Homeward Bound

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May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1988. 283 pages. $20.95



After the Depression and World War II, hopes for peace, stability and prosperity were threatened by the Cold War and nuclear destruction. Elaine Tyler May focuses on the generation that raised families in the postwar era ‘with its strong domestic ideology, pervasive consensus politics and peculiar demographic behavior.’ (9) The Depression and the War disrupted traditional roles of women as homemakers and men as breadwinners. The Great Depression brought ‘widespread challenges to traditional gender roles that could have led to a restructured home’ and World War II ‘pointed the way toward radical alterations in the institutions of work and family life.’ (8) According to May, these alterations did not take place and postwar couples returned to domesticity. The postwar families were ‘homeward bound.’ In contrast to their parents, men and women married younger, had relatively large families and a lower divorce rate.

One of May’s principal sources of information is the Kelly Longitudinal Study (KLS). This survey of 300 couples was conducted by University of Michigan psychologist, E. Lowell Kelly. New England couples were contacted through engagement announcements in the late 1930’s. (12) The study ended in 1954. By then, ‘most of the group had been married for at least a decade.’ (12) More likely, if they were engaged in the 1930’s, they had been married for 15 or more years by 1955. One of May’s techniques is to look at popular culture as typified by movies, and the supposed views of movie stars set forth in a trashy movie magazine, Photoplay. (Hopefully not regular reading for the well-educated KLS study members.) May tries to use movie plots to make her points about American attitudes. --Mlinhart 20:48, 7 Feb 2006 (EST)


The participants in the Kelly Longitudinal Study were not a representative sample of Americans by any means. The respondents of the survey were white, predominantly Protestant and well educated. About 80% of the men and more than 65% of the women had some college education. (228) Not only were they demographically untypical Americans, for unknown reasons they were willing to respond to lengthy questionnaires that include questions about their intimate feelings. It seems possible that couples would have shared their responses, thus setting limits on their frankness. Their frank replies are reminiscent of the ‘Can This Marriage Be Saved?’ series in the Ladies Home Journal. Furthermore the children of these couples who were engaged in the thirties were probably older than the baby boom children.

Citing movie plots and Photoplay articles bears witness to virtually nothing. Even if May compiled a survey of all popular movies and their treatment of men, women, romance and family, it would be difficult to determine if these movies were popular because they reflected everyday life or because they diverged from the routine and the humdrum. In my humble opinion, Cinderella had more influence on female illusions than either Joan Crawford or Bette Davis.

Both the Depression and the War were crises and the changes to traditional family were involuntary and considered temporary. The postwar family was not a retreat from previous gains but an attempt to return to normalcy. May states that ‘domestic ideology and Cold War militance have risen and fallen together.’ (225) She tries to ‘illuminate both the cold war ideology and the domestic revival as two sides of the same coin.’ (10) The Cold War was about confrontation with a dangerously armed enemy and the terror of nuclear annihilation. Marriage and children represent affirmations of confidence in the future not signs of concern, fear and angst. A strong argument can be made that for the couples May describes, domesticity was not tied to containment and bomb shelters but to relief and gratitude and even joy in the ending of World War II. Domesticity would have been desirable regardless of the international political situation.

May reveals in extensive quotes from the KLS and letters to Betty Freidan that marriage to their true Prince Charming did not guarantee women would live happily ever after. Of course, no one lives happily ever after for many reasons. Many participants in the study realize this and stated their willingness to soldier on and maintain their family. May constantly implies that the world is a better place now that it is common for women to seek a career outside the home. This new lifestyle is not without extreme stress for the ‘have it all’ women as well as for their husbands and sadly for their children.

May establishes a premise that security is ‘the common thread, the cold war ideology and the domestic revival reinforced each other.’ (208) She extends her claim to assert that domestic ideology encouraged ‘private solutions to social problems’ and ‘weakened the challenge to the cold war consensus.’ (208) On the other hand, the Civil Rights movement was hardly a private solution. The social problem that May devotes the most time to is unhappy housewives. The women’s liberation movement was the supposed non-private solution. Certainly May states that ‘it is no accident that in the wake of feminism, the sexual revolution and the peace movement’ the New Right emerged ‘reviving the Cold War and reasserting the ideology of domesticity.’ (224) It is hard to resist the old cliché; politics makes for strange bedfellows. As we now see, although containment is no longer an issue allied with the traditional family (and in my opinion these issues never were aligned) those who now support traditional family values are perceived to be the right of the political spectrum and those who support a feminist agenda are perceived to be on the left. It does not take much imagination to guess May’s views.

May does not discuss religion extensively. Religion is crucial in determining attitudes to marriage, child-rearing and morality, including sexual morality (which some prefer to believe does not exist). May discusses consumerism, which presumably equates with materialism and capitalist greed. ‘Postwar domestic consumerism required conformity to strict gender assumptions that were fraught with potential tensions and frustrations.’ (181-182)

Comparing May’s book to the Gaddis (We Now Know)and Stueck works does a disservice to all the authors. It is like comparing Photoplay to Foreign Affairs. May misses an opportunity to emphasize the prevailing fear of the early Cold War by getting caught up in the lack of domestic tranquility in the 1950’s household. Fear may have caused the baby boomers to resist the Vietnam War more than the cocoons of their youth. --Mlinhart 20:48, 7 Feb 2006 (EST)

John Lillard, Spring 2010

In her introduction, Elaine Tyler May states that the focus of Homeward Bound is the impact of public policy and political ideology on private life, and her story is of how Americans began to view the family as psychological fortress to protect them against internal decay (10-11). This statement is not completely borne out by the rest of the book. May’s constant regurgitation of KLS survey responses is much more about interpersonal relations within the family than the influences of external pressures. The preponderance of her commentary focuses on one family member – the wife / mother – and the internal relations of the wife with her family. A good example of this is her recitation of the KLS responses of Charles and Margaret Rogers. She discusses their strained husband / wife relations at length, with only offhand reference to external pressures that causes those strains (84). After reading so many of the extremely personal survey responses about individual husband and wife relationships, the reader feels almost like a voyeur.

May argues that the cause of this quest for domestic security was rooted in Depression-era threats to family. She cites data such as decreases in marriage rates during the 30s to support this claim (38). May makes good use of such demographic data, but one problem in her methodology is reliance on surveys that have clear sampling biases. She most often quotes the KLS study, and also the Glen Elder study that recorded opinions and data about white, protestant, working and middle class families (51). Additionally, she reinforces an impression that American characterization of homosexual behavior as un-American was a creation of Cold War ideology (95). Kristin Hoganson’s Fighting for American Manhood and Matthew Fry Jacobson’s Barbarian Virtues document the relation of such personal behaviors with national character in the late 19th century.

But despite these issues, Homeward Bound is still an interesting and enlightening perspective on the period. May equates the shaping of the family with the national policy of “containment” of the communist threat. In this context, containment refers to keeping the family life “in a box” of convention (14). Family members consciously or unconsciously saw themselves as soldiers in the cold war, with the clearly delineated roles of the husband as the breadwinner, the wife as the homemaker, and both as active consumers (181). More than most histories of the period, Homeward Bound explains why our “depression baby” parents acted the way they did when their own “Baby Boomers” were growing up. The Boomers did not feel the same pressures and did not have the same legacy of immediate, very tangible threats of their parents. Boomer threats were abstract – the bomb, communist agents, sexual perverts, often referred to but never or rarely seen.

Rebecca Adams, Spring 2016

Elaine Tyler May’s work Homeward Bound focuses on the traditional family model of the post World War II era. She argues that although the Great Depression and World War II created the potential for a “radical restructuring of the family” (20) men and women actually clung more tightly to the traditional gender specific roles and entrenched themselves in the family unit post war. She argues that this was a response to the hardships of the Great Depression as well as to the threat of the Cold War.

What is most interesting yet simultaneously superfluous at times is her study of the interpersonal relationships of the men and women who participated in the KLS. Often times she does not connect them to her overall discussion of the Cold War making them an interesting examination of white, middle class, Protestant marriages yet not entirely relevant to her argument.

She asserts that the language and ideas of containment concerning communism and socialism were applied to the home as Americans believed that the key to security was the containment of threatening developments of consumerism, women’s emancipation and technological advances within the home. She argues that this particular generation (the KLS participants) who embraced the traditional home and gender roles were not the norm but were actually the anomaly. Unlike their grandparents and their children who would face circumstances not that dissimilar, this KLS generation responded to increasing female sexuality and independence and new innovations and consumer products as a result of their depression experiences merged with the fear of the Cold War. They retreated into the warmth of their homes, married earlier, had children younger in hopes that these things would keep them safe from outside forces as well as provide them with fulfillment. Clearly this way of life was not as successful or fulfilling as hoped as demonstrated by the children of this generation who quickly abandoned the ethos of containment and eschewed traditional gender roles that had so often trapped their parents.

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