The term mid-century modern may evoke images of streamlined furniture. However, the 1950s were a time of new definition in men's gender roles. Soldiers returning home the end of World War II in 1945 helped usher 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. This era 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, which enabled these veterans to pursue a 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 throughout the 1950s. Expanding families and young children were reared in a TV generation in which gender roles were clearly defined by the societal ideal. Shows like the 1954 sitcom "Father Knows Best", with its title, established the patriarchal sentiment of the decade. The show focused on a setting where men were not only were the primary breadwinners but ultimately presided over the family unit itself. The show's focus on traditional family roles did not find a solid audience with its initial television ratings and was cancelled by CBS in 1955. It was picked up by NBC, the radio network that had originated the series and aired for the rest of the decade.
The Beginning of the End
The "good old days" of the 1950s were not destined to last. Gender roles were changing as the two genders tried to define their roles and adjust to post-war changes in those roles. Men returned home from the war with the expectation they would find the same patriarchal setting and lives that existed prior to World War II. Women, who had worked during the war in previously male-dominated roles begin to seek their own independence and autonomy in the workplace. This, in turn, threatened men returning to the work force who needed jobs to support their families. Even renown pediatrician and author Dr. Benjamin Spock got involved in putting 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.
- 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
- The Artifice: Masculinity, Gender Roles, and T.V. Shows from the 1950s
- Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity: Change in Stereotypes of Fathers, 1950-2050
- Biography: Benjamin Spock
- George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images