Bachelor of Arts
In 2003, the movie Mona Lisa Smile debuted describing the frustrations that many college women may have faced in the years after World War II. Wellesley College was the elite all-female institution that openly and proudly prepared its young women with the proper rules of etiquette and correctness. Despite Wellesley’s own excellent academic reputation, its close proximity to the prestigious single-sex male college, Harvard, made it even more appealing and convenient for the Wellesley girls to find a “suitable” husband. The novice young art instructor, Katherine Watson, was unique in that she wanted to offer her students not only a chance but a choice to be more than just a wife and mother-the opportunity to have a career if they wished. This film illustrated a time when life may not have always been as simple as the history books would have us believe. The 1950’s and early 1960’s was a period filled with many changes. Lives were being transformed as new social, political, and technological developments were being introduced into a world once preoccupied with war. It is not surprising that many females were left struggling to find their own identity and wondering whether they should follow the lead of “Rosie” the working woman or “June” the stay-at-home mother. Today historians are divided on whether or not educated women suffered from the same image that we are told stigmatized many women of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Following World War II, society was filled with uncertainty and opposition for women. The idea that domestic constraints bound the postwar middle-class woman was popularized by Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. She was a noted journalist during this time who based many of the conclusions represented in her best selling book on a 1957 survey she gave to fellow alumnae of the 1942 graduating class at Smith College. Many historians and even scholars from
other fields are beginning to question whether the evidence Friedan used to support her conclusions was indeed an accurate representation of this era. In order to ascertain whether the experience of women at a coeducational non-elite college might have been different from that described by Friedan, I conducted a random sample survey of Lynchburg College women graduates (the LC Survey) from the years 1950, 1955, 1960, and 1965. These years are representative of the postwar period, and used to establish a benchmark to examine popular cultural beliefs. Because of the limited number of alumnae during 1950 and 1955, all women graduates on record in the Alumni Office at Lynchburg College for those years received a survey. Every third female graduate on record for the years 1960 and 1965 received a survey. The survey asks questions analogous to those Friedan posed to participants in her questionnaire. Respondents received a cover letter describing the project without giving too much detail, in order not to bias their responses. The cover letter invited respondents to participate further in personal and/or telephone interviews. Due to the large positive response to this invitation, a total of fifteen women were selected at random from this group to participate in the telephonic oral interview session. A total of one hundred and thirty three surveys were mailed to the Lynchburg College alumnae, with a response rate of 55%. In analyzing the results from this project and in reviewing the findings of several of the revisionist historians and others, I will identify many inconsistencies in Friedan’s conclusions. Friedan believed many factors combined to create a problem among middle-class American women that could only be described as “the problem that has no name.” Postwar women had the latest consumer goods and the newest technology at their disposal, designed to make their lives easier than ever before. Still women could not put into words why they felt estranged and upset about their own lives. Throughout Friedan’s book this message was quite clear and reverberated over and over again-women living in a society that forced them to accept the role of subservient wife and mother experienced a feeling of discontent and incompleteness. According to many sources, women were afraid to share this secret with their friends and families until Friedan’s critique of the “feminine mystique” changed the course of women’s history. The “feminine mystique” was a term Friedan coined to describe how society perpetuated the belief that American women should find satisfaction and contentment in their lives just by being homemakers and mothers. Even college educated women were supposed to find happiness in scrubbing floors, making elaborate dinners, and having the smartest and best children on the block. Women feared that expressing themselves in any venue other than those society predetermined for them would experience a loss of their femininity. Friedan attacked this idea and further determined that the culture of the 1950’s and 1960’s did not permit women to accept or fulfill their basic needs as human beings. Much as the character Katherine Watson told her students in the movie Mona Lisa Smile, Friedan led many women to believe that their full potential as a woman could only be recognized by finding their own true identity (by pursuing a career). Friedan led the reader to believe that women everywhere were suppressed by the ideas perpetuated in the feminine mystique. Friedan in her book challenged the educational system and stated that society trained young women to go to college to find a suitable spouse. She further maintained the idea that the educators themselves perpetuated this charade by forcing young women to take gender related courses designed to keep women at home without the chance of ever having a career of their own. Rules and conformity were a by-product of the postwar period and Friedan was quite
outspoken on her views of early marriage and large families. She believed it to be a disgrace and a travesty that college educated women should only be “housewives” and held the media, to a large degree, responsible for such a belief. The media portrayed women as child-like beings that were incapable of taking care of anything other than jobs in the home. Complicated matters such as family finances were usually considered beyond the scope of a woman’s intellect. These were just a few of Friedan’s ideas that gained attention among postwar women. The question that must be answered needs to be whether or not Friedan’s study was indeed representative of the majority of postwar women. Douglas T. Miller, a professional historian, and Marion Nowak, a journalist, in their book, The Fifties: The Way We Really Were written in 1975, seem to mirror many of the ideas presented by Friedan. In 1981, Colette Dowling, a journalist with many magazine articles to her credit, wrote The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence, in which she, too, identified a problem similar to the one Friedan identified. She called it The Cinderella Complex, in which fear and repressed attitudes did not allow women to use their minds or their creative abilities. Many historians, however, during the later decades of the twentieth century such as Joanne Meyerowitz, an associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, and Jessica Weiss, an assistant professor at California State University, started to question whether the evidence Friedan presented during the postwar period was indeed representative of the time. Other scholars, such as Eugenia Kaledin, whose primary focus was in American Studies at Northeastern University, attempted to show a side of American women in the 1950’s that demonstrated their strengths and a turn from the victimization attitude. These revisionist historians and scholars have countered Friedan’s conclusions based on extensive research of their own. Meyerowitz provided evidence in her paper, “Beyond the Feminine Mystique: A Reassessment of Postwar Mass Culture, 1946-1958”, that popular magazines of the period did present coverage of successful women outside of the home. Jessica Weiss, in her book To Have and to Hold: Marriage, the Baby Boom & Social Change, neutralized the domestic bliss of the postwar family and gave proof of how real families truly lived as opposed to the images portrayed by the popular culture and Friedan. Eugenia Kaledin, in her book Mothers and More, looked at postwar women from a social viewpoint instead of an historical one. She explains that while women were discouraged from being considered equal with men, these restrictions allowed women to evolve and to establish a set of values of their own. This value system was ultimately used to define women’s achievements. All of these representatives of modern day scholarship express their concern for what is being taught as truth about the postwar period. Since The Feminine Mystique has so profoundly shaped the view of postwar women in popular culture as well as academic history, it is important to study and analyze the validity of Friedan’s version of this era and compare it with more modern day perceptions.
Watson, Dinah, "Balancing Rosie and June: A Study of Lynchburg College Postwar Alumnae and the Impact of The Feminine Mystique" (2007). Undergraduate Theses and Capstone Projects. 26.
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