Date of Award
Bachelor of Arts
femininity, WWII, labor force, gender roles, society
In 1943 the image of Rosie the Riveter personified what the ideal American woman was supposed to be. Rosie supported the war effort and did her patriotic duty for her country, earned a high wage, enjoyed her newfound independence, and showed America that she could do a man’s job, and do it well. However, Rosie and the many American women that she represented never dreamt that when the American servicemen came home two short years later, they would be forced out of their jobs and back into their homes to devote themselves to household chores and their families. In 1957 the image of June Cleaver embodied the time and represented the perfect American woman. A contented housewife, June spent every day at home cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry, all with the help of her new state-of-the-art “All-American” household appliances that made these chores easier than ever. The images of Rosie and June are almost polar opposites even though they symbolized consecutive eras in American history. This thesis identifies and interprets messages conveyed about women’s roles at home and in the labor force during World War II and the subsequent Cold War period prior to the beginning of Second Wave Feminism. Rather than focusing exclusively on women’s magazines of the time, as many other historians have done, this study examines a general audience magazine and newspaper to explore how white women were represented. Analysis of consumer product advertisements marketed towards and feature articles pertaining to women in Life and “Help-Wanted – Female” advertisements in the classified section of the New York Times demonstrates changes and continuities in how American women were represented and expected to behave, and identifies the paid employment positions that were available to them at the time. On the one hand, both publications convey the ideal of what an American woman during World War II and the Cold War should be and do, and yet they also suggest that fulfilling that ideal was not entirely rewarding or realistic by the mid-1950s. When American men enlisted in the armed forces to fight overseas in 1942, women aided the war effort from the home front. Advertisements and articles in Life urged women to do their part for the war effort by purchasing specific products and war bonds. Within months after Life depicted strong but still feminine “Rosies” to encourage women to take a wartime defense jobs, employment ads for these wartime positions appeared in the New York Times’ “Help-Wanted – Female” columns. Once the war ended and the servicemen came home, life changed dramatically for American women. The American government believed that the strongest defense against Communism was a tight-knit nuclear family; as a result, Cold War ideology encouraged women to remain at home and take care of their families full-time. Advertisements in Life featured women using various new household appliances and grocery items, which further emphasized the importance of women as housewives. Furthermore, when women did seek employment outside the home, the only positions available were in stereotypically feminine fields such as clerical, retail, and domestic service work that reinforced feminine traits or tasks associated with women. Between 1946 and 1962, attention to physical appearance became increasingly prominent in both consumer and employment ads, which restricted women to traditional, feminine, gender roles and expectations within the home and workplace until Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 signaled the dissatisfaction that women across the country felt with these ideals and Title VII in 1967 ended sex-segregated employment ads. By examining these publications, this thesis reveals how American women were expected to look and behave if they wanted to embody the ideal woman, and how there were both dramatic changes and significant continuities within these expectations between 1942 and 1962.
Seigal, Carlie, "The Ideal Woman: The Changing Female Labor Force and the Image of Femininity in American Society in the 1940s and 1950s" (2012). Honors Theses. 900.