Alexis Oustinoff

March 27, 2006

Literature of American History II 

Elaine Tyler May Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era New York: Basic Books. 1988. 284 pp. 

      Elaine Tyler May aims to illustrate the connection between foreign and political policy and family dynamics during the post war and Cold War eras. She posits that political containment bred domestic containment. After World War II Americans married in greater numbers and with more stable, longer lasting marriages than previous generations. May argues that such uniform longing for marriage and families was not a passive act during the Cold War but rather a political statement. “Marrying young and having lots of babies were ways for Americans to thumb their noses at doomsday predictions” (p. 23). A secure family and home was how Americans could maintain their way of life against the communist threat.

      May relies heavily, though not exclusively, on the Kelly Longitudinal Study (KLS), a series of surveys psychologist E. Lowell Kelly initiated in the late 1930s. He contacted couples who had announced their engagement in New England local newspapers and then sent questionnaires to the subjects every few years over the next twenty years. The questionnaires asked about everything from happiness in their marriage, careers, children, sexuality, hopes and worries in questions that often elicited additional sheets explaining their answers. The 300 couples that participated were primarily white, Protestant, and upper middle class. While this seems to be a shockingly small microcosm of Americans, May argues that the lifestyle and family values that these families embraced were what other races and religions were striving for as a norm and therefore these couples were living the “mainstream” life at the time.

      May begins with a story about a newlywed couple who are going to spend their two-week honeymoon living inside a bomb shelter. A photograph from Life Magazine shows the couple on the lawn with their supply of canned goods and other provisions sprawled out beside them. The couple seems perfectly content to spend two weeks alone with nothing but a few consumer goods and each other.

      The second and third chapters of Homeward Bound recount the marriage and work patterns before the depression through the war. During the financial strain of the depression marriage rates and birth rates were much lower than in the previous decade. Marriages ended in divorce at higher rates during this time as well. The low marriage rates was caused by the fear that a young man would not be able to provide for his new family as well as because of the boom in employment for women during this time gave them a sense of economic control, even if it was going to support their parents, and they did not feel compelled to marry. May offers previous scholarship and popular culture, especially movies, to illustrate this claim. Female movie stars had gone from having child-like innocence to portraying single women displaying a “physical strength” in the 1930s (p. 42). By 1940 nearly 30 percent of women were employed but despite the Rosie the Riveter image of working women they did not have the opportunities that men did and were discouraged from working when concern for the future of family life for these women appeared. Hollywood again followed suit by displaying their previously single heroines of the 1930s in a new domestic capacity. A photograph of Joan Crawford moping a floor as a “happy housewife” with a studio caption indicating that this is the “real” Joan (p. 64).

      The next three chapters concern the sexual fear and awakening during this time. After the atomic bomb was dropped and the capacity for retaliation realized, theories of sexual chaos emerged. Ties between communism and sexual depravity were widely believed and those who engaged in any sexual activity beyond the norm (between a married man and woman) were considered deviants or perverts who would spread their poisonous views. This led to the idea that “men in sexually fulfilling marriages would not be tempted by the degenerative seductions of the outside world that came from pornography, prostitution, ‘loose women’, or homosexuals. They would be able to stand up to the communists” (p. 97). Despite this fear, as Alfred Kinsey’s studies suggest, premarital sex was happening and encouraging young people to marry younger was a way of discouraging this practice which would later be seen as the root of a host of psychological problems. As methods of birth control become more widely available and a period of relative familial stability could have allowed couple to wait longer before having children or limit the number of children they had. The fact that the birth rates rose from their depression era lows indicate that there was an intentional decision to have children in the numbers they were having, creating the baby boom with a peak in 1956.

      At the same time women were learning how to stock pantries and bomb shelters in case on emergencies, how to cook with makeshift utensils, rotate canned goods, and maintain first aid and emergency kits. The cozy depiction of a dad, mom, and child in a shelter were safe from the chaos on the outside. The Federal Civil Defense Administration made pamphlets and posters depicting mannequins inside bomb shelters being okay while those outside of the shelters were maimed after an attack. The building industry capitalized on this fear and began selling all types of configurations from fox holes to deluxe “suites” with “telephones and Geiger counter” (p. 107).

      This postwar era was unfamiliar to previous generations who didn’t have televisions or worry about being annihilated by an atomic bomb. In the face of these new worries the 1950s became the era of experts. Experts would tell you if you were in danger of radiation poisoning, how to raise your children, and why your relationship is in trouble. Therapy had reached new heights in the mid-1950s. One out of six, or roughly 100, KLS participants had reported consulting a professional for “marital or emotional problems” (p. 27).

      The seventh chapter covers the rise in consumer goods purchased by Americans and the resurgence in suburbs. Individual containment being the final assault against Soviet communism as described in May’s account of the exhibition of a model American home that Vice-President Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev tour together in Moscow in 1959. The “American preoccupation of procurement would be a safe guard against the threat of class warfare and communism” (p 164). The increase in appliance sales and in home ownership lead to the development of tract housing and communities of pre-fabricated and mass produced houses that were capable of being expanded as families grew and windows were strategically placed so that mothers could watch their children playing in the yard from the kitchen.

      With all this emphasis on family and children women did resent not having a career or independence from familial obligations. The generation who got married and raised children in the post war years had a much lower divorce rate than previous generations but it eventually caught up with them. The KLS responses indicate that women were not happy with their relationships or that in an effort to raise their children they had neglected their own interests and desires. The pressure of having the perfect marriage, children and house was too much to bear at times and psychiatric therapy was sought as an alternative to divorce. May uses Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique to illustrate the rebellion towards these post war familial ideals that were beginning to crumble. Case studies recounted the pressure from authorities of various sorts to conform to these ideals which May offers as proof that this happy home phenomenon was created by an outside force in attempt to maintain American freedom in the Cold War era.

      Aside from the KLS, the sources are primarily popular culture and May’s social history discipline comes through. She does not talk about those who didn’t or couldn’t live this lifestyle although she does offer a brief discussion of African American which says that they wanted to live this lifestyle. Despite the emphasis on having children there isn’t a lot of coverage of the children’s interactions with their parents, especially as they get older and become the generation who rebels against their parents’ lifestyle in so many ways.