1948 – 1977 Growth and Turmoil Cold War Beginnings

Key Ideas

  1. In the years following World War II, both the federal government and popular culture promoted the heteronormative, consumer-driven, suburban family as the ideal American experience. Women’s roles in those families were central to this ideal.
  2. Government policy and cultural norms systematically denied access to this so-called American dream to most Americans based on race, class, and identity.
  3. American women of diverse backgrounds questioned and resisted the dominant post-war narrative through activism and self-expression.

Introduction

Doug White (photographer), The Most Popular New Appliance in the Postwar Era was the Television, 1956. Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, 05-54286, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Cold War Beginnings, 1948-1963

By 1948, after years of economic depression and a world war, Americans were ready to enter a new era. The social and economic trends that began post war continued into the 1950s and early 1960s. Marriage and birth rates grew exponentially. The economy expanded due in large part to growing consumerism. Fear of atomic power and spreading communism informed immigration restrictions, public policies, and informal definitions of what it meant to be American.

Just as government policy and public opinion during the Great Depression repressed certain aspects of Jazz Age independence, so too did the early years of the Cold War reverse many wartime achievements for women. The same government propaganda machine that championed Rosie the Riveter now promoted a different notion. American women should embody democracy from the safety of their kitchens.

Government incentives for veterans helped many white middle-class families leave cities and move to new suburban communities. Suburban life was based on the heteronormative nuclear family. Father earned the money. Mother took care of the home. Children attended safe schools and played with the newest toys. In the evening, the family sat around their television, watching men walk on the moon and presidents speak about democracy. The magazines they read and the sitcoms they viewed celebrated this suburban family and suggested they were the norm.

Section Essential Questions

  1. What was the post-war suburban ideal and what role did women play in promoting and embodying it?
  2. Who was excluded from the suburban ideal? What did the American experience actually look like for those left out?
  3. How did Americans – particularly American women – resist the government-sponsored promotion of a predominantly white, consumer-driven post-war America?

Resources

Excerpts from an informal debate between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev about daily life in America and Russia.
Curriculum Connections:
Cold War, Red Scare, U.S. Foreign Policy, consumer culture
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A film and pair of photographs that highlight the intersection of the home and consumerism.
Curriculum Connections:
technological innovations, Cold War, consumer culture, home economics
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A set of photographs comparing suburban and urban housing in the St. Louis area.
Curriculum Connections:
Jim Crow Era, segregation, Great Migration, Cold War, African American Civil Rights Movement, consumer culture
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Two dolls created by the Mattel company in 1959 and 1969.
Curriculum Connections:
consumer culture
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A suspension notice for Minnijean Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine.
Curriculum Connections:
Jim Crow Era, segregation, Great Migration, Cold War, African American Civil Rights Movement
Go to Resource
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A pair of excerpted letters between the sister of a soldier killed in Vietnam and President John F. Kennedy.
Curriculum Connections:
Cold War, Vietnam War, U.S. Foreign Policy
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A case designed to hold and distribute birth control pills.
Curriculum Connections:
Women’s Rights Movement
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Life Stories

The story of a popular Congresswoman from California whose political career was entangled in the sexist and anti-communist politics of 1950.
Curriculum Connections:
Cold War, Red Scare
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The story of a grieving mother who insisted on informing the world about the horrifying lynching of her son.
Curriculum Connections:
Jim Crow Era, segregation, Great Migration, Cold War, African American Civil Rights Movement
Go to Resource
The story of a mathematician whose calculations contributed significantly to the United States’ achievements in space exploration.
Curriculum Connections:
Cold War, technological innovations, segregation, Jim Crow Era
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The story of an overnight pop culture icon who used her celebrity status to advocate for the acceptance of transgender people.
Curriculum Connections:
Expanding Civil Rights Movement
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The story of a Chinese-American immigrant whose experiences were significantly shaped by American domestic and foreign policies.
Curriculum Connections:
immigration, U.S. Foreign Policy
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The story of a feminist activist who wrote The Feminine Mystique and questioned the American housewife ideal.
Curriculum Connections:
Women Right’s Movement, consumer culture, home economics
Go to Resource