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Roles in the 1950's

What were the roles of women? A look at Popular Culture

<>One must question where these stereotypes and enforce roles came from.  As previously mentioned, the government and media played a large role in showing North America what the “norm” was.   There was a push for normalcy, but who defined this normalcy for all to aspire to?  Mainly this was done by the media. Pop Culture in the fifties and sixties was just as effective at influencing trends and norms as it is today.  Television played a large part it family entertainment, and the formation of roles within that family.

“Leave it to Beaver”, “The Donna Reed Show”, and “The Adventures of Ozzy and Harriet” were immensely popular  in the postwar decades.  All of these programs depicted one thing: the typical American family.  The mother who kept the home, the father who brought home the bacon, and the children who filled the house.  This was what women, men, and children were being shown was the American dream” night after night.  This was the idealized “normalcy” so richly sought.

These sitcoms did much to enforce gender roles, humour was expressed through this typical family positions.  “American women's humour commonly deals with the central attempt to meet or adhere to such standards.  Whereas the male humorous figure, from Rip Van Winkle onward, seeks to escape from the moral domination of women. . .”18These roles were reinforced through the media as the acceptable standard.  Deviation was humorous, or odd to the general population of suburban Americans.  The Americans who were trying to see themselves in the television families, in that perfectly normal world.


The "Perfect" Cleaver Family

Not only in television were women's roles being depicted into the common stereotypes though.  Magazines and Digests also carried articles targeted towards women, which built up the understood roles of women and obligations to their families as mother and wife.  “The joint endorsement of domestic and non domestic roles appeared in the numerous stories that offered a postwar version of today's “superwoman,” the woman who successfully combines motherhood and career.”19 With pressure from all sides to conform, it is  no wonder so many women posed no threats to their husbands idealized masculine/feminine understanding.  This understanding that helped society return to normalcy after WWII.

June Cleaver in the Kitchen
Women's magazines encouraged the wife and mother role
A once popular media image, then seen as against
the norm.

As women at home were being reassured that their roles were tight, and necessary, their daughters were also being taught the ways of family life.  Encouraged to continue on the tradition of the homemaker, stay at home mother, and perfect wife.  Educational films displayed the usefulness in a full education in Home Economics, and why these skills were imperative for young girls.  Education was another form of “bidding time.” As seen in the film “Mona Lisa’s Smile” girls attended post secondary institutions only until they were married and had a home to run. The education was merely a waiting period while husbands prepared for careers that would win bread for the awaiting family.  Pressures to conform and perpetuate normalcy started from a very young age.

Girls enrolled in Home Economics Classes at various ages.  All being taught how to do what was expected of them.

Media figures also played an important role in perpetuating this anti-virile image of women: “’I think it’s terribly important to feel feminine, to act feminine,’ said Marilyn Monroe, ‘Men need women to be feminine.’”20 Pressures on girls and women came from all angles.  To look normal and acceptable to men, and to be the women that could keep the home well for their future husbands.  “In America, the image of the Nice Girls as the ones the don’t began to look a little tarnished once the Kinsey Repot on female sexuality had revealed that among the mostly nice, high-school and college-educated ones who formed the majority in his sample. . . were not virgins when they married.”21 These kinds of pressures only further allowed young women to easily accept their “assigned” roles as mothers and wives.

1950's Ideals: What Women Were Supposed to Know
Choosing for Happiness
How to find a husband in College
The Home Economics Story (Part 1)
Girls find a future after High School
Why Study Home Economics?
Why should a young girl take Home Economics when mother can teach them?


With all these pressures and expectations, it is no wonder such a large majority of women chose to conform to this idealized “normalcy” and present a non-threatening attitude towards family life.  These roles, in their discrete, and unassuming way, helped North America return to the normal and safe functions of understood and unchallenging traditions during the Cold War.  The role of the housewife, or the inconspicuous nurturing secretary or school teacher helped to return the war-shattered society remaining after the Second World War to a state of comfort and safety.  At the onset of the Cold War, these feelings of understanding traditions and fulfilling normal standards were important to allow all of North America to adjust to postwar life.  By returning to prewar traditions, and settling into feminized roles women helped all of society, men and children as well as themselves, appear normalized after the shocks of war.  By becoming anti-virile in position and class structure this allowed men to return to ordinary patterns of life more easily.  Although this meant the insertion simplified standards on women, idealizing women’s roles in such a way as to deem them passive was the only way North American culture had to achieve safety, comfort and most importantly, “normalcy.”


Rachel Leslie  
History and Film 200
Fall 2004