America in Ferment: The Tumultuous 1960s
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|Digital History ID 3340|
During the 1950s, many American women reacted against the poverty of the Depression and the upheavals of World War II by placing renewed emphasis on family life. Young women married earlier than had their mothers and had more children and bore them faster. The average age for marriage of American women dropped to 20 years old, a record low. The fertility rate rose 50 percent between 1940 and 1950--producing a population growth rate approaching that of India. Growing numbers of women decided to forsake higher education or a full-time career and, instead, achieve emotional fulfillment as wives and mothers.
A 1952 advertisement for Gimbel's department store expressed this prevailing point-of-view. "What's college?" the ad asked. "That's where girls who are above cooking and sewing go to meet a man so they can spend their lives cooking and sewing." According to McCall's magazine, young women believed that they could find their "deepest satisfaction" by "marrying at an earlier age, rearing larger families, and purchasing a house in the suburbs.”
Politicians, educators, psychologists, and the mass media all echoed the view that women would find their highest fulfillment managing a house and caring for children. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, told the graduating women at Smith College in 1955 that their role in life was to "influence us, men and boys" and "restore valid, meaningful purpose to life in your home." Many educators agreed with the president of Barnard College, who argued that women could not compete with men in the workplace because they "had less physical strength, a lower fatigue point, and a less stable nervous system." Women's magazines pictured housewives as happy with their tasks and depicted career women as neurotic, unhappy, and dissatisfied.
Already, however, a series of dramatic social changes was underway that would contribute to a rebirth of feminism. A dramatic upsurge took place during the 1950s in women's employment and education. More and more married women entered the labor force, and by 1960, the proportion of married women working outside the home was one in three. The number of women receiving college degrees also rose. The proportion of bachelor's and master's degrees received by women rose from just 24 percent in 1950 to over 35 percent a decade later. Meanwhile, beginning in 1957, the birthrate began to drop as women elected to have fewer children. A growing discrepancy had begun to appear between the popular image of women as full-time housewives and mothers and the actual realities of many women's lives.