backto50s.jpgThe 1950's were very different times, during which a woman's social standing was below that of men. Women were typically confined to the household, purposed to being a domestic housewife, serving their husband and focusing on the upbringing of a family and children. Although many women sought to challenge the social normitive placed upon them, job opportunities were highly limited and their choices were restricted to working in factories, on farms, behind the counters of a store or as secretaries. Such jobs provided limited opportunity and often unsuitable conditions for raising a family.

For most women, the 1950's were typically known as "the era of the housewife." Men were generally considered the providers of a family, thus holding a position of superiority within the household and similarly within society. Women on the other hand were intended for the raising of an ideal family, and the maintenance of a secure, stable and calm household. Beneath such pressing societal pressure, many women found themselves dropping out of college and giving up on career dreams and individuality in order to become society's "perfect woman."
Society provided endless opportunity for men in furthering themselves, but provided a repressive and constrictive environment by way of high expectation and importance on public image and behavior. The delegated positions for women were that of the obedient and caring wife and mother, gracefully maintaining a tranquil home for a husband to return to. The template for women in these times was ironclad and women that sought to break the mold deliberately crafted to keep them subservient in the household found difficulty advancing.

Societal roles were standard, but slowly changing in favor of women as they began to uphold a greater standing in the labor workforce following World War II. Simply put, they were bored weaving, mending, and maintaining in the household and many sought something more intellectually stimulating. Sylvia Plath was one such women, whose achievements as a successful poet and writer are accentuated by the times that harbored her growth and development.


An Overview of the Times:

The Postwar Booms

Historians use the word “boom” to describe a lot of things about the 1950s: the booming economy, the booming suburbs and most of all the so-called “baby boom.” This boom began in 1946, when a record number of babies–3.4 million–were born in the United States. About 4 million babies were born each year during the 1950s. In all, by the time the boom finally tapered off in 1964, there were almost 77 million “baby boomers.”
After World War II ended, many Americans were eager to have children because they were confident that the future held nothing but peace and prosperity. In many ways, they were right. Between 1945 and 1960, the gross national product more than doubled, growing from $200 billion to more than $500 billion. Much of this increase came from government spending: The construction of interstate highways and schools, the distribution of veterans’ benefits and most of all the increase in military spending–on goods like airplanes and new technologies like computers–all contributed to the decade’s economic growth. Rates of unemployment and inflation were low, and wages were high. Middle-class people had more money to spend than ever–and, because the variety and availability of consumer goods expanded along with the economy, they also had more things to buy.

Moving to the Suburbs

The baby boom and the suburban boom went hand in hand. Almost as soon as World War II ended, developers such as William Levitt (whose “Levittowns” in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania would become the most famous symbols of suburban life in the 1950s) began to buy land on the outskirts of cities and use mass production techniques to build modest, inexpensive tract houses there. The G.I. Bill subsidized low-cost mortgages for returning soldiers, which meant that it was often cheaper to buy one of these suburban houses than it was to rent an apartment in the city.
These houses were perfect for young families–they had informal “family rooms,” open floor plans and backyards–and so suburban developments earned nicknames like “Fertility Valley” and “The Rabbit Hutch.” However, they were often not so perfect for the women who lived in them. In fact, the booms of the 1950s had a particularly confining effect on many American women. Advice books and magazine articles (“Don’t Be Afraid to Marry Young,” “Cooking To Me Is Poetry,” “Femininity Begins At Home”) urged women to leave the workforce and embrace their roles as wives and mothers. The idea that a woman’s most important job was to bear and rear children was hardly a new one, but it began to generate a great deal of dissatisfaction among women who yearned for a more fulfilling life. (In her 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique,” women’s rights advocate Betty Friedan argued that the suburbs were “burying women alive.”) This dissatisfaction, in turn, contributed to the rebirth of the feminist movement in the 1960s.

The Civil Rights Movement

A growing group of Americans spoke out against inequality and injustice during the 1950s. African Americans had been fighting against racial discrimination for centuries; during the 1950s, however, the struggle against racism and segregation entered the mainstream of American life. For example, in 1954, in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court declared that “separate educational facilities” for black children were “inherently unequal.” This ruling was the first nail in Jim Crow’s coffin.
Many Southern whites resisted the Brown ruling. They withdrew their children from public schools and enrolled them in all-white “segregation academies,” and they used violence and intimidation to prevent blacks from asserting their rights. In 1956, more than 100 Southern congressmen even signed a “Southern Manifesto” declaring that they would do all they could to defend segregation.
Despite these efforts, a new movement was born. In December 1955, a Montgomery activist named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat on a city bus to a white person. Her arrest sparked a 13-month boycott of the city’s buses by its black citizens, which only ended when the bus companies stopped discriminating against African American passengers. Acts of “nonviolent resistance” like the boycott helped shape the civil rights movement of the next decade.

The Cold War

The tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, known as the Cold War, was another defining element of the 1950s. After World War II, Western leaders began to worry that the USSR had what one American diplomat called “expansive tendencies”; moreover, they believed that the spread of communism anywhere threatened democracy and capitalism everywhere. As a result, communism needed to be “contained”–by diplomacy, by threats or by force. This idea shaped American foreign policy for decades.
It shaped domestic policy as well. Many people in the United States worried that communists, or “subversives,” could destroy American society from the inside as well as from the outside. Between 1945 and 1952, Congress held 84 hearings designed to put an end to “un-American activities” in the federal government, in universities and public schools and even in Hollywood. These hearings did not uncover many treasonous activities–or even many communists–but it did not matter: Tens of thousands of Americans lost their jobs, as well as their families and friends, in the anti-communist “Red Scare” of the 1950s.

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