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Women Stayed Home in the Cold War

September 18, 1988|Elaine Tyler May | Elaine Tyler May, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, is the author of "Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era" (Basic Books).

MINNEAPOLIS — The latest chapter of better U.S.-Soviet relations is good news for American women. The Cold War always had a chilling effect on the momentum for women's rights.

The connection is curious but real; anti-communism in the United States has traditionally been directed against perceived internal dangers, as well as external enemies. The Soviet Union has loomed as an abstract symbol of what we might become if we turned "soft."

In the early years of the Cold War, a broad-based consensus of liberals and conservatives called for the "moral rearmament" of America. Observers had been concerned about the nation's morals since World War II, when changes in human relations and sexual mores appeared as threatening to the American Way of Life as communism itself. No wonder, then, that Joseph McCarthy and his followers attacked "pinkos" and homosexuals with equal vigor; America could only be strong, it seemed, if men were men and women were housewives.

The current 1950s nostalgia craze obscures the fact that it was a peculiar decade, marked by the Cold War consensus and widespread conformity to a powerful family ideology. The central kinship between women's domesticity and Cold War values found its most explicit expression in the famous "kitchen debate" between then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. Nixon extolled the superiority of American capitalism over communism, pointing to the model home where a woman demonstrated the wonders of push-button household appliances. America, proclaimed Nixon, wants to make the life of housewives easier. Khrushchev scorned the capitalist image of women and expressed pride in productive Soviet female workers.

For Nixon, the attractive homemaker surrounded by labor-saving appliances symbolized the American Way of Life. Unlike Soviet women, portrayed in the American press as hard-working and unattractive, American women could be glamorous stay-at-homes who purchased consumer goods, tended suburban houses and reared future citizens.

Nixon's words went beyond mere propaganda, for during the early years of the Cold War, Americans married at younger ages--and in greater numbers--than ever before. They also reversed a 150-year decline in the birth rate, creating the so-called baby boom.

Common wisdom suggests that Americans, weary from the years of Depression and war, wanted nothing more than to settle into affluent family life. But prosperity alone does not explain this massive rush into domesticity.

World War II brought women, including Rosie the Riveter, into the public arena but it also made women, especially unmarried women, suspect. Single women had enjoyed a modicum of respectability during the first four decades of the century; suddenly they were not to be trusted. Sex was the issue. Soldiers were warned that single women were sexual predators out to sap them of their money and vigor; public health organizations warned that "victory girls" could inflict venereal diseases upon unsuspecting GIs. Posters pictured sexy women arm-in-arm with Hitler and Mussolini as the "troika" that would defeat the Allies. After the war, popular movies and novels like Mickey Spillane thrillers depicted powerful women whose sexuality and economic shrewdness destroyed men in their path, or whose seductiveness tempted weak men to give atom secrets to Soviet spies.

At the same time, anti-communist crusaders scrutinized individual sexual behavior for evidence of potential security risks. National figures such as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover warned that sons of working, neglectful or sexually frustrated mothers would become juvenile delinquents--or would be psychologically unfit to be soldiers. The federal Civil Defense Administration expanded the argument by claiming that homemakers could protect their families against nuclear annihilation with first aid, well-stocked basement shelters and skill in cooking-- "with bricks and rubble"--to feed their families after an atomic attack.

Beneath these notions was a deep fear of women's economic and sexual independence. The best way to contain their career aspirations was to professionalize homemaking; the best way to contain their sexual emancipation was to encourage early marriage and to sexualize the home. Female sexuality unleashed within marriage would strengthen the family; outside marriage, it was seen as a destructive force.

At the same time, federal subsidies encouraged early marriage by supporting suburban developments containing thousands of inexpensive houses designed to facilitate child-rearing. Government agencies, arguing that urban centers were likely targets of nuclear attack, gained approval for new highways and decentralized industries to help spread the population into family-centered suburbs.

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