Elaine Tyler May. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. (1988)
This week we are exploring mid-twentieth century women’s lives. I will be responding to Homeward Bound by Elaine Tyler May.
The generation that birthed the baby boomers (as Tim Brokaw called them “the greatest generation”) is interesting because they retreated from the sexual revolution, political “progressivism”, and grassroots social movements that their parents, and later their children, embraced. The generation that came of age in the Great Depression had a vibrant and unique youth culture, embraced the woman’s movement, and celebrated sex; their children, according to Tyler May, embraced conservative political ideologies, and a strong domestic ideal that focused on a strong “nuclear” family (7-8). This appears to be a return to late nineteenth-century ideals of Domesticity and conceptions of citizenship. For example, the Cold War was being fought through reinforcing the nuclear family which restricted women (in Tyler May’s research pool) to the home. Tyler May describes the new American dream as “successful breadwinners supporting attractive homemakers in affluent suburban homes” (Tyler May 21). In post-war America, women were pushed out of the labor force and into homes, in what Nancy Isenberg described in Sex and Citizenship as economic necessity, “women were driven into marriage by economic necessity, because all lucrative means of support were seized by men”(Isenberg 130).
Homeward Bound is not the first of our readings that seek to define citizenship for women; Stephanie McCurry and Nell Painter both argued in their books that creating paid labor was crucial to an individual becoming a citizen in Antebellum America, when the ideal citizen was linked directly to capitalism. This emphasis on labor as affirmation of one’s citizenship was key to the Woman’s Movement that fought for and gained suffrage at the turn of the century, and influenced the ideas of womanhood and modernity that were the focus of the 1920s and 1930s.
Leading up to and during WWII, President Roosevelt created a new concept of citizenship, one based on obligations to the state and entitlements claimed from the state. This new citizenship as explored by James Sparrow in Warfare State redefined the relationships of individuals with the state by defining a citizen in terms of action; physical action in the form of paying taxes, social action in the form of supporting the war effort, and modern patriotism through laying claim to civil rights earned through obligation, and sacrifice for the nation. It is through this new citizenship envisioned by FDR that the generation that Tyler May examines lay claim to their position in Cold War America, with a sense of entitlement and obligation that made them uniquely positioned to fight the Cold War at home.
The connection between citizenship and economic power found a way to continue into the 1940s and 50s as women became the main purchasers of consumer goods. More companies began to target the ideal domestic woman with their products and their advertising. In post-war America, obligation to the state was no longer serving the war effort, but rather ensuring that capitalism remained healthy and strong through making purchases. American patriotism became inextricably linked to consumer power during this time. Tyler May explores this not just by examining popular culture of the period, but also in her discussion of the growth of suburbs. Suburban living assured white middle-class Americans that they would be protected while also allowed them to demonstrate their patriotism through home buying. This also reaffirmed the new definition of whiteness that Tyler May identifies in her introduction as the result of urban flight by ethnic white Americans to the suburbs. How could one be considered ethnic if they were not explicitly part of a ethnic neighborhood in a city?
While Elaine Tyler May’s book provides unique insight into one group of Americans during the early years of the Cold War, her analysis isolates her subjects from social and political movements that were occurring simultaneously to this containment policy at
home. Tyler May devotes some time to discussing the fears of Cold War Americans in regards to sexual and political “deviants”, but completely ignores the ways that these fears of sexual non-normativity spread across the nation in the form of the Lavender Scare. In David K. Johnson’s book, The Lavender Scare, the effects of the expanded the national security state during the 1950s and 1960s in combination with McCarthyism are closely examined. McCarthyism linked homosexuality within the State Department to the idea of security risks due to the perception that homosexual activity made individuals more susceptible to blackmail. The removal of gay federal employees and rejection of gay applicants became more widespread and systemic over the course of the 1950s as bureaucracies across the country, and even international organizations, tried to demonstrate their adherence to concepts of ‘loyalty’ and Western family values. Tying this into the exploration of the “ideal” American Family would have developed a much richer background for the systemic fear that fueled this focus inward by the “greatest generation”.
Another missed opportunity, in my opinion, is Tyler May’s reliance on the Kelly Longitudinal Study for her book. The Kelly Longitudinal Study (KLS) was a voluntary survey that began between 1935 and 1938, with 300 engaged couples volunteering to respond to an extensive battery of physiological and psychological tests and measures. Couples agreed to notify the investigator of their marriage, or of the broken engagement. In 1954-1955, 512 of the original 600 spouses participated in the second wave of data collection. A follow up survey was conducted by James Connolly between 1979 and 1981. Participants completed mailed questionnaires containing both precoded and open-ended responses (both collections are housed at the Murray Research Archive at Harvard University). Not only were the respondents to the KLS not representative of the nation as a whole, consisting of upper-middle class heterosexual couples from New England, who were white and well-educated and predominantly Protestant. Tyler May’s response to this criticism of the study is, “[a]lthough all groups contributed to the baby boom, it was the values of the white middle class that shaped the dominant political and economic institutions that affected all Americans. Those who did not conform to them were likely to be marginalized, stigmatized, and disadvantaged as a result” (Tyler May 15). I am suspicious of this justification for utilizing the KLS as a representative tool for the nation as a whole during the Cold War. The Kinsey Report, while focused primarily on sexuality, was conducted during the same time and could have provided additional insight into the everyday American; perhaps allowing more analysis of the ideal versus reality during this period.
While Tyler May’s research provides an important foundational understanding of what the ideal American family was like during the Cold War, there remain several under- or unexplored facets of women in the Cold War. Black women, working women, non-Protestant women, and lesbian women are invisible in this history- hopefully the other books for this week will reveal those histories.
Johnson, David K. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.
McCurry, Stephanie. Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, & the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (1995).
Painter, Nell. Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol (1996).
Sparrow, James. Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Governments. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.