Women in the 1950s in America

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  • 0:00 Women As Homemakers
  • 1:34 The Power of the Homemaker
  • 3:14 Alternatives to Homemaking
  • 4:03 Women's Liberation
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn about the role of American women in 1950s culture, and gain insight into how their contribution influenced the women's liberation movement of the following decade.

Women as Homemakers

All throughout the 1960s, large numbers of American women were engaged in a powerful social movement that demanded equal rights. As a part of the larger civil rights movement, the issue of women's rights challenged long-held stereotypes, traditional gender roles, and ideas of appropriate gender expression. Although it was not always welcomed in certain environments, the contribution of women to civil rights movement produced considerable advances in equality for minorities. While the achievements of the women's rights movement should never be understated, none of its successes would have been possible without social and economic developments of the 1950s.

During America's involvement in World War II (1941-1945), women frequently stepped in to fill the jobs of men, many of whom enlisted in the service and were sent to Europe and the Pacific. Under normal circumstances, women taking on a role in a traditionally male workforce would have been very challenging during this era. However, because it was done in support of the war effort, it was generally accepted by society. When men began returning from the war in 1945, women left the workforce and the jobs were once again filled by men.

Using their benefits and income from their time in the service, many returning veterans married quickly and began having families, which put large numbers of women into the role of American homemaker. A homemaker is a person who takes on the responsibility of running a household, including cleaning, cooking, and raising children.

The Power of the Homemaker

While we can't deny the fact that American culture in the 1950s was dominated and controlled by men, the power that women possessed as homemakers should not be underestimated. The 1950s were a time of considerable changes in labor and economics, which produced two very important elements of American society: increased leisure time and disposable income. These two elements are critical in understanding the power of women in the 1950s.

If you've ever watched a television show from the 1950s or 1960s, you've probably heard jokes about how men went out and made the money, while women stayed home and spent it. Of course, comments like these were intended to remind women that they were dependent on men, but there was also an element of truth in them. As homemakers, women stayed home to manage the house and take care of the children, which meant that they were the ones that did the majority of the buying, decorating, and food shopping.

In a capitalist society, such as the United States, being a consumer gives a person a considerable amount of power. The advent of the television ushered in an unprecedented era of marketing and advertising, in which homemakers were a highly sought after demographic. Throughout the 1950s, advertisers spent a significant amount of time trying to convince women to buy their products, while retail stores shifted their layout and décor to become more female friendly and entice women shoppers.

The image of homemakers during the 1950s has often been one which suggests that they were somehow less significant than men, or in some way incapable of independence. In reality, however, homemakers were the most sought after demographic for advertisers, which gave them a great deal more power than those who earned the money in a capitalist society.

Alternatives to Homemaking

Although many women welcomed the idea of marriage and family life, not all women chose this path for themselves in the 1950s. Some women chose to find jobs, enroll in college, or pursue other employment goals, and comprised approximately 30% of the American labor force.

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