After World War II ended and veterans returned home in 1945, it ushered in a new era in American history. Prosperity took an upswing and the traditional family unit set idealistic Americans apart from their Soviet counterparts. The gender roles between men and women drove popular culture and even entertainment. It is remembered as a golden age, an innocent time, where happiness and security was sought within the security of a family unit headed by the male.
The American Dream
After soldiers returned home from their duty in World War II, they were given the keys to the American dream courtesy of the G.I. Bill. This enabled these veterans to pursue higher education and buy a home. With this security to drive them, these men were free to marry and start their families immediately. As a result, the families were typically bigger. Because of this, the ideal scenario found the wife at home full-time, taking care of her children while the husband pursued a career.
Nearly a decade prior to the more idealistic 1950s, millions of women entered the workforce thanks to the scarcity of male workers courtesy of the war. These industry jobs provided good pay for the women who did the duty, but by the time the men returned from the war the tide shifted back to a male-dominated workforce. Men outnumbered women in the workplace five to two. The only acceptable reason a mother should take her time away from her family and work was if the family needed the income.
Father Knows Best
The emerging popularity of American television helped shape gender roles for both men and women through the 1950s. Expanding families and young children were reared in a TV generation, where gender roles were clearly defined by the societal ideal. Shows like the 1954 sitcom "Father Knows Best" established in the title the patriarchal sentiment of the decade, where men not only were the primary breadwinners but ultimately presided over the family unit itself. Ironically, the sitcom initially had such bad ratings it was canceled by CBS in 1955. It was picked up by NBC, the radio network that had originated the series, and ran the rest of the decade.
The Beginning of the End
These "Good Old Days" were not destined to last, as the two genders were working at cross-purposes. Men returned home from the war to resume the way life used to be, whereas women had begun to learn how things could be. Women sought their own independence and autonomy in the workplace, which threatened the men who needed jobs to support their families. Even Dr. Spock got involved to put societal pressure on the duty of the wife to fulfill her idealized role as the happy homemaker. Women felt bound by the expectations to wed early and have many children, but by the end of the decade were liberated by the availability of the birth control pill. This took the choice to procreate away from the male head of the family, ultimately putting the power between the sexes on a more level playing field.
- Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School: Traditional Gender Roles of the 1950s
- Lone Star College System - KC Library; American Cultural History 1950-1959; Becky Bradley
- PBS: People & Events: Mrs. America: Women's Roles in the 1950s
- Travel and History - U.S. History: Baby Boom Generation
- The Internet Movie Database: Father Knows Best Trivia
- George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images