Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Feminism, Consumerism, Cold War, Suburbia, Gender.
Elaine Tyler May's Homeward Bound weaves two traditional narratives of the fifties -- suburban domesticity and rampant anticommunism -- into one compelling historical argument. Aiming to ascertain why, unlike both their parents and children, "postwar Americans turned to marriage and parenthood with such enthusiasm and commitment," May discovers that "cold war ideology and the domestic revival [were] two sides of the same coin: postwar Americans' intense need to feel liberated from the past and secure in the future." (5-6, 10) According to May, "domestic containment" was an outgrowth of the fears and aspirations unleashed after the war -- Within the home, "potentially dangerous social forces of the new age might be tamed, where they could contribute to the secure and fulfilling life to which postwar women and men aspired." (14) Moreover, the therapeutic emphases of fifties psychologists and intellectuals "offered private and personal solutions to social problems. The family was the arena in which that adaptation was expected to occur; the home was the environment in which people could feel good about themselves. In this way, domestic containment and its therapeutic corollary undermined the potential for political activism and reinforced the chilling effects of anticommunism and the cold war consensus." (14)
May begins by exploring the origins of this "domestic containment" in the 30's and 40's. During the Depression, she argues, two different views of the family competed -- "one with two breadwinners who shared tasks and the other with spouses whose roles were sharply differentiated." Yet, despite the many single women glamorized in popular culture of the 1930's, families ultimately came to choose the latter option. Why? For one, according to May, "for all its affirmation of the emancipation of women, Hollywood fell short of pointing the way toward a restructured family that would incorporate independent women." (42) Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday and Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, for example, are both forced to choose between independence and a happy domestic life - the two cannot be squared. For another, New Deal programs aimed to raise the male employment level, which often meant doing nothing for female employment. And, finally, as historian Ruth Milkman has also noted, the gender disruptions occurring in the wake of the Depression, with men becoming embittered as women became the breadwinners, caused a great deal of familial anxiety and a desire to return to "normal" times.
During WWII, the two-breadwinner vision of the family suffered further setbacks. As May puts it, "women entered war production, but they did not give up on reproduction...Economic hardship was no longer a barrier to marriage, as it had been in the 1930s, and dependents' allowances eased the burdens of families if the breadwinners were drafted. But perhaps most important was the desire to solidify relationships and establish connections to the future when war made life so uncertain." (59-60) While the culture venerated female workers, it also promoted a return to domesticity after the war, a return encouraged by the gender bias of the GI Bill. Meanwhile, men were encouraged through pin-ups and propaganda to believe they were fighting for their own slice of the domestic, consumerist good life.
These trends were exacerbated by the unleashing of the atomic bomb. "As the cold war took hold of the nation's consciousness," argues May, "domestic containment mushroomed into a full-blown ideology that hovered over the cultural landscape for two decades." (91) It is in this portion of her argument that May makes some of her most fascinating claims. Using the Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev to underscore the connections between domesticity and containment, May explains how the home became the site at which such dangerous and destabilizing social forces as atomic power and female sexuality would be tamed. The home bomb shelter became the place of protection against the power of atomic energy, and the linguistic argot for women and the bomb became confused: "During these years a slang term for a sexy woman outside the house was a bombshell. (other terms connoting the devastating power of female sexuality included a knockout and a 'dynamite' woman...A photograph of Hollywood sex symbol Rita Hayworth was actually attached to the hydrogen bomb dropped on the Bikini islands. The island itself provided the name for the abbreviated swimsuit the female 'bombshells' would wear. The designer of the revealing suit chose the name 'bikini' four days after the bomb was dropped to suggest the swimwear's explosive potential." (110-111)
May spends the rest of the book examining how the home of the fifties became both a liberator and a prison for Cold War families. While sex inside the home was now promoted by the culture, premarital sex taboos, the "highly inflated expectations for sublime marital sex," and "sexual brinkmanship" (heavy petting right up but not including sex) all conspired to create sexual disappointment, difficulty, and frustration. (134) In lieu of sexual satisfaction, "consumerism and children [became] the rewards that made the marriage worthwhile," rewards that many Cold War families flocked to in search of a deeper meaning. (180) And, despite this often fruitless search (which recalls the findings of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique), men and women of the Cold War era stuck together. As May puts it, "the home contained not only sex, consumer goods, children, and intimacy, but enormous discontent, especially for women. For many, there was no place else for this discontent to go, so it remained contained in the home...For these white middle-class couples, viable alternatives to domestic containment were out of reach. The cold war consensus and the pervasive atmosphere of anticommunism made personal experimentation, as well as political resistance, risky endeavors with dim prospects for significant positive results...With depression and war behind them, and with political and economic institutions fostering the upward mobility of men, the domesticity of women, and suburban home ownership, they were homeward bound. But, as the years went by, they also found themselves bound to the home." (207)
In the end, May concludes, it "is clear that in recent decades, the domestic ideology and cold war militance have risen and fallen together. Immediately after World War II, stable family life seemed necessary for national security, civil defense, and the struggle for supremacy over the Soviet Union. For a generation of young adults who grew up amid depression and war, domestic containment was a logical response to specific historical circumstances. It allowed them to pursue, in the midst of a tense and precarious world situation, the quest for a sexually-fulfilling, consumer-oriented personal life that was free from hardship. But the circumstances were different for their children, who broke the consensus surrounding the cold war and domestic containment. Whether the baby-boom children will ultimately be more successful than their parents in achieving fulfilling lives and a more just and tolerant world remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: gender, family, and national politics are still intertwined in the ongoing saga of postwar cultural change.