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American Women’s Work Values in the Fifties and Education Bridge to the Feminist and Civil Rights Sixties

Updated on February 6, 2012

The Turning Point of 20th Century America

Women’s education in America became increasingly more valued and work became more justified and accepted in the 1960’s women’s movement comparatively to the domestic centered postwar women’s life of the 1950’s. The new feminism of the 1960’s gained force; college women formed group stance on the betterment of women (Woloch 355). Attitudes of women’s subordination were slowly losing power even in the 1950’s from women’s necessity to work during the “baby boom” and expansion of school systems. Elementary school teachers were needed and to ensure a middle class status to combat inflation, families required two incomes (Woloch 350). Despite the entrance into sex-typed vocations during the 1950’s, women began to be legitimately seen as workers, although in a very “feminine” light at first. Whether women combined child care with work or compared themselves with men on the job, women noticed much had to be refigured in the attitudes of women, men, and the law of America (Woloch 353). The traditional methodology and women’s inferiority of the 1950’s in the white household or the discrimination against blacks, gave way to women gaining rights through law in the 1960’s, the bridge to the new age of feminism and the civil rights movement.

The Classic 50's Housewife Out Shopping
The Classic 50's Housewife Out Shopping | Source

The "Feminine" Ideology

After the mobilization of “womanpower” in World War II, the 1950’s reflected women’s settling back into traditional household chores and female subordination. The fifties were characterized by rising class status, economic improvement, and the image of the ideal “suburban housewife”. The attitudes of idealistic family image were that of a wife’s “feminine fulfillment” (Woloch 342). Increasingly antifeminist views were supported by experts in the medical, psychology, and scientific arenas. Women were, in their view, supposed to be subordinate as part of being feminine. Consumerism spurred women to find satisfaction in material items rather than personal achievement (Woloch 345). Even divorces were blamed on women who were not “feminine” enough and women’s value depended upon what her husband thought of her (Woloch 347). Critics of the feminine domestic ideology claimed that these attitudes toward women made them lose their sense of self and worth, relying on men for security and the home comfort, blocking them from the outside world (Woloch 348).

Woman Worker at IBM Company
Woman Worker at IBM Company | Source

Women's Rights Gains Momentum: Workers and Revolution

Changes of the 1960s had led to women’s increased independence, especially the rise in employment among wives. The expansion of the economy and need for two incomes rather than only one from a husband, pushed wives into the labor force, but mostly as low-paid office workers or teachers. This first helped in legitimizing the woman worker (Woloch 350). The Women’s Bureau represented the working woman, helping gain policies of equal pay, daycare help, and maternity leave. Working women clashed with society at large because of their claiming work out of family need rather than individual achievement. Many women, however, did recognize that breaking away from the prison of home was a good tactic to pursuing equality (Woloch 352). The Commission on the Status of Women proposed many laws to help working women gain equality in work environments. Mounting conflicts between domestic ideals and working status of women spurred the fire of the new feminist revival of the 1960’s (Woloch 354).

The 1960’s marked the era of the sexual revolution and civil rights. Individualism was highly valued in both men and women unlike during the 1950’s. The working mother, educated daughter, and most of all, the college woman was highly recognized and realized. Women’s academic pursuits were more egalitarian and not focused on domestic ideals anymore. The colleges were crucial centers for social activism and developed followers of the new feminist ideology. This sparked women’s individualism and straying from traditional roles (Woloch 355). Despite the holding back of women in “fears of success” based on attractiveness and their future in marriage and fearing looking too “aggressive”, women’s sexuality began to be celebrated and “casual” relationships became common. Increasing amounts of single women had jobs of their own and attitudes of female autonomy were widely promoted (Woloch 357).

Black Women's Goals of Equality

Besides middle class white women, during the postwar “suburban housewife period, black women had remained a major contributor to their families through employment and also child rearing. They lived much different lives than white women. As the 1960’s rolled in, black women saw the feminist movement as a distraction to their civil rights because they held different interests as a group, seeing race discrimination more important than sex discrimination (Woloch 364). The feminist movement primarily catered to solving social ills of white women, but did benefit black women nonetheless. The National Organization for Women combined feminist motives with civil rights motives in order to cater to all women in America for the improvement of society (Woloch 365).

Little Rock Integration Protest Against Blacks
Little Rock Integration Protest Against Blacks | Source

Towards Modernity: Women and Peoples Unite

As a whole, the women workers of America, white and black, gained significant ground into the 1960’s, throwing away the “feminine” ideals of the postwar 1950’s and fighting for antidiscrimination laws on the basis of race. This time period marked a very drastic and positive change in thinking and ideals for the improvement of women’s rights and social justice. The housewives and working women, white and black, could not stay silent for that is not how progress is made.


Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience: A Concise History, Second Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2002. Print.


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    • Bridget A Brimer profile image

      Bridget A Brimer 5 years ago

      Thank you. I thought this topic was interesting, especially looking back at an era when I wasn't even living yet. I remain attentive at your mention of WWII generation women though; why do you suppose they purported to upholding the "feminine" ideology? I honestly thought much of the WWII women were the ones who were angry but maybe I'm mistaken...

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 5 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      To Bridget: This is an excellent hub. Yes, I remember growing up in the 1960s when women even though they were college educated were asked the dreaded words, " Can you type?" Yes, women in the 1960s were relegated to typically feminine, helper jobs such as secretaries, teachers, and nurses.

      I remember the blossoming of feminism in the late 1960s. Many women, especially of the World War II generation, was quite upset at the feminist ideology, they preferred to be "the feminine and submissive woman", the younger women like the Silent and Baby Boom generations were mostly welcoming to the feminist ideology, knowing that it would broaden our lifestyle and career choices. I thank God for feminism because if it were not for feminism, sadly many educated women would be still performing in archetypically feminine, low paid jobs. Great and excellent hub!