Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Homeward Bound

For May, bomb shelters exemplify the "containment" metaphor, showing how public fears intersected with (created?) domestic ideologies of the hothouse nuclear family.

Title: Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988)

Elaine Tyler May, history, University of Minnesota (PhD, UCLA, 1975). She writes: "I am a historian of the United States in the twentieth century, with a particular interest in the intersections of politics and private life. My research and teaching focus on the areas of women's history and history of the family, exploring the ways in which gender and sexuality reflect and express American political, cultural and social values." Her other books include Great Expectations: Marriage and Divorce in Post-Victorian America (1980) and Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness (1997), which I really, really want to read.

Dominant historical and cultural narratives have normalized the 1950s way of marriage and family life, but in reality, the 50s paradigm (early marriage; rigid gender roles; nuclear family) was different from anything before or after - and, of course, the social relations of the time period were constructed, like those of any other. May asks why, after the Depression and WWII, when women worked outside of the home in large numbers, the pendulum swung so far toward the other, more traditional configuration during the 1950s. The larger theoretical point here has to do with the way that political ideology, or national political "direction", can be reflected/refracted in ideas of domestic relationships. Specifically, during the postwar years, ideas of "containment" (on the international level) manifested themselves in the domestic sphere.

1. Containment at Home: Cold War, Warm Hearth:
Beginning with the story of the Nixon/Khruschev "kitchen debates", May describes what deeper meanings or usefulnesses the domesticity of the 1950s had for the society: "The appliance-laden ranch-style home epitomized the expansive, secure lifestyle that postwar Americans wanted. Within the protective walls of the modern home, worrisome developments like sexual liberalism, women's emancipation, and affluence would lead not to decadence but to a wholesome family life. Sex would enhance marriage, emancipated women would professionalize homemaking, and affluence would put an end to material deprivation..." (19-20) Also, this lifestyle, when available to (or idealized for!) many people, would make Communism look unattractive and unnecessary to the majority of Americans. Here, May also introduces the Kelly Longitudinal Study, the survey of married couples begun in the 1930s which will serve as an important part of her evidence for the book.

Nixon v. Khruschev, 1959 Kitchen Debates. But why did Moscow allow an exposition of American culture in the first place? Anybody know? (Also, Khruschev said, when Nixon showed him a TV, "This is probably always out of order...Don't you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down? Many things you've shown us are interesting but they are not needed in life...they are merely gadgets" [quoted on page 163]. And then Nixon proceeded to go see about inventing that food-pusher...)

2. Depression: Hard Times at Home: Context for the 1950s model of domesticity includes the Depression years, during which many more women went to work, but which, May says, also "created nostalgia for a mythic past in which male breadwinners made a decent living, and homemakers were freed from outside employment" (38). May discusses Depression-era Hollywood depictions of working women, which always managed to emphasize flexibility and problem-solving in marriages strapped for cash, without proposing a fundamental shift in the way marriages worked.

3. War and Peace: Fanning the Home Fires: Again, during WWII, women worked in greater numbers; however, this "emergency suspension" of gender roles (see Gail Collins, who probably got this idea from May) is revoked at the end of the war. May returns to Hollywood to show how women working in the film industry were depicted as domestic (and includes an awesomely memorable picture of Joan Crawford washing the floor in full eyebrowed splendor). The emphasis on domesticity during a time when many women worked was due to a desire to contain the female sexuality which was seen as being "on the loose" during the wild wartime years (see: paintings of bombshells on planes and, well, bombshells). May also writes about the real dilemmas of women who decided whether or not to work during this era, pointing out that opportunities for women - whether college-educated or not - were slim, and may have made domesticity seem like a more appetizing solution to the question "What do I do with my life?"

4. Explosive Issues: Sex, Women, and the Bomb:
During the postwar years, women's sexuality was linked pervasively with the power of the bomb, "a symbolic connection that found widespread expression in professional writings, anticommunist campaigns, and the popular culture" (93). Many people in many levels of government sincerely believed that there was a "direct connection between communism and sexual depravity" (94). Male power needed to be exercised in the home as well as in the public sphere, so that the power of sex could be harnessed and channelled in positive directions: men would be fulfilled, and not subject to temptations of pornography, homosexuality, and prostitution; women would be fulfilled, and would raise healthy kids, like good republican mothers. Here May talks about the bomb shelter and its meanings for idealized family "togetherness" and insularity.

Marilyn Monroe, she of the totally uncontrollable sexuality, in Niagara (1953).

5. Brinkmanship: Sexual Containment on the Home Front:
Following the paradigm set up in the previous chapter, May returns to the Kelly data, attempting to see how postwar couples were affected by ideologies of containment. Discussing ideas of the acceptability of premarital sex, she writes that many couples got married early to avoid the disasters that were supposed to happen when you did engage in intercourse before getting hitched. May outlines the paradox of expert advice on sex and marriage in this time period: the recommendation was for complete virginity before marriage, and then mutual bliss within - a combination which didn't really seem to work in the real world, or at least the real world as reported by Kelly. All in all, sexual containment had an "ambiguous legacy" (134) - it did not guarantee security or fulfillment, but the consequences of non-adherence (loss of status, stigma, "the economic hardship of divorce") were too great for many people to risk.

6. Baby Boom and Birth Control: The Reproductive Consensus: During the Cold War, having babies was a way to exercise civic values. Pronatalism, rampant during these years, held that having children was the number one way to be happy, and to contribute to the growth of the nation. To this end, ideas of maternity being the ultimate sexual fulfillment for women were widely held, but also (and this is interesting) people thought that men should be fathers - as May contends, fatherhood was seen as an antidote to an office life that might be overwhelmingly depersonalized. For the first time, the family was supposed to fulfill all human emotional needs - a microcosm unto itself. Again, May returns to H'wood to describe how these ideas grew in movie-world.

Still from the pronatal film "Penny Serenade", starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne (1941)

7. The Commodity Gap: Consumerism and the Modern Home: Returning to the kitchen debates, May shows how consumerism was tied with stability and anti-Communism, and how investing in the home became the best way of "planning for the future" (even if it put financial burdens on the family in the present). May writes that part of the way Americans, still adhering to a Puritan model of pragmatism and guilt, justified spending as much as they started spending was that if it was the home they were investing in, consumerism was seen as unselfish (it's for the kids, not for me!) Good point.

8. Hanging Together: For Better or for Worse: Returning to the Kelly couples, May goes straight to the heart of some bad marriages, asking why the couples in question stayed together, and finding that the answer was usually status, stability, and security.

9. Epilogue: The Baby Boom Comes of Age: Starting with Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), May writes about responses to the domestic ideal, beginning with those who lived it (women who wrote to Friedan after the publication of the book) and moving into the responses of their children. She eventually concludes that domestic containment moved out of fashion after the Cold War political conditions changed, and that there was, after the 1950s, no "consensus" idea of how family life would be lived - at least, not the way there was back then.

Joseph Hawes, writing in the Journal of American History, wrote that May used the "perfect" data set provided in the form of the Kelly survey to great effect, comparing her work to that of Nancy Cott in Bonds of Womanhood (1977). Hawes also liked May's use of the Civil Defense images in chapter 4. The only possible quibble: May seemed to focus on unhappy couples, but, Hawes wrote, "the 60s rebirth of feminism fully justifies her emphasis". In Signs, Susan Ware wrote that the use of the Kelly data was the strength and the weakness of the book - the data's concentration in the white middle class, for example, was a drawback (but one of which, as Ware admits, May is fully aware). More important, Ware wrote that the somewhat imperfect chronology of the Kelly survey - which began in the late 30s - meant that many of the 50s ideologies described in the book could not be said to apply directly to the experiences of these couples. Overall, though, Ware appreciated May's interest in placing these 50s experiences in a chronology which included the 30s and 40s.

Sources to follow up on: Primary: Movies: "The Atomic Cafe"; "Niagara".

Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (1976); Robert J. Lifton, The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life (1979); Lary May, Screening Out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry (1983); Ellen Peck and Judith Senderowitz, Pronatalism: The Myth of Mom and Apple Pie (1974); Ellen Rothman, Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America (1984); Leila Rupp, Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939-1945 (1978); Viviana Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (1985).

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