The rise and fall of the New (Dominant) Women

Abraham Maslow published his hierarchy of needs in the US of 1943 against a background of war, rationing, and 18 million women employed in World War II related jobs.

Attitudes towards women’s employment outside the house had shifted dramatically  since the mid 1930’s. A 1936 Gallup poll revealed that 82% of Americans opposed the paid employment of married women, and more than half of the then forty-eight states had laws prohibiting it in some circumstances. Still, during the depression era many women pursued their careers and got jobs. By the early 1940’s, only 13% of Gallup respondents opposed women working, and the number of women in paid employment had increased by 60% in 1945.

This new attitude towards women was actively encouraged by The War Advertising Council, The Writer’s War Board, and the Magazine Bureau of the Office of War. All 3 exerted considerable influence on women’s magazines to support the war effort. (Walker, 1998)

American women were becoming more independent, strong-minded, assertive in will and opinion, less passive and feminine than, for instance, the German and Japanese girls who, the US soldiers boasted “even washed our backs for us” (Friedan, 1963).

However, efforts to send women back home and prepare them for their more traditional role as housewives and mothers were already being made across many different disciplines.

These efforts helped the counter-revolution cause which started for authors like Millett in the 1930’s. After the first phase of sexual reform that culminated with women’s vote, a complete sexual revolution was not possible as it would have entailed the end of the patriarchal order and a change in the family structure that was too much of a threat to the conservatives.  “It was not so much that “social order required the subordination of women: rather, to the conservatives it required a family structure that involved the subordination of women” (Millett quoting Aileen Kraditor, Up from the Pedestal, Selected Writings in the History of American Feminism, Chicago, 1968).

“As the patriarchal family depends for its cohesiveness primarily on the economic dependence of women and children, financial equality is almost impossible within it, and its unity is rooted in its economic and legal entity rather than upon its exclusively emotional ties…the modern nuclear family, with its unchanged and traditional division of roles, necessitates male supremacy by preserving specifically human endeavour for the male alone, while confining the female to menial labour and compulsory child care. Differences in status according to sex follow inevitably” (Millett, 1977).


One of the disciplines that helped the sexual counter-revolution was functionalism, a school of thought that looked at “biology as a model for social science” (Giddens 1993), and which studied social structures only in terms of  their utility/function within their own society, and determined that if they worked, they were therefore functional. However, “all systems which perpetuate themselves may be called functional,…and despite their stability, many oppressive forms do not function efficiently…Functionalists recognize friction as “conflict”” (Millett 1977). This conflict is solved by adjustment to the status quo. (Friedan, 1963)

In 1942 Henry A. Bowman publishes “Marriage for moderns” that becomes a college text book for girls over the next 20 years. (Friedan, 1963). The book is meant to help prepare women for their role as wives and homemakers while discouraging them from pursuing a different career. The method of establishing representative opinion from the common denominator of college texts is used by C. Wright Mills in “The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists”” (Millett, 1977)

Together with Bowman’s book, young women were assigned Talcott Parson’s 1942 “Age and Sex in the Social Structure of the United States” which “contemplates no alternative for a woman other than the role of a “housewife”” (Friedan, 1963). “Talcott Parson’s theory did place emphasis on equilibrium and the maintenance or quick return to social order, but this is a product of the time in which Parsons was writing. Society was in upheaval and fear abounded. At the time social order was crucial, and this is reflected in Parsons’ tendency to promote equilibrium and social order rather than social change” (Wikipedia, 2011)

Freud’s followers

In 1944 Helen Deutsche publishes “The psychology of woman – a psychoanalytical interpretation” equating femininity with passivity and masculinity with activity. Normal femininity is achieved, however, only in so far as the woman finally renounces all active goals of her own to identify and fulfill herself through the activities and goals of husband or son. The women who by 1944 in America had achieved eminence by activity of their own in various fields had done so at the expense of their feminine fulfillment and they all suffer from the “masculinity complex”(Friedan, 1963).


In 1944 propaganda sources subtly encouraged women to give up their jobs and return to their homes. Women’s magazines were encouraged to point out the need for workers in traditionally female roles such as secretaries and teaching, and included the comments of  J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who in January 1944 wrote in Women’s House Companion that the women’s patriotic duty was not on the “factory front” but on the “home front”. (Walker, 1998)

This request to send women back home happened after a period of depression and war. “When the men came back from the war there was a headlong rush into marriage” (Friedan, 1963). The younger soldiers back from the war could marry without having to finish their education since they were being paid by the Army, and the older men who had postponed their wedding due to the war felt it was finally time. Regarding the women, those that were not married longed to be after the loneliness of war, and so the baby boom commenced and with it the choice of being a housewife.


Encouraging women to return to being housewives and having children made sense also from a business point of view, especially because women would become the main consumers of products in the prosperous post-war buoyant years. A survey in 1945 on the attitudes of women towards electrical appliances was addressed to companies involved in war contracts. The survey stated that with the war ending, many companies faced the challenge of replacing their war contracts with consumer sales, and those will have to come from “The Balanced Homemaker” which were defined as women with some outside interests, exclusively dedicated to homemaking, that readily accept the help from mechanical appliances without expecting them to do the impossible. The survey also suggests to the manufacturers that they “educate women through advertising” so that being a “balanced homemaker” becomes their goal! (Friedan, 1963).

This “education” of women to become fulfilled at their roles of housewives and mothers became so successful that by the mid 1950’s the surveys reported that the Career Woman who clamoured for equality was gone, replaced by the woman “who finds in housework a medium of expression for her femininity and individuality”(Friedan, 1963).

However, this “education” came at a price for women who forced to comply with the conventional image of femininity, (passivity, dependency, conformism, etc,) and educated to devote themselves to finding a husband and having children, ended up losing their own identity, and blamed for the effects that their obsessive nurturing had on their male infantile children and weak obedient husbands.


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