Postwar Gender Roles and Women in American Politics

After the disruption, alienation, and insecurity of the Great Depression and the Second World War, the family became the center of American life. Couples wed early (in the late 1950s, the average age of American women at marriage was 20) and at rates that surpassed those of all previous eras and have not been equaled since. They raised large families. Many moved to sprawling, affordable tract housing developments in the suburbs, bought modern conveniences including cars and dishwashers, and enjoyed more leisure time.

Postwar prosperity made the banalities of housework less taxing but often came at a cost to women who gave up careers to maintain the domestic sphere. This lifestyle stressed the importance of a one-income household; the husband worked and the wife stayed home to raise the children. Historian Elaine Tyler May called it a kind of “domestic containment”: In seeking to nurture their families in the suburbs of the 1950s, housewives and mothers often gave up their aspirations for fulfillment outside the home.3 For instance, the decline in the number of women who pursued higher education can be attributed in large part to marital and familial priorities. In 1920, 47 percent of college students were women; by 1958 that figure stood at 38 percent despite the availability of more federal aid to pay for university education.4

Coya Gjesdal Knutson Lapel Pin/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay3_4_KnutsonPin_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Coya Knutson was known as an effective lawmaker, but she lost re-election in 1958 when her abusive husband publicly lied about their relationship and led voters to believe that Knutson cared more about her career than her family.
Social expectations for what constituted a woman’s proper role outside the home constrained women Members of Congress as well. When asked if women were at a disadvantage in the rough-and-tumble of political campaigns because society held them to different standards than men, Maurine B. Neuberger, who served for years in the Oregon legislature before succeeding her late husband in the U.S. Senate, replied, “Definitely.... A woman enters into a man’s world of politics, into back-fighting and grubbing. Before she puts her name on the ballot, she encounters prejudice and people saying, ‘A woman’s place is in the home.’ She has to walk a very tight wire in conducting her campaign. She can’t be too pussyfooting or mousy. Also, she can’t go to the other extreme: belligerent, coarse, nasty.”5 Congresswoman Gracie Bowers Pfost of Idaho observed that a woman seeking political office “must be willing to have her every motive challenged, her every move criticized,” and added that she “must submit to having her private life scrutinized under a microscope … and [to being] the subject of devastating rumors every day.”6

Representative Coya Knutson of Minnesota, for instance, was the victim of insidious accusations made more potent by America’s often uncompromising expectations for women in the 1950s. The first woman to represent Minnesota, Knutson was an early advocate for the creation of a food stamp program, funding for school lunches, and federal student loans. But after two terms, Knutson’s abusive husband, Andy Knutson, sabotaged her promising career by conspiring with her opposition to publicly embarrass her. He falsely accused her of neglecting their family, which included a young son, and of having an affair with a Washington aide. The press sensationalized the story along with her husband’s plea, “Coya come home.” In the 1958 elections, Knutson’s opposition exploited this theme—her challenger, Odin Elsford Stanley Langen, used the campaign slogan “A Big Man for a Man-Sized Job”—and her constituents voted her out of office by a narrow 1,390-vote margin. Although a House committee investigating the campaign and election agreed with Knutson that her estranged husband’s accusations had contributed to her defeat, the damage had been done. Knutson’s 1960 bid to take back her seat failed by an even wider margin.7

Knutson’s experience reinforced the widely held perception that women politicians could not manage both a career and family. In fact, well into the 1990s segments of American society doubted whether women candidates could balance domestic responsibilities and a professional life. Although male political opponents were less inclined to exploit it in latter decades, women politicians were repeatedly put on the defensive by the media and constituents who raised the issue.

Representative Shirley Chisholm sits at her desk/tiles/non-collection/E/Essay3_3_chisholm_desk_PA2013_05_0008k-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The first African-American Congresswoman, Shirley Anita Chisholm of New York won election to the House in 1968. In Congress, she criticized the war in Vietnam but was a tireless advocate for veterans. She championed America’s public schools, and worked to ensure gender equality.
Shifting social norms quickly altered staid notions of domesticity. Frustrated by their lack of professional fulfillment, many postwar wives and mothers looked for something else outside the routine of household duties. Betty Friedan memorably identified this malaise as “the problem that has no name” in her landmark 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. The book’s popularity attested to Friedan’s connection with a feeling of discontent. Women who came of age in the 1960s were determined to make their lives less constrained than those of their mothers. Consequently, the women’s rights movement and the sexual revolution of the 1960s challenged many of the traditional notions of motherhood and marriage.8 Many young women rejected the sexual conventions of their parents’ generation. Open discussion of sexuality and cohabitation outside marriage grew increasingly accepted in American society. As birth control became more widely available, women exercised greater control over when or if they would have children. In the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court upheld on the grounds of privacy a woman’s constitutional right to end her pregnancy.

Sexual and reproductive freedom provided more options for women, who previously chose either a career or marriage. By the 1970s, many marriages involved two careers, as both the husband and the wife worked and increasingly shared family duties, accelerating a trend already well underway in the post–World War II period. The divorce rate also rose, and single, working mothers became more commonplace.9 Throughout this period, more young women pursued careers in male-dominated fields, such as law, medicine, and business, loosening their traditional bonds to home and hearth and preparing the way for a new and larger generation of women in state and national politics.

Footnotes

3Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988): 16–36.

4Figures cited in Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1963): 16.

5Myrna Oliver, “Maurine Neuberger; One of First Women in the Senate,” 24 February 2000, Los Angeles Times: A20.

6Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 230.

7Robert McG. Thomas Jr., “Coya Knutson, 82, Legislator; Husband Sought Her Defeat,” 12 October 1996, New York Times: 52.

8For more on the sexual revolution, see David J. Garrow’s Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade (New York: Macmillan Company, 1994).

9See, for example, Gretchen Livingston, “It’s No Longer a ‘Leave It to Beaver’ World for American Families—But It Wasn’t Back Then, Either,” Pew Research Center, 30 December 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/30/its-no-longer-a-leave-it-to-beaver-world-for-american-families-but-it-wasnt-back-then-either/.