The Obedient Woman as a Product of the Partriarchal Fifties

Seminar Paper 2002 22 Pages

American Studies - Miscellaneous



1. Introduction

2. america in the 1950’s

3. construction of the perfect female
3.1. Women enslaved through fashion
3.2. Undermining through language
3.3. Women as sex objects in a sexless time
3.4. Oppression through psychiatrists
3.5. Modern Women: The Lost Sex
3.6. I Love Lucy (...but only when she does the dishes)

4. How women managed to survive
4.1. Productivity in the community
4.2. Protestors against the misogynist fifties
4.3. Betty Friedan
4.4. The League of Women Voters
4.5. The Ladies’ Home Journal

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Woman is not born, but made.

¾ Simone de Beauvoir

This paper attempts to present a view of American women in the 1950s. During that time, women were primarily seen as bearers of children and as housekeepers and homemakers. The discrimination against women was at height in the 1950’s and it was carried out in a subtle way. Women were told to put home and family first because the family was the core of a free society.[1] This message was carried on to the women of that time through the media and the attitudes of the patriarchal society. Many followed this message blindly and saw their sole challenge in organizing the household. Only few resisted and stood up against this anti-woman attitude.

The main thesis of the paper will state that women in the 1950s were constructed by men according to their manly wishes and perceptions. The woman was reduced to household duties and child raising and therefore, an oppression of the females took place. They were undermined according to the values of the Fifties and one of the most important value of that time was the family unit.

Some instances of the construction of the woman will be shown on the example of Cathy Whitaker, the main character from the movie “Far from Heaven” by Todd Haynes. Cathy portraits the perfect housewife who is a submissive woman and a mother of two obedient children. In the center of the perfect family is Cathy’s husband Frank. The character Cathy Whitaker depicts the superlatively 50s housewife and I want to give an account on how she is constructed on different levels. Moreover, the paper will take a critical look at the Puritan values of the 50s and how they lead to the production process of the perfect female.

2. America in the 1950s

The Fifties were a very controversial period. On the one hand, harmonious families lived joyfully in the suburbs but on the other, they struggled to cope with the post-war situation. The situation can be described by the motto “Mehr Schein als Sein”.

The most important characteristics of this tense period were the fear about nuclear war and the spread of communism. Moreover, it was a time of political and social conformity and a time of inventions like television, fast food and advertising. Those goods of mass production contributed to dehumanize society. A massive growth of consumer culture was the effect of this interplay between politics and culture. The zeitgeist of this decade also included shifting expectations about sex, gender roles and family life. Homosexuals and African Americans were the targets of persecution during the 1950s. Discrimination and prejudice shaped their daily lives. The ambition of that time to be progressive stands in contrast to the failure of providing equality for all members of society.

David Caute characterized this period as the era of the “Great Fear”.

“[…]Americans of the decade, especially white middle-class Americans, were afraid of all other things as well. They feared a loss of individualism through their absorption into the corporate structure at work or seduction by mass culture at home; on the other hand, they feared that the might be too individual and thus might be found to be “abnormal.” They feared incursions into the privilege of white, middle-class life by nonwhites both at home and abroad.“ (Booker, 7)

Those are the fears that shaped the people of the 1950s who sought protection from this rapidly changing world in home life.[2] Therefore, women were emphasized to give up their jobs which they occupied during the war and devote their life completely to being a good mother. A government campaign, as well as cultural commentators encouraged women to return to their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Psychoanalysis was consulted on a high rate and women who were not completely satisfied with their role as wife and mother were seen as deficient women. Within this domestic ideology, women were blamed for everything from homosexuality to juvenile delinquency.[3]

Furthermore, women were urged to sacrifice their careers in order to raise their children. Fact is that the percentage of women who went to college and then continued for higher degrees was lower in the in the 1950s than in the 1920s and 1930s(!).[4] The 1950s were a period when women were discriminated in a variety of areas and were almost given no chance to do something else than to perform their assigned gender role.

3. Construction of the perfect female

As already mentioned, I will try to examine how working women were made into submissive housewives subject to the perceptions and ideas of the males. According to Betty Friedan, women had been brainwashed by men into being their servants.

3.1. Women Enslaved Through Fashion

Cathy Whitaker represents the processes which lead to the product woman in the 50s movies and also – unfortunately – in real life in the 50s. This fact shows instantaneously – women were dressed up like dolls and expected to have no will of their own. Cathy ‘s body is wrapped up in a 50s-package which sexualizes her body.

It was Christian Dior who invented the so-called “New Look in 1947.

“We were leaving a period of war, of uniforms, of soldier-women with shoulders like boxers” […] I turned them into flowers, with soft shoulders, blooming bosoms, waists slim as vine stems, and skirts opening up like blossoms. “(Dior in Marling, 10)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Dior’s “New Look” of 1947 was the style that set the tone for the look of the next decade. In the center of the “New Look was the wasp-waist – the eye-catcher par excellence. Women were being looked at and looking was absolutely central to the meaning of the 50s.[5] The “New Look” did not only “turn women into flowers” but drew on many controversies. Since the “New Look” was achieved through devices like padding and corsetry, many felt that the woman inside was being tortured for the benefit of the males. Marling Karal Ann states in her book As seen on TV that “a well-wrought Dior could stand up by itself in a corner after the wearer had gone to bed” (Marling, 11). Simone de Beauvoir described the “new elegance as bondage” (Marling,12).


[1] Cf. Kaledin, I.

[2] Cf. http://home.earthlink.net/~neuhausj/1950s/schange.html#gender.

[3] Cf. http://home.earthlink.net/~neuhausj/1950s/schange.html#gender.

[4] Cf. Kaledin, 37.

[5] Cf. Marling, 5.


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University of Vienna
Obedient Woman Product Partriarchal Fifties



Title: The Obedient Woman as a Product of the Partriarchal Fifties