MOOC WHAW2.4x | 16.1 Women’s Work Inside and Outside the Home in the 1950s with Elaine Tyler May


– We’re in the board room of the New York Historical Society
today and I’m talking to professor Elaine May. Elaine Tyler May is
professor of history at the University of
Minnesota, and she’s also the leading expert on
women in the Cold War era, which is the period that we’re
gonna focus on right now. Professor May, welcome. – Thank you, it’s a pleasure
to be here with you. – So I wanted to start by
asking you the question that puzzles a lot of historians of women. We come out of World War
II with a very exciting sort of sense that women
have done their bit, can do anything, can
live new lives and so on. And then we enter the Cold
War period in the late 40s and early 1950s and suddenly
women are right back in their homes. Can you in two sentences explain
to us what happened there? – Well, I think one way to
look at it is to realize that the war as wartime often does, created tremendous upheaval
at home as well as sending millions of men abroad to fight the war, and what often happens as
it happened in World War I, women filled in where they were needed, and if you add to that
fact that prior to the war, we had a deep economic
depression in this country, which also forced women
to take on jobs that they hadn’t previously filled, they
were mostly what we think of as women’s work, but nonetheless,
they left their homes to enter the paid labor
force whether or not they were married, whether
or not they had children because it was absolutely
necessary for them and their families to survive
during the depression. But many people including
people within the families as well as social leaders
considered that work of women to be emergency work, only
because it was a crisis. First the depression and then the war, and that afterwards things
would settle back down and women would take
their place again at home. And during the war, this
was a message that was very powerfully driven
home in a way to women that they should be prepared
to take back their domestic duties and make room for
the returning veterans. – Right, we’ve seen that when we looked at Rosie the Riveter materials,
but if I can push you a little bit on this, when
I look at the statistics of women working, I notice
that by the middle of the 1950s, there is about the
same proportion of women in the wage labor force as
there were at the height of the wartime experience. And yet, in the wartime
experience, there seemed to be a kind of enthusiasm as
women entered, to be sure, women’s jobs, but also many men’s jobs. We’ve looked at some of them, for example, of the Brooklyn navy yard.
– Right. – But in the middle of the 1950s, at least I don’t hear those
large numbers of women including married women who
go back into the labor force. I don’t hear them expressing
enthusiasm about their work so much as I hear them
expressing enthusiasm about what they can contribute to the families. Am I hearing the right thing there? – Absolutely. There is really, as you
pointed out, there’s really no decline in the proportion
of women who are in the paid labor force after the war. What is different is
that the kinds of jobs that had previously been
considered men’s jobs were given back to the men
and the women were dismissed from those jobs, so they were pushed into what we thought of at
the time as women’s work, not as well paid, not as many
opportunities for advancement, and for many women
themselves, with the powerful domestic ideology that emerged
very quickly after the war, many of those working women
said, “Yes, I have a job. “But my career,” they
used that word career, “is as a wife and mother,
or as a homemaker.” And these were also
years when the science, if you will, of homemaking,
was rising to give, especially educated women
a sense that their work in the home mattered,
that it was important, that it was highly skilled,
and that it was a profession in itself. – So can we talk about that
in two separate categories? Can we talk first about
the domestic ideology, and what was that? I mean, we’ve seen domestic
ideologies in the 19th and early 20th centuries,
but how would you define the domestic ideology
in the post war period? – Well that was one of the
things that really puzzled me when I started this work,
because it seemed strange that after all of the advances
throughout the 20th century, that it would get to the
moment after World War II when women had really
blossomed during the war and taken on all kinds of
many, many not only employment and career opportunities,
but just public life, that why after World War
II, suddenly did we get something that ideologically
looked more like the Victorian era, more
like the 19th century? And I think there were two pieces to that. One was a backward look to
a time when some people felt that the world was more stable. And at the moment of the Cold
War, when the world seemed very unstable and frightening,
the vision of a stable, domestic order with women
in the home taking care of everything in the family
and men as the breadwinners felt like it was a way to
create a certain kind of well-known understandable social order. On the other hand, it
was also forward looking, because the new home, the
new family was a much more, at least in the vision
that it represented, it was more prosperous
because of course there was a lot more prosperity after
World War II than before. It was much more technologically advanced, you had all kinds of appliances
and so-called labor saving devices available in
the home to ease women’s domestic chores. What we know now is that those
appliances and other kinds of so-called labor saving
devices really just raised the expectations and
heightened the standards for domestic work for women
and that women were laboring very, very many long hours. The kinds of expectations for
child rearing and nurture, the kinds of expectation
for domestic cleanliness and teaching, not teaching, scratch that. Domestic cleanliness,
cooking, other kinds of domestic chores were elevated
to a new level of expectation. – Then that brings us
smoothly into the second part of the question that I
was going to ask you, which is the material
conditions of women’s work in the home. You would think that all
these labor saving devices that you’ve mentioned would
make their lives easier and enable them to go
out to work and instead, they seemed to pull women
into the home even more. Can you explain that seeming paradox? – Well it wouldn’t have
had to have been a paradox if in fact, there had been
opportunities for women in the paid labor force
to expand their horizons and their activities. But the opportunities for
women in the paid labor force shrank into a narrower
realm than had been true during the war or even in
some of the professions earlier than that, the
professional schools and graduate programs began to
limit the numbers of women or exclude them altogether,
since was after the war that the really important
thing to do was to make sure that men had jobs that were
well-paid, well enough paid that they could support a
family, that they wouldn’t come back from the war
and find that they were facing another depression. There were great fears that there would be another depression after World War II. Of course that didn’t happen,
it was tremendous prosperity compared to the years
leading up to the war. But at the time people didn’t
know that that would be the case, then many feared
that with the end of the war and the wartime economy, that
the economy would crash again. – And of course, there was
the Korean War, which began in the early 1950s and
lasted for three years. We never sort of incorporate it as a war, but it surely drew men
into the labor force and then women into the
labor force and increased the demand for consumer
goods even as it did so. – Exactly, not to mention
what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex. On some level, the Cold War
was a means for continuing the wartime economy and
the munitions industries all through the post-war era
and up until today, really, that the arms manufacturing
and the defense industries just continued to grow. They didn’t diminish because
the pressures of the Cold War and the atomic age and
the nuclear arms race kept those industries
thriving, kept men employed and a number of women as well. – And fueled prosperity.
– Of course. – So are you saying that
there’s a link between Cold War containment and military build up and consumer prosperity? – Well I think that we can’t
really segment people’s lives at this time or really any
time, if we accept a kind of false dichotomy between
private life and public life, between the paid economy
and the unpaid economy, as if these are really separate
realms of human endeavor, then I think we miss
important connections. And certainly in the
years after World War II, the ideas that fueled the Cold
War and the Cold War economy also fueled the domestic
ideology and the arrangements of gender both in the home
and in the work force.

2 thoughts on “MOOC WHAW2.4x | 16.1 Women’s Work Inside and Outside the Home in the 1950s with Elaine Tyler May

  • haha that not make sense to me. So women were unemployed when men were back hehehe We dont want you anymore. I cant believe this. Sorry

  • I invite everyone to listen to this course with filters hehe Not everything is rightly accurate and real.

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