Not June Cleaver

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Joanne Meyerowitz, editor. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.


During the post-World War II era and through the 1950s, American women willingly became housewives and mothers, dedicated to making a home for their husbands, maintaining sparkling houses, and bringing up children—all while perfectly coiffed and wearing dresses and high heels. And they liked it, in theory at least.

The domestic ideology served as the standard account of women’s experiences as the historiography of the era developed. But as Joanne Meyerowitz points out in a study of popular literature of the 1950’s, “Domestic ideals co-existed in ongoing tension with an ethos of individual achievement that celebrated non-domestic activity, individual striving, public service, and public success.” Furthermore, this stereotyped domestic ideal applied predominantly to white middle-class women, failing to account for race, class, marital status, and gender preferences outside this putative norm.

In Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960, Joanne Meyerowitz edits a compendium of essays on women and work and activism, on constructions of womanhood, and on women considered sexual and cultural rebels. She classifies the 15 essays in this volume as revisionist history, placing “the domestic stereotype in historical context and questions both its novelty and pervasiveness in the postwar years. …during this era, most American women lived, in one way or more, outside the boundaries of the middle-class suburban home.” (2)

In this book, Xialoan Bao writes about Chinese women garment workers in New York City and their effect on the male Chinese American community and on the textile industry. Ricki Solinger discusses encounters between women seeking abortion and women abortionists before Roe v. Wade and identifies them as “postwar deviants, vilified but useful benchmarks in a culture desperate to define normalcy.” (336) Race, politics, and labor issues are among the topics covered in other essays in the book. They are not feminist tracts, but expositions demonstrating the diversity of women’s experiences and the diversity of historiographic possibilities—essays compiled to overcome the stereotype of homogenization associated with this era.

A Look at Essays

But once the narrative moves past the June Cleaver stereotype, what picture emerges of women of this time period? Several authors address women’s activism during the Cold War, adding nuance to the mantra that McCarthyism suppressed dissent. In “Women’s Employment and the Domestic Ideal in the Early Cold War Years,” Susan Hartmann emphasizes that McCarthyism was only one of many factors influencing changes in women’s activism in the post-World War II, pointing out that “the anticommunist crusade discredited individual women…” such as Helen Gahagan Douglas who lost a Senate bid in 1950 to Richard Nixon who charged her with radicalism and communist association. (85) Simultaneously the Red Scare swept women’s organizations such as the American Association of University Women and the National Council of of Negro Women.

Hartmann defines the early Cold War as a period of transition for women, acknowledging that prevailing norms fostered women’s traditional roles while “opinion-leading individuals and groups worked to make practices and attitudes more congruent with women’s increasing labor force participation.” (84 ) By the mid-1950s, women’s workforce participation matched World War II levels—although women generally were clustered in culturally acceptable job categories. The growth in women’s employment occurred, in part, because the national interest required new uses of manpower resources in order to meet military and civilian personnel needs promulgated by the Korean and Cold Wars. As a result, advocacy for women’s work outside the home moved into those institutions with vested interests: business and industry and government—including Congress—who worked behind the scenes to legitimize women’s employment.

Hartmann focuses on two organizations: the National Manpower Council (NPC), funded by the Ford Foundation through Columbia University and serving as an umbrella group for participants from business, labor,k education, women’s organizations, the military, and civilian agencies of state and local governments; and the Commission on the Education of Women (CEW) sponsored ty the American Council on Education, working to strengthen the role of women in higher education. These organizations served as a bridge, according to Hartmann, because their institutional credibility, statistically supported by national manpower needs, enabled them to instigate meaningful public discussion on married women’s employment, childcare, equal pay, sexual harassment, tax laws and welfare. They institutionalized discussion of women’s equality as Congress became involved through debate on changes in tax laws that ultimately resulted in the child-care reducionof the Revenue Act of 1954 which “inched public policy one step away fro the domestic values heralded in the popular culture.” (97)

In “Gender and Progressive Politics: a Bridge to Social Activism of the 1960s,” Susan Lynn takes on the prevalent Cold War image of the suburban housewife for whom children, marriage and the home formed the circumference of experience. “…scholars…often assumed, rather than demonstrated, the all-pervasiveness of that ideal. The notion that domestic ideology suffused American society, popularized by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, gradually made its way into standard accounts of the period.” (104)

Lynn discusses the activism of white and African-American middle class women, pointing out that for blacks, civic and political affairs were often extensions of, rather than contradictions to, family life. (105) These progressive, politically active women promoted an expanded welfare state, powerful labor movement civil liberties, racial equality, and a new equitable international order. They worked through coalitions of organizations including the American Association of University Women, American Friends Service Committee, League of Women Voters, National Council of Negro Women, National Associationfor the Advancement of Colored People. These were the women and the groups Lynn cites as playing a “crucial role as a bridge that linked the prewar progressive work of women reformers with women’s activism in the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements of the 1960s.” (105)

McCarthyism, according to Lynn, contributed to reshaping the focus of progressive activists from an interwar emphasis on economic or “maternalist” politics to help the weak and unfortunate to a concern with racial equality and civil liberties. For women, this activism often meant working in both male-dominated and single-sex organizations. Within mixed-gender organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee and even with labor unions such as the United Auto Workers and the NAACP, women attained a degree of influence in mid-level management as they directed programs and championed political and social causes, though they remained invisible at the highest levels.


LeeAnn Ghajar, Spring 2006

What then, does Not June Cleaver, emphasize about the women and the Cold War? Primarily, that two assumptions about the era reflect only partial truths. McCarthyism unquestionable had a chilling effect on individuals, public and private institutions, but it was not the only factor muting social and political activism. There was to some extent a change of venue and a change of focus, and there was diversity among the actors and their methodologies. For women, the cult of domesticity, while pervasive, did not circumscribe the lives of even middle-class white women with whom the image was mostly associated. They moved into the job market—in “women’s” fields and in terminal positions, but as wage earners, nonetheless, and that movement obtained recognition and some degree of institutional support from the mainstream political-industrial complex.

Here, I think there’s a differentiation between the prevailing culture and the reality of events. Even women of achievement worked within the parameter of acceptable women’s roles. A woman could be a doctor, for example—but those few who were, were more likely to choose (or be tracked into) medical specialities allowing primacy—or at least equality—with their roles as wives and mothers. Career women chose certain paths at the expense of marriage and family. And even the most successful women—anomalies thought they might have been—were expected to be women first, and their hair and makeup were as relevant as their achievements outside the home. The stereotype that held front and center was the stereotype of femininity.

Generally, this book offers an broad introduction to the situation of women during the Cold War era, and as a book espousing the “bridge” theory, provides insight into pre-and post-themes. It could be used from AP high school through graduate school courses.

This essay from Not June Cleaver appears in JSTOR: "Beyond the Feminine Mystique: A Reassessment of Postwar Mass Culture, 1946- 1958" Joanne Meyerowitz The Journal of American History, Vol. 79, No. 4. (Mar., 1993), pp. 1455-1482. Stable URL: [1] (leeannghajar)

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