American Life after the Cold War
American family life before and during the Cold War, as well as the changes commenced by the baby boomers have all been the subjects of numerous studies. One of the major acclaimed contributors in this regard is Elaine Tyler May, whose book Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era first published in 1988 contains a detailed analysis of the American family life, perception of gender roles and equality, as well as the results of the Kelly Longitudinal Study (KLS) that gradually reveal the realities of the nuclear families inside life. The central idea of the book is confinement of the post-war Americans, who became the prisoners of their homes as a result of the Cold War governmental policies designed to draw Americans together in their conformity to the anticommunist ideals that, in particular, leaned toward the traditional family values and gender roles.
In her work May discusses the American life in the Cold War era from two different points of view. The first point of view analyzed the post-war life as a result of people striving to feel secure and become prosperous in the course of upward mobility supported by various government programs aimed at blurring the lines between social classes. The second point of view holds that the ideals of anti-communism lobbied by the powerful circles led to the promotion of the traditional family life and gender roles in opposition to the communist society, where both men and women were supposedly equal hard laborers without distinct gender roles. May supports her arguments by numerous examples drawn from the governmental policies, media and responds of the participants of the KLS, thus, providing an in-depth assessment of the subject.
During her research, she found out that the post-Cold War era was the time when Americans were more inclined toward getting married and having bigger families. According to May, the ideology of sustaining a family life was prevalent in the society because Americans wanted to have a secure and affluent life. And while political influence played an important role in defining this ideology, people did not follow the leaders’ decisions blindly, but made a choice in favor of early marriages, big families and traditional gender roles, as they promised happiness, companionship and “togetherness” in the insecure world, and it was their home, not public world, that promised personal fulfillment. Nonetheless, despite the perfect picture imposed on the American population by the media, both men and women were often dissatisfied with their lives. On one hand, most men became the only breadwinners for their families, often felt alienated and resented the subordination in their workplaces; one the other hand, despite the belief that women’s lives became easier, as they gained an opportunity to be professional housewives, they were actually constantly working at home, raising children, and even when husbands came home, they could not rest, but constantly stay sexually appealing to their men.
While both men and women were subject to the post-war ideology of consumerism and containment, women were the primary victim of the policy of the imposed domesticity. The idea of emancipated aspiring working women, who could manage to be good wives and mothers, has been shattered by politicians, including President Nixon, and media numerous times. Starting from the 1931 movie Blonde Venus to the 1950s, media showed that women had to choose between career and home, but could not succeed in both. Film stars like Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford and Claudette Colbert started portraying women as supporters of the men’s aspirations and were urged to give up their own ambitions for the sake of a happy family. Those women, who wanted to work in the post-war years, had very restricted job opportunities and were paid extremely little money, usually working as subordinates and performing menial tasks. Such conditions were created to make women want to stay at home and enjoy their independence. One of many media portrayals of the ideal life can be found in the mid-fifties best seller The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, where women, who pursued careers, were considered selfish and sexually promiscuous and were destined to suffer.
The idea of being professional housewives and later the threat of the nuclear war with the Soviet Union created a sense of purposefulness for women, who have been told they were the primary protectors and caregivers for their families in case of disaster.
Such way of life of both men and women, including consumerism, was encouraged by media and businesses. According to May, “Advertisers during the depression years played on men’s guilt at a time when many men felt responsible for placing the security of their families in jeopardy”. As much as men were urged to invest into the future of their children, which included the investments into consumer goods, women were encouraged to make all purchases for their homes in order to create a perfect suburban life and make sure the family is prepared to the nuclear disaster. Businesses started constructing and selling houses with bomb shelters, and according to May, “Contractors commercialized the idea by creating a variety of styles and sizes to fit the tastes of consumers, from a “$13.50 foxhole shelter” to a “$5,000 deluxe ‘suite’ with telephone, escape hatches, bunks, toilets, and geiger counter”. Women were later using these shelters as storehouses for the canning and bottling, or as the playgrounds for children.
Sex confined to the family boundaries was important in order to make life successful. The context in which May discusses sex and marriage are an open and colossal idea of consumerism. Children became a way for the markets to penetrate the families. The credit for such a new development and efficiency of markets goes to the marriage and sexual satisfaction. Perfect housewives were the ones, who maintained their sexual appeal and satisfied their men, while women’s inability to satisfy their husbands was considered the root of many men’s problems. It kept men going since they were viewed as dominant in bed. The image of the bombshell or a sexy woman, whose sexuality is unleashed, was viewed as a danger, as women could become more emancipated, so female sexuality had to be taken under control. Sexual containment was lobbied by the media, and one of the examples was the connection driven between the destructive force of the atomic energy and women’s aspirations. According to May, “So pervasive and lasting was the connection between taming fears of the atomic age and taming women that as late as 1972, a civil defense pamphlet personified dangerous radioactive rays as sexy women”. In one such pamphlet about radioactivity, the dangerous rays were portrayed as openly sexy and seductive women, and this was done to show the danger of such women to the society. It was considered, that the base of the successful marriage was good sexual life, but it had to occur only between husband and wife.
Despite being given financial security at home, women turned out to have a lot of remorse and resentment toward their husbands and their own lives and choices. The KLS showed that “women were twice as likely as men to report that they were dissatisfied or regretted their marriage. Nearly half the women, but only a third of the men, said they had considered divorce”; at the same time more women than men would not marry the same person if given a chance to change their decisions. Women were feeling worse than men about their marriages, and this was mainly the reason why one out of six respondents asked for professional psychological help in their married lives. The reasons for such responses are obvious, as men and women were not actually given a choice, but had an illusion that they had it. People were imposed a post-war anti-communist ideology, where men could not order their wives to work, and women could not easily find a job that would give them financial independence. Men had to work fixed hours for the companies they did not want to work for, and women had to stay at home looking after children and staying easy-going and sexually appealing, and this way of life was largely supported by the government, media and businesses that were all not interested in political activism.
May seemed to be able to provide her claims on the basis of argumentative prophecy that was largely hidden in the written works of other writers. She claimed that the strict views after Cold War allowed men to transform their world, but it rather pushed women back to the early Stone Age. However, in the recent times, as predicted by May, the sphere of woman’s life was to change vastly. The change, evident in the modern times, is in regards of the decisions that they make in order to get their children be less homeward bound and seek for personal fulfillment. Also, women are now presenting themselves as the leaders in every walk of life. However, the fact remains that the impact of the Cold War was widely noticed after the years of ideological change.
I would rather state that the corresponding assertions and claims as presented and well-cited by May in her book is a commendable act. It can be said that she has been able to bring different views regarding American life after the Cold War in a very effective manner. It is merely a timeline of concepts and ideology that proved Americans to become completely dependent upon their situations. The depression of war pushed them to the point where they could not understand their merits. It was yet again a remarkable success of the author to compare American life and changes in gender roles before, during and after the period of the policy of containment. From the above critique of the book written by May, it comes to understanding that the author has provided a quiet cynical view of life. The strangest aspect of this view or assertion by May has been fully backed up by the past researches and studies that proved the homeward-bound manner of living. It also denotes that the development was much needed in the lives of Americans after the war since the depression have caused a spiritual decline. Also, the content of the book presents an argumentative reading experience that leaves no room of ambiguity. The aspects that have been ignored by readers at one point of their lives have been revised by the author.