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Gender in Postwar Suburbia

The Nuclear Family in the Garden of Eden

In 1921, the National Real Estate Journal told its readers that the Garden of Eden was the first subdivision—a piece of land allotted for the future development of homes and businesses. By the early 1950s, housing developers, architects, and real estate agents were alluding similarly to the heavenly benefits of the single-family suburban home. Amidst ever-increasing tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and the growing threat of nuclear war, suburban entrepreneurs sold the mystique of utopian bliss. And at the center of this modern paradise was the "nuclear family," a unit consisting of a father, a mother, and their biological children.

Eve at the Helm

Just a few years before, however, world crisis had revolutionized these conventional roles. The widespread demand for civilian labor during World War II drew millions of women into the labor force. Approximately one-fourth of all female workers recruited by government war mobilization campaigns were middle-class homemakers who had never before been employed outside the home. Wartime demands transformed traditional gender roles and helped deconstruct some long-established notions of femininity; women gained a sense for their own occupational skills, physical strength, and earning potential. Furthermore, they took the reigns at home, making key day-to-day decisions usually reserved for male household heads.

Counterrevolution in the Suburbs

But once the fighting abroad ceased, millions of men returned to the home front seeking to reenter the labor force and settle back into their positions as family leaders. Just as vigorously as wartime propaganda urged women to support their nation by working outside of the home, popular post-war doctrine instructed them to return to their work inside the home. Some resented the pressures to relinquish the financial independence they felt they had earned. But others left willingly, seeking to reclaim their traditional roles in society. They, like most Americans in the early Cold War years, believed that the nation's economic, social, and moral stability depended upon the restoration of patriarchy in the home.

As a result, the home, itself, became a site that reflected the country's desire to update rather than transform its classic institutions. In the 1950s, major suburban builders modified the early Victorian floor plan—which confined the cooking quarters to the back of the home—to include an open space connecting the kitchen to the living and dining rooms. The new design effectively transformed the kitchen from an isolated cove into a virtual command center from which the wife could interact with her family while preparing meals. Whether cooking or cleaning, a woman could be connected to all the affairs of the household and, thus, could claim a new sense of authority, confidence, and satisfaction in her role as caretaker.

Or so it seemed. The modern suburban home with all its amenities was not, in fact, enough to fulfill most women of this generation. Beneath the illusion of happiness, women wanted more—more power, more choice, more control, and more autonomy. And in the early Cold War years, many looked to the thriving marketplace for all of the above.

Home as the American Marketplace

The success of the post-war economy relied largely upon the purchasing power of the suburban family. In 1953, Fortune magazine counted 30 million people as suburban residents. Though they represented only 19% of the total U.S. population, suburban households accounted for nearly one-third of the nation's total income.16 Businesses (and the advertising companies they hired) strategically tapped these families and their domestic captains—wives. For instance, the popularity of the televised soap opera stemmed directly from this suburban marketing strategy. These dramatized "soap" serials, which aired during the early afternoon hours when women completed much of the housework, were so named for the cleaning product advertisements that preceded them. Soap manufacturers such as Procter and Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Pepsodent, and Lever Brothers realized that while men were out making money, women were home figuring out how to spend it.

Early American television programming, itself, also advertised the amenities of the modern home, particularly the modern kitchen. TV situation comedies, such as "Father Knows Best," "I Love Lucy," "Honeymooners," and "Leave It To Beaver," each featured modern household commodities, model kitchens, and the latest in family automobiles. The main female characters in these programs—charismatic housewives responsible for cooking, cleaning, childrearing, and supporting her husband—sold an image of domestic luxury, harmony, and satisfaction.

Burping Babies and Selling the "Burp Seal"

Though suburban housewives most often served as consumers in the post-war economic boom, they also participated as entrepreneurs and saleswomen. Confined to their socially prescribed roles inside the home, many developed methods with which they could earn an income and contribute to their communities without neglecting their domestic "responsibilities."

Invented in 1946, Tupperware products were polyethylene, airtight storage containers that promised consumers days or, even, weeks of food freshness. When closed properly, the plastic receptacles "burped," a sound that assured its users of an effective seal. The Tupperware company encouraged its sales representatives to familiarize consumers with the new technology and the various uses of its wares—for preparation and service as well as for storage. One saleswoman, Brownie Wise, utilized a direct marketing strategy to sell the plastic products to women in their homes, rather than in boutiques and department stores. She organized "Tupperware Parties," in which neighborhood women gathered together in one home to discuss the company's product line. Local wives and mothers, who had previously communed to share knowledge about raising children, came together to view "burp seal" demonstrations and make purchases.

Wise outsold all other Tupperware distributors. Her success, however, did not come only from her creation of an extensive social network of suburban consumers; she also recruited thousands of women to become Tupperware sales representatives. Wise presented lucrative opportunities to those women who, by the end of World War II, had been pushed out of the work force and back into the kitchen. Many jumped at the chance to gain some financial independence while also developing professional skills and personal confidence, a rare and significant opportunity for women in the 1950s. (Women officially represented less than 30% of the American workforce—that is, paid employees who earned a regular salary—in 1950.)17

Wise's method worked so well, in fact, that the company paid for lavish annual "jubilees" to celebrate the success of its top-selling "Tupperware ladies" and to award them with fabulous prizes, such as—what else?—home appliances. And the national economic community recognized Wise's innovative sales techniques; in April 1954, the founder of the Tupperware Party became the first woman to grace the cover of Business Week18. However, despite her tremendous success marketing Tupperware products, Brownie Wise lost her job in 1958. The company's founder, Earl Tupper, perhaps threatened by the businesswoman's increasing independence and bold sales practices, fired Wise and offered her one year's salary as restitution.

Feminism and the Suburbs

Because of their socially circumscribed positions, suburban housewives were uniquely suited to community-network marketing in the 1950s. But the rise and fall of Brownie Wise revealed that the "power" and "choice" that post-war women enjoyed in their lives was often confined to the home and the suburban marketplace. Beyond these domestic realms, women found it difficult—if not impossible—to realize their full professional potential. According to feminists such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, women in the 1950s were, in fact, far more limited in all aspects of their private and public lives than they had been just one decade prior—a frightening trend.

By the end of the decade, these and other women began to publicly challenge what they viewed as a crisis of feminine passivity; they refused to believe that women, increasingly isolated in the suburbs, were "gaily content in a world of bedroom and kitchen, sex, babies and home."19 They made it their mission to remind all women that fulfillment came not from choosing among product brands, colors, and styles, or from getting whites their whitest. Women, they said, needed to shed the complacency that post-war consumer culture had encouraged in order to gain freedom, equality, and satisfaction beyond the suburb.

However, the vast majority of American women did not immediately empathize with the feminist voices that arose in the late '50s and early '60s, and most did not support their protests or agree with their ultimate goals. Some feared that by encouraging women to pursue careers outside of the home, feminists threatened to dismantle the very foundation of the traditional family structure. By extension, it appeared, these activists endangered the stability of the suburban landscape and the tranquility it seemed to promise.

By the end of the century, however, both American suburbs and opportunities for American women had expanded, proving that, ultimately, working mothers reinforced rather than undermined the middle-class lifestyle.

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