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, more so than ever before, became the center of American life. Couples wed early (in the late 1950s, the average age of American women at marriage was 20) and in proportions 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 ranging from cars to dishwashers, and enjoyed more leisure time.

Martha Griffiths, May Craig, Howard W. Smith, and Katharine St. George/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay3_2_Griffiths_May_Smith_St_George_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress From left, Congresswoman Martha Griffiths of Michigan, journalist May Craig, House Rules Committee Chairman Howard W. Smith of Virginia, and Congresswoman Katharine St. George of New York pose for a photo shortly after the House added a sexual discrimination amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Led by Representative Griffiths, Congresswomen argued that employment laws should include both gender and race protections.
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, with the husband working and the wife staying at 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 proportion of women who sought higher education degrees 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

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 handicapped in the rough-and-tumble of political campaigns because society held them to different standards than men, Maurine 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 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 [being] the subject of devastating rumors every day.”6

Maurine Neuberger/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay3_3_Neuberger_SHO.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. Senate Historical Office Half of a mid-20th century power couple, Maurine Neuberger spent years in Oregon politics before succeeding her husband, Richard Neuberger, in the Senate in 1960.
The primacy of family responsibilities and the power of society’s expectations of what constituted a “woman’s sphere” in the 1950s is aptly illustrated by the demise of Coya Knutson’s congressional career. 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, her abusive husband sabotaged her promising career by conspiring with her opposition to publicly embarrass Knutson. He falsely accused her of neglecting their family, which included a young adopted son, and of having an affair with a Washington aide. The press sensationalized the story along with Andy Knutson’s plea, “Coya come home.” In the 1958 elections, Knutson’s opposition subtly exploited this theme and her constituents voted her out of office by a slim 1,390-vote margin. Although a House committee investigating the campaign and election agreed with Knutson’s complaint that the accusations had contributed to her defeat, the damage had been done. Knutson’s 1960 bid for re-election failed by an even wider margin.

Knutson’s experience reinforced the widely held perception that women politicians could not manage both a career and family. The debate over balancing domestic responsibilities and a professional life lasted well into the 1990s, and though 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.

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
Despite her effectiveness as a legislator, Coya Knutson of Minnesota’s House career was ended abruptly by public perception that she was insufficiently devoted to her family.
Shifting social norms quickly altered staid notions of domesticity. Amidst the routine of household duties, many postwar wives and mothers were frustrated by their lack of professional fulfillment. Betty Friedan memorably identified this malaise as “the problem with no name” in her landmark book The Feminine Mystique (1963). The book’s popularity attested to Friedan’s connection with a feeling of discontent. Daughters 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 marital relationships.7 Many young women rejected the sexual conventions of their parents’ generation. Open discussion of sexuality and cohabitation outside marriage became more socially accepted. 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 terminate 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 familial duties, accelerating a trend already well underway in the post–World War II period. These responsibilities added stress to family life. The divorce rate rose, and the phenomenon of the single, working mother became more commonplace.8 Yet, throughout this period, more young women pursued careers in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as law, medicine, and business, loosening their bonds to home and hearth and preparing the way for a new and larger generation of women in state and national politics.


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: Norton, 1963), chapter one, “The Problem That Has No Name.”

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.

7For more on the sexual revolution, see David Garrow’s Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade (New York: Macmillan Company, 1994).

8See, for example, the Pew report, “It’s No Longer a ‘Leave It to Beaver’ World for American Families—But It Wasn’t Back Then, Either,” 30 December 2015, available online at (accessed 16 June 2016).