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History Paper

1950s American Mothers- Society's View of Motherhood and Its Effect on Women

American women in the 1950s lived in a world overshadowed by the image of a woman as a perfect mother. Motherhood and family life were glorified and idealized. For the most part, women did not have careers and were not independent of their husbands. There were very few options other than marriage and motherhood for them during this time. Most women were housewives or held menial jobs to help support their families. They were greatly influenced by society’s views and thus became mothers who valued the importance of their work. Disillusioned mothers who felt they didn’t fit into the culture’s image of the motherhood were oppressed by the pervading view that they should be mothers above all else and should feel fulfilled by that role.

In the 1950s, it was the widespread belief held by men and women that a woman’s first duty was to her children. This idea didn’t apply to all women, but all women lived in a world where it was normative to get married and have children. It was not thought quite necessary for them to complete higher education. As in the Victorian period, motherhood was glorified, and women were encouraged to have large families. Women were seen as nurturing and perfectly adapted to life in the home. Not only did it go without saying that couples would have children, it also went without saying that couples would have more than one child. Children gave most women their sense of purpose in life. Motherhood also promoted the notion that it would bring the ultimate sexual fulfillment. Having sex within the confines of marriage with the possibility of having children was supposed to be a great sex life. The culture defined parental gender roles in which the mother was the protector and the father was the breadwinner. The mother had a maternal instinct to hold her child back from any potential danger while the father recognized that risks should sometimes be taken. Fathers were responsible for not letting their male children become sissies.

In the 1950s, many women were housewives. It was a fate they had to accept in most cases because there were few other options. Housewifery and motherhood were not insignificant or worthless undertakings, by any means, just common ones. The average age at first marriage decreased; the percentage of people who were married increased, and people started having families almost immediately after being married. Women in the fifties drifted into motherhood, as it was expected that a woman would become a mother. Suspicion surrounded the couples who chose not to have children, and pity was felt for those who could not have children. Couples who chose not to have children were considered strange and selfish. For women, apparently the most important thing was to have children and this was their most important function. Without it, they were completely out of place: “They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights -- the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists sought for…All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.”1

Motherhood was the one area where women could exert complete control. Childbearing was the one job that only they could do. It was a powerful and creative fact in a world where powerful and creative acts were difficult to come by for women: “If the occupational achievement of men was reflected in the income they brought home, that of women might be reflected in the number of children they raised successfully.”2 In raising children, women were able to demonstrate all their talents. Motherhood was the secure and validated future for women of the fifties. The widely held belief was also that a large family was a successful and happy one. Most couples expressed the desire to have large families or regret at not having more children. The suburban housewife was the dream of young American women. Their daily activities reflected their dedication to their husbands, children, and home, which should in turn create the culture’s perfect family image. Mothers rushed to complete all the tasks of the house. They had to drive the children to their various activities, cook, bake, clean, and perform various other necessary tasks. They had barely enough time to complete the tasks of the household, let alone have any time left for themselves and were usually completely exhausted.

Society’s view expressed that women’s ultimate fulfillment should be in the home and as mothers: “These new happy housewives heroines seem strangely younger than the spirited career girls of the thirties and forties…They have no vision of the future except to have to have a baby. The only active growing figure in their world is a child. The housewife heroines are forever young, because their own image ends in childbirth…They must keep on having babies, because the feminine mystique says there is no other way for a woman to be a heroine.”3 Denying society’s image of motherhood was a denial of femininity. A woman shouldn’t need to have another job because her job was to be a mother. The idea that wives and mothers were what women were always meant to be was expressed by Sally Ann Carter: “I now realize that in the back of my mind there was always the assumption, even when I was getting my graduate degree in education, that any work I did was temporary, something to do until I assumed my principal role in life which was to be the perfect wife and mother, supported by my husband.”4 Carter graduated summa cum laude in 1956 from Smith College, an all-female college, with a major in economics. She was one of the seven out of a class of 450 women who majored in economics. She went on to a Harvard-Radcliffe program in business administration for women, but was so disgusted with the inequalities between business programs for men and women, that she switched her major to education. Education was the practical major because it was accepted for her as a women and because she was going to get married.

College was an available option for women, but it didn’t excuse them from their future as a housewife. Women were able to become more educated, to be exposed to new ideas, and open their minds, but the use that this knowledge could be put to was limited if they spent most of their lives in the house and couldn’t exert much influence from it. The 1955 commencement speaker at Smith College told the graduates that the majority of them would become housewives, whether they liked it or not, and they would enjoy it.5 Certain educators realized that the liberal arts education that was more appropriate for men was creating some confusion for women as to what they wanted to do with their lives, so a more feminine curriculum was introduced that would better instruct women on their future as wives and mothers. Many women’s colleges, such as Mills College and Barnard College, did implement courses on marriage and family life. The courses offered in this new education included cooking classes and interior decorating. This curriculum, as described in the 1950 book Educating Our Daughters by Lynn White, would “foster the intellectual and emotional life of her family and community.”6 White, a woman herself, surprisingly didn’t express any desire to see America’s women of the future enter a vaster work force in larger numbers or pursue any personal endeavors. She believed that women should be instructed in their role as wife and mother and should remain in that role. This attitude was not very encouraging, and some professors actually complained of a lack of interest among women. Some women didn’t see much of a point to their education if they were going to get married anyway and education would get in the way. In various ways, education contradicted the ideal of wife and mother. In addition, college was often treated as a place to find husbands, rather than as a place to become educated.

Though the number of women who actually went to college increased over the decades leading up to the 1950s, the percentage of women among college students actually greatly decreased. The percentage dropped “from 47 percent in 1920 to 35 percent in 1958. In the 1920s and 1930s, women who went to college tended to stay there until their education was complete. A 1959 study showed that 37 percent of college women were dropping out before graduation.”7 The percentage of women receiving doctorates also decreased from 1920 to 1950. The general belief that a college education for women wouldn’t be put to practical use resulted in many college graduate programs rejecting women. Accepting them seemed like a waste of money since they were just going to get married anyway. Also, many soldiers who returned from the war went to the universities on the GI Bill, so women’s admissions were cut to allow more spaces for this new flood of students. Paths of study for men and women were different in that even though they took many of the same courses, the education given to the women was inferior. Overwhelmingly, it was much easier for men to pursue any career or educational goals, especially with a family. Colleges were not very accommodating to women with children while men could be out of the house and complete their work more independently of their family.

Many women had an idea that they wanted to do something different with their lives but didn’t know exactly what, and it was very difficult to do many things other than become a housewife anyway. Education was one of the more acceptable majors for women because becoming a teacher was one of the accepted women’s professions. Teaching’s flexible schedule made it possible for mothers to hold this position. Social work and secretarial work were also acceptable positions. Volunteer activities gave homemakers access to public life.

Women who did work outside the home had jobs that were more menial and subordinate than those of men. The household was the place where they were not supervised and where they were in control. Educated middle-class women, whose employment opportunities were very limited, hoped to express themselves in the presentation and care of their homes. Women could not find well-paying jobs, good working conditions, or day care facilities and so needed to be dependant on men. During this time, the government tried to increase male employment, while women’s employment was discouraged. Women worked outside the home if it was necessary, but the vast majority held jobs that men wouldn’t take anyway. Societal pressure was so strong to relinquish white-collar jobs that many women were willing to do so as soon as their financial support of the family wasn’t necessary. The women of the fifties were eager to reestablish the traditional gender roles that had been threatened during the Depression when they were children. As opposed to their mothers, who had no choice but to try and find employment during the Depression, these women could stay home. Fewer women in the fifties entered the job market, creating shortages in the teaching, nursing, and social work professions throughout America. They only had part-time jobs to help put their husbands or sons through school or pay the mortgage.

It was difficult for women to break out of the norm of getting married and having children. Just about everyone followed this path. Women wanted large families partly because they were influenced by society and the media. Large families also represented affluence. Given the difficulties women faced in finding jobs outside the home, they poured their creative impulses into their families: “Women whose aspirations for personal achievement had little chance of realization in the wider world put their energies into full-time motherhood.”8 With the work world offering so little to women, they turned to motherhood as an alternative to find accomplishment. Having children completed the perfect American family and helped people live the American Dream that was being protected during the Cold War.

There were various reasons for the 1950s ideal of motherhood. After the war, people wanted to relax and get back to normal as quickly as possible. They wanted to enjoy the new prosperity. The value of family life was greatly elevated. The safely and security of family life was a shield against uncertainties about The Cold War and the Soviet Union. The family was idealized as a way in which all members would have a fulfilling and expressive personal life. Young married couples would also stimulate the economy. The returning soldiers were to settle down with wives who would have to now give up the economic freedom and jobs they had acquired during the war. The traditional family would foster clearly defined sex roles. Many women also got married quickly to relieve sexual tension. The risk of getting pregnant and not being married was just not worth taking: “In the 1950s there was nothing around to indicate that a single life could be anything other than lonely, empty, and joyless.”9 Children seemed to anchor down people and give them some vision of the future in the postwar period.

In the fifties there was also a lack of birth control. Information about contraceptives wasn’t easily circulated and abortion wasn’t legal. Many women were afraid to ask their doctors about birth control or were denied the information by their doctors. Also, birth control wasn’t foolproof, and the birth control pill was not yet available.

Despite the seemingly hidden prospect of birth control, there was a birth control movement that continued to grow in the fifties. In the 1920s and 1930s, under the leadership of Margaret Sanger, the birth control movement took root, with the idea that women could be liberated from the fear of pregnancy in their sexual lives. In marriage, birth control would really bring about sexual fulfillment by eliminating the fear of the consequences. Couples should have the freedom to plan their families, Sanger argued. Many liberal institutions accepted contraception to limit the population. Having more people than the country could provide for would create too much of an additional strain on a country that was already battling the Cold War.

By the end of the 1950s only two states still had laws that prohibited the dissemination of contraceptive information. Many Americans were willing to accept birth control in marriage to better plan families, but extramarital sex was still not accepted and women were still expected to have children and raise a family: “As a result, contraception in the postwar years encouraged scientific family planning, rather than premarital sexual experimentation or alternative to motherhood for women. American public opinion, legislative bodies, and the medical establishment all did their part to make sure that the birth control technology would encourage marriage and family life.”10 Birth control actually contributed to younger marriages, because people could now get married, yet postpone parenting. Birth control reinforced the marriage and family ideal rather than the idea of liberation.

Abortion, however, was not accepted at all. Abortions were considered immoral and a threat to family life. They were exceedingly difficult to obtain. Therefore, there were illegal abortions which were given to about 250,000 to 1 million women a year. They were often dangerous and so accounted for about 40 percent of maternal deaths. Nearly 90 percent of premarital pregnancies were aborted, most times illegally. Even doctors didn’t advocate legal abortion, which would help eradicate the unsafe illegal ones, and hospitals began to implement that their committees had to rule on each individual abortion request. As a result, requests for legal abortion were more frequently denied than granted: “The weight of public opinion was on the side of reproduction: women who have sex should be married, and married women should have babies.”11 The voices that promoted legalized abortion were very much shouted out by society’s general opinion.

Some women did express discontent at the stresses of motherhood, though it was uncommon given the view of the time that motherhood was the ultimate satisfaction: “The institution of marriage had a power and inevitability in the fifties that it has never had since.”12 There was nothing else to do other than have children. There were few people women could relate to or ask for advice if they didn’t want to conform. There weren’t many understanding doctors. They were all men and didn’t help women very much as they embarked on motherhood: “So prevalent was the assumption that women were naturally fulfilled in motherhood that anxiety or ambivalence surrounding pregnancy was actually considered a pathological condition.”13 The sources of stress surrounding motherhood weren’t addressed. The stress was just considered an abnormal condition that should be treated with psychiatric care, or simply ignored. Some mothers felt great emotional and physical strain in raising their children, exacerbated by the fact that their husbands didn’t understand their troubles. The stresses didn’t seem to have an affect on the desire to have children, however. Many women felt ashamed to speak about any dissatisfaction because they didn’t know where it came from or if it was normal. Women had no other identity other than being a wife and mother and didn’t know who they were other than that.

No matter what else was going on in their lives or how long they wanted to put off having children, if women became pregnant they just took it as a matter of course. It was the way their lives were supposed to go whether it happened sooner or later. In addition, mothers who didn’t immediately feel the wave of maternal bonding with their babies that was supposed to be immediately brought on by a birth felt very guilty. All aspects of being a mother, including nursing and bonding with the child, were supposed to come naturally, and mothers who were having problems with any of it really had no knowledgeable figure to turn to.

The mother had a huge responsibility. All the children’s imperfections were thought to be the mother’s fault, even if it was never directly stated. Therefore, the mother felt guilty and ashamed if her child grew up to be anything less than “perfect,” meaning he/she had no physical, mental, or psychological disabilities. The mother needed to give full care to her child, yet not be overprotective: “Although seemingly contradictory, the two theories, of maternal deprivation and overprotection, had one thing in common: the notion that mothers had accumulated an almost unlimited power.”14 Women were made to scrutinize everything they did in raising their children, to ensure that nothing would harm their children in any way.

Even in the media, sexy female stars were pictured as caring mothers. The stars that had been previously portrayed in the preceding three decades for their ambition and sex appeal were now portrayed as finding their greatest fulfillment in motherhood. Any woman’s primary identity was to be seen as a mother. Media and literature of the time made motherhood seem extremely attractive. It was very difficult for women to feel anything but empty and unfulfilled if they didn’t become mothers with all these images and ideas permeating their lives. Popular culture demonstrated that women who worked as fashion models or those who worked for the war effort had much better lives if they had children: “According to John Robert Powers and Harry Conover, heads of model-booking agencies in New York, being a mother usually improves a girl’s disposition, her attitude towards her work, her looks and even her figure.”15 There were very few if any images that pointed to stresses of being a mother and very little guidance on how to deal with these struggles. Glamorous models were shown with their babies. Magazines in the 1950s published almost no articles that portrayed anything but women as very feminine housewives. They insisted on the sense of fulfillment at the moment of giving birth and women’s role as mother. There should be no problem with defining oneself as only a wife and mother.

The ideal of the 1950s wasn’t necessarily the view held by women themselves and it is evident that their views were shaped largely by society rather than their own ambitions. America in the 1950s was a very discouraging place for women who wanted to do anything other than become a mother and housewife. It cannot be assumed that all women of the 1950s were unhappy or that women were unimportant members of society as only mothers. But it must be acknowledged that the view of motherhood and women in the 1950s was a hindrance to any woman who wanted to defy society’s familial image and pursue her own personal goals.

1 Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1963: pp. 16.

2 May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1988: pp. 159.

3 qtd. in Friedan: pp. 44-45.

4 Harvey, Brett. The Fifties: A Women’s Oral History. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1993: pp. 50.

5 qtd. in Harvey: pp. 45.

6 qtd. in Harvey: pp. 46.

7 qtd. in Harvey: pp. 47.

8 qtd. in May: pp. 159.

9 qtd. in Harvey: pp. 87.

10 qtd. in May: pp. 152.

11 qtd. in May: pp. 154.

12 qtd. in Harvey: pp. 69.

13 qtd. in May: pp. 149.

14 qtd. in Harvey: pp. 107.

15 qtd. in May: pp. 142.

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