Gender Roles in 1950s America

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  • 0:01 What Are Gender Roles?
  • 1:24 American Men in the 1950s
  • 2:23 American Women in the 1950s
  • 3:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn how to define gender roles and explore how they affected they lives of American men and women throughout the 1950s. When you are done with the lesson, you can test your new knowledge with the quiz.

What Are Gender Roles?

Like many of us, you may have been raised on television reruns of classic shows like I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, and Leave it Beaver. These shows portrayed happy families with simple structures; the father went to work each day, and the mother stayed home to run the house and raise the kids. What seemed like simple shows at the time actually portrayed the rigid 1950s gender roles for men and women.

Gender roles are social expectations that dictate how each gender is to speak, think, act, and engage with each other. In many ways, gender roles control what people can and can't do by defining things like jobs, entertainment, and objects as either masculine or feminine. For example, in the 1950s, it would have been highly unlikely that a woman would take a job as a garbage collector because society and culture insisted that it was a man's job and it wouldn't be acceptable for a woman to do such work.

Television shows, like Father Knows Best (above), reinforced gender roles for American men and women in the 1950s
Father Knows Best

During American involvement in WWII (1941-1947), women regularly stepped in to fill the jobs of men, who were overseas fighting in the war. In this case, the blurring of gender roles was acceptable because it helped the war effort and kept the country moving forward, but once men returned from the war, the majority of women left the workforce and the jobs were returned to the men.

American Men in the 1950s

The years that followed WWII ushered in a new age of prosperity in the United States, and large numbers of returning soldiers married quickly and began families in the suburban areas of the country. Because women were expected to stay home and care for the children, men became the sole providers for the family.

Being the sole provider for the family gave men a significant amount of power in their homes and contributed to feelings of male superiority. After all, it was the man's ability to have a career and 'climb the corporate ladder' that kept the family from sliding into poverty. As head of the household, men were expected to be strong, masculine, and good decision makers, which served as a natural counter-balance for the feminine and maternal role of women.

In the rapidly growing world of television and advertising, men were often depicted as capable, assertive, and intelligent; ideas that tended to be expressed by juxtaposing them with women, who were frequently portrayed as being the opposite.

In the 1950s, advertising often reminded men that they were superior to women

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