"Housewife" or Career Woman:
The Changing Roles of Women in WWII and Beyond
To what extent American women should work inside versus outside the home has long been a topic of debate in the United States.
This debate was especially heated in post-World War II America, when women's roles underwent a variety of dramatic changes in response to returning soldiers, increased prosperity, the Baby Boom, and other factors.
In this activity from ProQuest Historical Newspapers (free trials), read about the evolution of women's roles during and after World War II and analyze the way that advertisements reflected and influenced what it meant to be a woman in the second half of the twentieth century.
Women's roles transformed dramatically during World War II and the decades following it. With most American men fighting overseas, scores of middle-class women who had previously worked in the home took on jobs in factories and in other traditionally male-dominated workplaces.
Historical advertisements are rich with cultural significance. Use these three Coca-Cola ads—from 1950, 1955, and 1968—to help your students compare the ways women were portrayed in each time period. What do the illustrations or photographs alone communicate? How does the written text in each ad reinforce its message? What type of women are the ads targeting, and what values do the ads use to do so?
By 1949, 46 percent of working women were married, and 43 percent of those women had children. As Malvina Lindsay wrote in a 1946 Washington Post article, "The war taught the two million housewives, who exchanged their kitchen aprons for factory slacks and overalls, what it means for a woman to have her own paycheck." But for many female employees such paychecks ended when the war did, as many women lost their jobs to the returning soldiers and numerous employers reinstated prewar employment restrictions against women.
A [U.S.] HOMEMAKER PREPARES A MEAL FOR HER FAMILY
© Getty Images, Inc. (1950)
During the 1950s, a time of extraordinary prosperity in the United States, many women returned to or took up life as a "housewife." In response to this sociological shift, concerted market research was carried out that resulted in a host of postwar products targeting women and facilitating ease in housekeeping.
An article called "Women and Babies Taking Over" commented on the 1950 census, which revealed the highest percentage of married Americans in history and growing evidence of what would come to be called the Baby Boom. Dr. Benjamin Spock became a household name in baby care, and the title of one 1951 article—"Mother's Place Is at Home While Children Are Young"—captured much of mainstream American opinion regarding women in the workplace.
Women who were employed outside the home during the 1950s were often single and usually worked in clerical positions or other traditionally female jobs.
As the 1960s progressed and the Baby Boomers began to come of age, women enjoyed an ever widening array of educational and employment opportunities. However, debates over women's roles did not lessen.
Indeed, the question posed by the title of Ann Maulsby's 1945 article as to whether women should choose the path of "Housewife or Career" is one that has been thought about and answered in a variety of ways well beyond the 1960s.
Atlanta Daily World, 1950 (original)
The Hartford Courant, 1955 (original)
Chicago Daily Defender, 1968 (original)