emerging civil rights movement. Rising expectations of real social change after World War II shaped the agendas of women’s groups and civil rights organizations. The potential for meaningful change in the area of civil rights after World War II led to the creation of interracial coalition groups to lobby Congress for a permanent commitment to the fair-employment practices embodied in temporary wartime measures. The landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1954 invalidating the separate but equal doctrine in education, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, spurred direct action to end de jure segregation in the South. In 1955, women in Montgomery, Alabama organized a grassroots effort that sustained a bus boycott for 381 days. Boycott leaders Jo Ann Robinson and Rosa Parks were longstanding civil rights activists; Robinson was an educator and leader of a black women’s club in Montgomery, and Parks was a former secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). NAACP lawyer Constance Baker Motley fought to end segregation through the courts. During the 1950s, Shirley Chisholm and other black women sought social change through mainstream politics. Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, led behind-the-scenes efforts to fund fledgling civil rights organizations and worked with white women’s organizations to promote civil rights and protect civil liberties.

Progressive Impulses and Alternative Communities

The burgeoning civil rights movement occurred within the unlikely context of conservative Cold War politics. The decade began with world events that deepened the resolve of social critics and politicians to protect national security at all costs. National security issues dominated political discourses with the rise of communist China, war in Korea, the changing political landscape in Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union’s success in testing nuclear weapons. In the period of extreme anxiety, civil liberties were sacrificed in order to end perceived communist influence in the United States. The Internal Security Act of 1950 required the registration of Communists, and established the Subversive Control Board to investigate un-American activities. The House Committee on Un-American Activities focused more intently on revealing communist infiltration of organizations, unions, governments, and universities during the 1950s. In 1952, with the Republican electoral victory in the Senate, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican from Wisconsin, used his chairmanship of an investigative committee on government operations to intensify Communist purges within government. Red baiting put liberal and progressive political interest groups, including many women’s organizations, on the defensive, but that did not mean that progressive ideologies and politics failed to develop.

Even though the decade is known for demands for conformity and virulent anticommunism, which had a chilling effect on many progressive political interest groups, active, progressive subcultures and networks nurtured ideas and ideals that would flourish during the 1960s. Several women’s groups remained stalwart advocates of peace and defenders of civil rights and civil liberties during the 1950s Red Scare. By cloaking their politics in the domestic ideal, women’s organizations promoted peace and justice issues without inviting scrutiny. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s membership dropped precipitously during the decade, and, as a result, the organization adopted a defensive posture. Despite sensitivity to the label Communist, the WILPF continued to decry the nuclear arms race, but did so by appealing to housewives and mothers. Able to avoid the communist label without completely shedding its progressive ideals, the WILPF survived the decade to witness the rise of antiwar sentiment during the 1960s. Other organizations composed of middle-class housewives, such as the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Council of Negro Women, and the YWCA, promoted racial justice and defended free speech, often by building a “postwar progressive coalition” around specific issues (Lynn 1994, 105).

Women in the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) faced more daunting challenges during this period, but were able to change the ideological direction of the party to include a thoroughgoing gender analysis that anticipated the radical feminism of the 1970s. Women from all political persuasions and walks of life were galvanized by expanded opportunities to enter public life during World War II. World War II was also a watershed for women in the Communist Party. Although organized women failed to achieve a permanent transformation of women’s traditional roles after World War II, the postwar period, contrary to previous assumptions about the 1950s, inspired gender-conscious political activity by increasing the number of national women’s organizations, such as the BPW, the NCJW, and the American Association of University Women. Left-wing women were emboldened to craft a gender analysis as well. The short-lived Congress of American Women (CAW), active in the late 1940s, comprised of female activists within the Communist Party, promoted a political agenda quite similar to mainstream women’s organizations: equal pay for equal work and amendments to existing New Deal legislation, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Security Act, to cover occupations dominated by African American women, domestic service and agricultural labor. Yet CAW members recognized that women’s economic success was tied to their social roles as wives and mothers. Unlike mainstream women’s organizations, the CAW advocated a critical analysis of gender relations. By the early 1950s, the discourses within CPUSA included male chauvinism and the oppression of women.

Lesbians, forced to confront the shame of engaging in a lifestyle that was reviled as abnormal and deviant, felt the repression of the 1950s more acutely than did the victims of political red baiting. They sought succor from repression in alternative communities in urban areas after World War II, as the suburbs were burnishing the normative nuclear family. Much like the legions of organized women denied opportunities to explore their full potential, lesbians succeeded in creating a self-consciousness community of interest, but bars and private homes provided a sense of solidarity in the absence of political and social organizations. Locations that allowed the freedom of personal expression sustained a community identity that eventually found a political voice on the heels of the civil rights and women’s movements.

Preconditions for Mass-Based Activism

Women’s organizations were not uniform in their adjustments to the imperatives of Cold War America, and differences in missions, goals, and political ideologies prevented potential coalitions from forming around the promotion of national policies. Racial, ethnic, class, and ideological differences contributed to rifts within the post-World War II women’s movement. Deep divisions of personal identity made ongoing coalitions untenable. The BPW and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) committed resources to national security, especially civil defense, and were fiercely anticommunist. These Republican-dominated women’s clubs composed of white, middle-class women, alienated other, more progressive women’s organizations, such as the National Councils of Jewish, Catholic, and Negro Women. White, ethnic women from immigrant backgrounds, and African American women were steadfast in their progressivism and far more likely to view anticommunist hysteria as a threat to civil liberties. These differences were exacerbated over debates of the efficacy of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Trade union women joined progressively-inclined groups to oppose the ERA as a threat to protective legislation regulating working conditions and establishing minimum wages and maximum hours for working women. Conversely, BPW and GFWC members believed that the ERA was the only way to address persistent inequalities between the sexes. Consequently, women as a group were unable to change the course of mainstream politics or to shape policy debates in the 1950s.

Yet coalitions did emerge, usually around less controversial goals that all groups could support, as national bodies attempted to fuse civic engagement with mainstream political activism. Even though the fractured women’s movement could not surmount barriers to passing national antidiscrimination laws in the conservative climate of the 1950s, state and local groups succeeded in achieving modest legislative victories and appointments of women to policymaking bodies, and, more importantly, they remained organized around gender-conscious activities.

Bureaus, divisions, commissions, and offices to study the status of women were established in local, state, and federal governments; in unions, universities, and women’s organizations; and within political parties, thereby providing a formidable institutional base for grassroots feminism in the 1960s. The CPUSA had a commission on the status of women. In 1947, the Women’s Status Bill was introduced in Congress, which became the blueprint for the eventual creation, in 1961, of President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, a body credited with launching the liberal branch of the women’s movement. Labor unions nurtured female activists by creating separate departments and bureaus. Think tanks produced studies on women’s labor force participation, and universities introduced pilot programs to encourage women to return to higher education.

Before the women’s movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, women from all walks of life were already making personal choices that challenged conventional gender norms. The Baby Boom peaked in 1957. The number of women in college had begun to rise prior to resurgent feminism. Black women willingly and without apology sought elective office and engaged in public protest. Lesbians defied the repressive constraints of 1950s America. Women in left-wing organizations were ideologically ahead of their time. Women living more conventional lives engaged in political behavior that was quietly transformative. By the 1960s, isolated communities and fractured coalitions came together around unabashedly feminist goals.