A ‘Herstory’ of Private Life in the 1950s : HOMEWARD BOUND American Families in the Cold War Era<i> by Elaine Tyler May (Basic Books: $20.95; 284 pp.; illustrated; 0-465-03054-8)</i>


Why were Americans of the 1950s so deeply immersed in domesticities: having large families, enjoying suburban havens, being ideal mothers and fathers, and, not least, crystallizing gender as breadwinners and homemakers? In “Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era,” Elaine Tyler May proposes that our foreign policy of “containment” of the Soviet sphere of influence had its domestic analogue in an ideology of domestic “containment.”

Americans “wanted secure jobs, secure homes, and secure marriages in a secure country . . . and so they adhered to an overarching principle that would guide them in their personal and political lives: containment. . . . More than merely a metaphor for the Cold War on the homefront, containment aptly describes the way in which public policy, personal behavior, and even political values were focused on the home.”

This “familial ideology” was a culmination, May claims, of an enduring sexism that “withered” incipient alternatives to women’s traditional gender roles. Women’s suffrage, the sexual openness of the 1920s, marital partnerships that kept families afloat in the 1930s, the abrupt rise of women in the paid workforce during the ‘40s war effort--all such historic potentialities for a “radical restructuring” of the family and the workplace were lost in the 1950s.

Skillfully piecing together a social history of sex roles and mores governing dating, parenting, birth control, consumerism, and divorce from the Depression to the late ‘60s, May supports her thesis with a wide range of unusual evidence, from Hollywood scripts and movie magazines to opinion surveys, economic studies, and federal employment and civil defense policies. Her larger aim is to dismantle the iron curtain that this culture (especially academic culture) has imagined between domestic and political events.

May also draws on a unique archive of the marital experiences and attitudes of about 300 white, well-educated, middle-class American couples who filled out periodic surveys about their domestic choices, fulfillments, and regrets over the 20 years between the late ‘30s and the mid-'50s. The voices of about 60 couples who appended spontaneous comments tell Cheever-like stories.


The sexual politics of the ‘50s were particularly ugly, not least because they went unchallenged. In those of the McCarthy era, from “the Senate to the FBI, from anti-communists in Hollywood to Mickey Spillane, moral weakness was associated with sexual degeneracy, which allegedly led to communism. To avoid dire consequences, men as well as women had to contain their sexuality in marriage where masculine men would be in control with sexually submissive competent homemakers at their side. Strong families required two essential ingredients: sexual restraint outside marriage and traditional gender roles in marriage.”

Throughout, paid workforce participation is May’s benchmark for judging women’s social and moral equality. She sees it as being the most effective route to the wider changes she advocates--"restructuring of the labor force along gender-neutral lines, ending sex segregation in the workplace and bringing about a realignment of domestic roles.”

But that criterion was rarely met: When middle-class women “found that professionalized homemaking was not enough to keep their minds alive . . . they faced few alternatives, other than unpaid community volunteer work or menial, subordinate jobs in the sex-segregated paid labor force.”

There is an anachronism here--in this period, however unfreely chosen, the facts are that thousands of other middle-class homemakers were like those who report in these pages their considerable satisfaction with volunteer work (for one woman, a two-child family was her limit because she wanted to expand those activities).

May overcontains the homemaker ethos in dismissing the community involvement ethos, which in that period as in others before, fell well within the orbit of “women’s work.” The alternatives she poses are not qualitatively equal in their effects on women’s feelings of public efficacy and self-esteem.

An important historical question is to what extent women’s social and civic energies (subsidized by breadwinners who may have paid other women for child care and housework) were a significant source of their leadership and political skills since put to use politically and personally--and which these women may have taught to daughters and sons. The 50,000 women who, May reports, participated in the 1961 “Women’s Strike for Peace” cannot have been only bridge partners and shopping companions.

In spotlighting the condition of “contained” homemakers, however, May makes us see afresh how diabolical sexism is. The marriage of one couple who had had premarital sex was pervaded with distrust because the husband, wedded to the double standard, could never recover his respect for his wife.

Less familiar to us are the effects of breadwinner containment on men’s lives. May offers glimmers, which are not much less chilling--she chronicles their self-blame during the Depression and, by her report and by those of men, middle-class men’s greatest dissatisfactions with their work: “too much pressure, tense relationships with employers or employees, efforts to achieve promotions or raises, boredom or ennui, and financial difficulties.”

But this is a “herstory"--there is no index entry for “men,” while that for “women” runs to nine lines. Men’s plight is characterized by its oppressive consequences for women: “Family life would presumably provide men with the sense of power they were not likely to experience at work. At home, they could see tangible results of their efforts and achieve a measure of respect. It was important for these men to be the unchallenged heads of their households.”

Glasnost has just arrived, and whether it relaxes gender “containments” remains to be seen. With a new spirit of openness abroad and, we are being led to hope, at home, perhaps we can also hope that men in far greater numbers will make this stance theirs and acknowledge openly their own work-life predicaments and those their cultural dominance imposes on daughters, sisters, spouses, companions, friends and mothers.