"Leave It to Beaver" and "Ozzie and Harriet"
American Families in the 1950s

from The Way We Never Were:  American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York:  Basic Books, 1992)

by Stephanie Coontz

Copyright 1992 by Basic Books

(This reproduction is used for academic purposes only.)

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Our most powerful visions of traditional families derive from images that are still delivered to our homes in countless reruns of 1950s television sit-coms.  When liberals and conservatives debate family policy, for example, the issue is often framed in terms of how many "Ozzie and Harriet" families are left in America.  Liberals compute the percentage of total households that contain a breadwinner father, a full-time homemaker mother, and dependent children, proclaiming that fewer than 10 percent of American families meet the "Ozzie and Harriet" or "Leave It to Beaver" model.  Conservatives counter that more than half of all mothers with preschool children either are not employed or are employed only part-time.  They cite polls showing that most working mothers would like to spend more time with their children and periodically announce that the Nelsons are "making a comeback," in popular opinion if not in real numbers.[1]

            Since everyone admits that nontraditional families are now a majority, why this obsessive concern to establish a higher or a lower figure?  Liberals seem to think that unless they can prove the “Leave It to Beaver” family is on an irreversible slide toward extinction, they cannot justify introducing new family definitions and social policies.  Conservatives believe that if they can demonstrate the traditional family is alive and well, although endangered by policies that reward two-earner families and single parents, they can pass measures to revive the seeming placidity and prosperity of the 1950s, associated in many people’s minds with the relative stability of marriage, gender

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roles, and family life in that decade.  If the 1950s family existed today, both sides seem to assume, we would not have the contemporary social dilemmas that cause such debate.

            At first glance, the figures seem to justify this assumption.  The 1950s was a profamily period if there ever was one.  Rates of divorce and illegitimacy were half what they are today; marriage was almost universally praised; the family was everywhere hailed as the most basic institution in society; and a massive baby boom, among all classes and ethnic groups, made America a “child-centered” society.  Births rose from a low of 18.4 per 1,000 women during the Depression to a high of 25.3 per 1,000 in 1957.  “The birth rate for third children doubled between 1940 and 1960, and that for fourth children tripled.”[2]

            In retrospect, the 1950s also seem a time of innocence and consensus:  Gang warfare among youths did not lead to drive-by shootings; the crack epidemic had not yet hit; discipline problems in the schools were minor; no “secular humanist” movement opposed the 1954 addition of the words under God to the Pledge of Allegiance; and 90 percent of all school levies were approved by voters.  Introduction of the polio vaccine in 1954 was the most dramatic of many medical advances that improved the quality of life for children.

            The profamily features of this decade were bolstered by impressive economic improvements for vast numbers of Americans.  Between 1945 and 1960, the gross national product grew by almost 250 percent and per capita income by 35 percent.  Housing starts exploded after the war, peaking at 1.65 million in 1955 and remaining above 1.5 million a year for the rest of the decade; the increase in single-family homeownership between 1946 and 1956 outstripped the increase during the entire preceding century and a half.  By 1960, 62 percent of the American families owned their own homes, in contrast to 43 percent in 1940.  Eighty-five percent of the new homes were built in the suburbs, where the nuclear family found new possibilities for privacy and togetherness.  While middle-class Americans were the prime beneficiaries of the building boom, substantial numbers of white working-class Americans moved out of the cities into affordable developments, such as Levittown .[3]

            Many working-class families also moved into the middle class.  The number of salaried workers increased by 61 percent between 1947 and 1957.  By the mid-1950s, nearly 60 percent of the population had what was labeled a middle-class income level (between $3,000 and $10,000 in constant dollars), compared to only 31 per-

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cent in the “prosperous twenties,” before the Great Depression.  By 1960, thirty-one million of the nation’s forty-four million families possessed a car.  The number of people with discretionary income doubled during the 1950s.[4]

            For most Americans, the most salient symbol and immediate beneficiary of their newfound prosperity was the nuclear family.  The biggest boom in consumer spending, for example, was in household goods.  Food spending rose by only 33 percent in the five years following the Second World War, and clothing expenditures rose by 20 percent, but purchases of household furnishings and appliances climbed 240 percent.  “Nearly the entire increase in the gross national product in the mid-1950s was due to increased spending on consumer durables and residential construction,” most of it oriented toward the nuclear family.[5]

            Putting their mouths where their money was, Americans consistently told pollsters that home and family were the wellsprings of their happiness and self-esteem.  Cultural historian David Marc argues that prewar fantasies of sophisticated urban “elegance,” epitomized by the high-rise penthouse apartment, gave way in the 1950s to a more modest vision of utopia:  a single-family house and a car.  The emotional dimensions of utopia, however, were unbounded.  When respondents to a 1955 marriage study “were asked what they thought they had sacrificed by marrying and raising a family, an overwhelming majority of replied, ‘Nothing.’”  Less than 10 percent of Americans believed that an unmarried person could be happy.  As one popular advice book intoned:  “The family is the center of your living.  If it isn’t, you’ve gone far astray.”[6]

            In fact, the “traditional” family of the 1950s was a qualitatively new phenomenon.  At the end of the 1940s, all the trends characterizing the rest of the twentieth century suddenly reversed themselves:  for the first time in more than one hundred years, the age for marriage and motherhood fell, fertility increased, divorce rates declined, and women’s degree of educational parity with men dropped sharply.  In a period of less than ten years, the proportion of never-married persons declined by as much as it had during the entire previous half-century.[7]

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            At the time, most people understood the 1950s family to be a new invention.  The Great Depression and the Second World War had reinforced extended family ties, but in ways that were experienced by most people as stultifying and oppressive.  As one child of the Depression later put it, “The Waltons” television series of the 1970s did not show what family life in the 1930s was really like:  “It wasn’t a big family sitting around a table radio and everybody saying goodnight while Bing Crosby crooned ‘Pennies from Heaven’”  On top of Depression-era family tensions had come the painful family separations and housing shortages of the war years:  By 1947, six million American families were sharing housing, and postwar family counselors warned of a widespread marital crisis caused by conflicts between the generations.  A 1948 March of Time film, “Marriage and Divorce,” declared:  “No home is big enough to house two families, particularly two of different generations, with opposite theories on child training.”[8]

            During the 1950s, films and television plays, such as “Marty.” Showed people working through conflicts between marital loyalties and older kin, peer group, or community ties; regretfully but decisively, these conflicts were almost invariably “resolved in favor of the heterosexual couple rather than the claims of extended kinship networks,…homosociability and friendship.”  Talcott Parsons and other sociologists argued that modern industrial society required the family to jettison traditional productive functions and wider kin ties in order to specialize in emotional nurturance, childrearing, and production of a modern personality.  Social workers “endorsed nuclear family separateness and looked suspiciously on active extended-family networks.”[9]

            Popular commentators urged young families to adopt a “modern” stance and strike out on their own, and with the return of prosperity, most did.  By the early 1950s, newlyweds not only were establishing single-family homes at an earlier age and a more rapid rate than ever before but also were increasingly moving to the suburbs, away from the close scrutiny of the elder generation.

            For the first time in American history, moreover, such average trends did not disguise sharp variations by class, race, and ethnic group.  People married at a younger age, bore their children earlier and closer together, completed their families by the time they were in their late twenties, and experienced a longer period living together as a couple after their children left home.  The traditional range of ac-

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ceptable family behaviors – even the range in the acceptable number of timing of children – narrowed substantially.[10]

            The values of 1950s families also were new.  The emphasis on producing a whole world of satisfaction, amusement, and inventiveness within the nuclear family had no precedents.  Historian Elaine Tyler May comments:  “The legendary family of the 1950s…was not, as common wisdom tells us, the last gasp of ‘traditional’ family life with deep roots in the past.  Rather, it was the first wholehearted effort to create a home that would fulfill virtually all its members’ personal needs through an energized and expressive personal life.”[11]

            Beneath a superficial revival of Victorian domesticity and gender distinctions, a novel rearrangement of family ideals and male-female relations was accomplished.  For women, this involved a reduction in the moral aspect of domesticity and an expansion of its orientation toward personal service.  Nineteenth-century middle-class women had cheerfully left housework to servants, yet 1950s women of all classes created makework in their homes and felt guilty when they did not do everything for themselves.  The amount of time women spent doing housework actually increased during the 1950s, despite the advent of convenience foods and new, labor-saving appliances; child care absorbed more than twice as much time as it had in the 1920s.  By the mid-1950s, advertisers’ surveys reported on a growing tendency among women to find “housework a medium of expression for…[their] femininity and individuality.”[12]

            For the first time, men as well as women were encouraged to root their identity and self-image in familial and parental roles.  The novelty of the family and gender values can be seen in the dramatic postwar transformation of movie themes.  Historian Peter Biskind writes that almost every major male star who had played tough loners in the 1930s and 1940s “took the roles with which he was synonymous and transformed them, in the fifties, into neurotics or psychotics.”  In these films, “men belonged at home, not on the streets or out on the prairie,…not alone or hanging out with other men.”  The women who got men to settle down had to promise enough sex to compete with “bad” women, but ultimately they provided it only in the marital bedroom and only in return for some help fixing up the house.[13]

            Public images of Hollywood stars were consciously reworked to show their commitment to marriage and stability.  After 1947, for example, the Actor’s Guild organized “a series of unprecedented

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speeches…to be given to civic groups around the country, emphasizing that the stars now embodied the rejuvenated family life unfolding in the suburbs.”  Ronald Reagan’s defense of actors’ family values was especially “stirring,” noted one reporter, but female stars, unlike Reagan and other male stars, were obliged to live the new values as well as propagandize them.  Joan Crawford, for example, one of the brash, tough, independent leading ladies of the prewar era, was now pictured as a devoted mother whose sex appeal and glamour did not prevent her from doing her own housework.  She posed for pictures mopping floors and gave interviews about her childrearing philosophy.[14]

            The “good life” in the 1950s, historian Clifford Clark points out, made the family “the focus of fun and recreation.”  The ranch house, architectural embodiment of this new ideal, discarded the older privacy of the kitchen, den, and sewing room (representative of separate spheres for men and women) but introduced new privacy and luxury into the master bedroom.  There was an unprecedented “glorification of self-indulgence” in family life.  Formality was discarded in favor of “livability,” “comfort,” and “convenience.”  A contradiction in terms in earlier periods, “the sexually charged, child-centered family took its place at the center of the postwar American dream.”[15]

            On television, David Marc comments, all the “normal” families moved to the suburbs during the 1950s.  Popular culture turned such suburban families into capitalism’s answer to the Communist threat.  In his famous “kitchen debate” with Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, Richard Nixon asserted that the superiority of capitalism over communism was embodied not in ideology or military might but in the comforts of the suburban home, “designed to make things easier for our women.”[16]

            Acceptance of domesticity was the mark of middle-class status and upward mobility.  In sit-com families, a middle-class man’s work was totally irrelevant to his identity; by the same token, the problems of working-class families did not lie in their economic situation but in their failure to create harmonious gender roles.  Working-class and ethnic men on television had one defining characteristic:  They were unable to control their wives.  The families of middle-class men, by contrast, were generally well behaved.[17]

            Not only was the 1950s family a new invention; it was also a historical fluke, based on a unique and temporary conjuncture of economic, social, and political factors.  During the war, Americans had saved at a rate more than three times higher than that in the decades before or since.  Their buying power was further enhanced by Amer-

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ica’s extraordinary competitive advantage at the end of the war, when every other industrial power was devastated by the experience.  This privileged economic position sustained both a tremendous expansion of middle-class management occupations and new honeymoon between management and organized labor:  During the 1950s, real wages increased by more than they had in the entire previous half century.[18]

            The impact of such prosperity on family formation and stability was magnified by the role of government, which could afford to be generous with education benefits, housing loans, highway and sewer construction, and job training.  All this allowed most middle-class Americans, and a large number of working-class ones, to adopt family values and strategies that assumed the availability of cheap energy, low-interest home loans, expanding educational and occupational opportunities, and steady employment.  These expectations encouraged early marriage, early childbearing, expansion of consumer debt, and residential patterns that required long commutes to work – all patterns that would become highly problematic by the 1970s….


A Complex Reality:  1950s Poverty, Diversity, and Social Change

Even aside from the exceptional and ephemeral nature of the conditions that supported them, 1950s family strategies and values offer no solution to the discontents that underlie contemporary romanticization of the “good old days.”  The reality of these families was far more painful and complex than the situation-comedy reruns or the expurgated memories of the nostalgic would suggest.  Contrary to popular opinion, “Leave It to Beaver” was not a documentary.

            In the first place, not all American families shared in the consumer expansion that provided Hotpoint appliances for June Cleaver’s kitchen and a vacuum cleaner for Donna Stone.  A full 25 percent of Americans, forty to fifty million people, were poor in the mid-1950s, and in the absence of food stamps and housing programs, this poverty was searing.  Even at the end of the 1950s, a third of American children were poor.  Sixty percent of Americans over sixty-five had incomes below $1,000 in 1958, considerably below the $3,000 to $10,000 level considered to represent middle-class status.  A ma-

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jority of elders also lacked medical insurance.  Only half the population had savings in 1959; one-quarter of the population had no liquid assets at all.  Even when we consider only native-born, white families, one-third could not get by on the income of the household head.[19]

            In the second place, real life was not so white as it was on television.  Television, comments historian Ella Taylor, increasingly ignored cultural diversity, adopting “the motto ‘least objectionable programming,’ which gave rise to those least objectionable families, the completely white and Anglo-Saxon that even the Hispanic gardener in “Father Knows Best” went by the name of Frank Smith.  But contrary to the all-white lineup on the television networks and the streets of suburbia, the 1950s saw a major transformation in the ethnic composition of America.  More Mexican immigrants entered the United States in the two decades after the Second World War than in the entire previous one hundred years.  Prior to the war, most blacks and Mexican-Americans lived in cities.  Postwar Puerto Rican immigration was so massive that by 1960 more Puerto Ricans lived in New York than in San Juan.[20]

            These minorities were almost entirely excluded from the gains and privileges accorded white middle-class families.  The June Cleaver or Donna Stone homemaker role was not available to the more than 40 percent of black women with small children who worked outside the home.  Twenty-five percent of these women headed their own households, but even minorities who conformed to the dominant family form faced conditions quite unlike those portrayed on television.  The poverty rate of two-parent black families was more than 50 percent, approximately the same as that of one-parent black ones.  Migrant workers suffered “near medieval” deprivations, while termination and relocation policies were employed against Native Americans to get them to give up treaty rights.[21]

            African Americans in the South faced systematic, legally sanctioned segregation and pervasive brutality, and those in the North were excluded by restrictive covenants and redlining from many benefits of the economic expansion that their labor helped sustain.  Whites resisted, with harassment and violence, the attempts of blacks to participate in the American family dream.  When Harvey Clark tried to move into Cicero, Illinois, in 1951, a mob of 4,000

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whites spent four days tearing his apartment apart while police stood by and joked with them.  In 1953, the first black family moved into Chicago’s Trumball Park public housing project; neighbors “hurled stones and tomatoes” and trashed stores that sold groceries to the new residents.  In Detroit, Life magazine reported in 1957, “10,000 Negroes work at the Ford plant in nearby Dearborn, [but] not one Negro can live in Dearborn itself.”[22]

 

More Complexities:  Repression, Anxiety, Unhappiness, and Conflict

The happy, homogeneous families that we “remember” from the 1950s were thus partly a result of the media’s denial of diversity.  But even among sectors of the population where the “least objectionable” families did prevail, their values and behaviors were not entirely a spontaneous, joyful reaction to prosperity.  If suburban ranch houses and family barbecues were the carrots offered to white middle-class families that adopted the new norms, there was also a stick.

            Women’s retreat to housewifery, for example, was in many cases not freely chosen.  During the war, thousands of women had entered new jobs, gained new skills, joined unions, and fought against job discrimination.  Although 95 percent of the new women employees had expected when they were first hired to quit work at the end of the war, by 1945 almost an equally overwhelming majority did not want to give up their independence, responsibility, and income, and expressed the desire to continue working.[23]

            After the war, however, writes one recent student of postwar reconstruction, “management went to extraordinary lengths to purge women workers from the auto plants,” as well as from other high-paying and nontraditional jobs.  As it turned out, in most cases women were no permanently expelled from the labor force but were merely downgraded to lower-paid, “female” jobs.  Even at the end of the purge, there were more women working than before the war, and by 1952 there were two million more wives at work than at the peak of wartime production.  The jobs available to these women, however, lacked the pay and the challenges that had made wartime work so satisfying, encouraging women to define themselves in terms of home and family even when they were working.[24]

            Vehement attacks were launched against women who did not ac-

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cept such self-definitions.  In the 1947 bestseller, The Modern Woman:  The Lost Sex, Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg described feminism as a “deep illness,” called the notion of an independent woman a “contradiction in terms,” and accused women who sought educational or employment equality of engaging in symbolic “castration” of men.  As sociologist David Riesman noted, a woman’s failure to bear children went from being “a social disadvantage and sometimes a personal tragedy” in the nineteenth century to being a “quasi-perversion” in the 1950s.  The conflicting messages aimed at women seemed almost calculated to demoralize:  At the same time as they labeled women “unnatural” if they did not seek fulfillment in motherhood, psychologists and popular writers insisted that most modern social ills could be traced to domineering mothers who invested too much energy and emotion in their children.  Women were told that “no other experience in life…will provide the same sense of fulfillment, of happiness, of complete pervading contentment” as motherhood.  But soon after delivery they were asked, “Which are you first of all, Wife or Mother?” and warned against the tendency to be “too much mother, too little wife.”[25]

            Women who could not walk the fine line between nurturing motherhood and castrating “momism,” or who had trouble adjusting to “creative homemaking,” were labeled neurotic, perverted, or schizophrenic.  A recent study of hospitalized “schizophrenic” women in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1950s concludes that institutionalization and sometimes electric shock treatments were used to force women to accept their domestic roles and their husbands’ dictates.  Shock treatments also were recommended for women who sought abortion, on the assumption that failure to want a baby signified dangerous emotional disturbance.[26]

            All women, even seemingly docile ones, were deeply mistrusted.  They were frequently denied the right to serve on juries, convey property, make contracts, take out credit cares in their own name, or establish residence.  A 1954 article in Esquire called working wives a “menace”; a Life author termed married women’s employment a “disease.”  Women were excluded from several professions, and some states even gave husbands total control over family finances.[27]  There were not many permissible alternatives to baking brownies, experimenting with new canned soups, and getting rid of stains around the collar.

            Men also were pressured into acceptable family roles, since lack of a suitable wife could mean the loss of a job or promotion for a

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middle-class man.  Bachelors were categorized as “immature,” “infantile,” “narcissistic,” “deviant,” or even “pathological.”  Family advice expert Paul Landis argued:  “Except for the sic, the badly crippled, the deformed, the emotionally warped and the mentally defective, almost everyone has an opportunity [and, by clear implication, a duty] to marry.”[28]

            Families in the 1950s were products of even more direct repression.  Cold war anxieties merged with concerns about the expanded sexuality of family life and the commercial world to create what one authority calls the domestic version of George F. Kennan’s containment policy toward the Soviet Union:  A “normal” family and vigilant mother became the “front line” of defense against treason; anticommunists linked deviant family or sexual behavior to sedition.  The FBI and other government agencies instituted unprecedented state intrusion into private life under the guise of investigating subversives.  Gay baiting was almost as widespread and every bit as vicious as red baiting.[29]

            The Civil Service Commission fired 2,611 persons as “security risks” and reported that 4,315 others resigned under the pressure of investigations that asked leading questions of their neighbors and inquired into the books they read or the music to which they listened.  In this atmosphere, movie producer Joel Schumacher recalls, “No one told the truth….People pretended they weren’t unfaithful.  They pretended that they weren’t homosexual.  They pretended that they weren’t horrible.”[30]

            Even for people not directly coerced into conformity by racial, political, or personal repression, the turn toward families was in many cases more a defensive move than a purely affirmative act.  Some men and women entered loveless marriages in order to forestall attacks about real or suspected homosexuality or lesbianism.  Growing numbers of people saw the family, in the words of one husband, as the one “group that in spite of many disagreements internally always will face its external enemies together.”  Conservative families warned children to beware of communists who might masquerade as friendly neighbors; liberal children learned to confine their opinions to the family for fear that their father’s job or reputation might be threatened.[31]

            Americans were far more ambivalent about the 1950s than later retrospectives, such as “Happy Days,” suggest.  Plays by Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Arthur Miller explored the underside of family life.  Movies such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) expressed

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fears about youths whose parents had failed them.  There was an almost obsessive concern with the idea that the mass media had broken down parental control, thus provoking an outburst of “delinquency and youthful viciousness.”  In 1954, psychiatrist Fredic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocents warned:  “The atmosphere of crime comic books is unparalleled in the history of children’s literature of any time or any nation.”  In 1955, Congress discussed nearly 200 bills relating to delinquency.  If some of these anxieties seem almost charmingly naïve to our more hardened age, they were no less real for all that.[32]

            Many families, of course, managed to hold such fears at bay – and it must be admitted that the suburbs and small towns of America were exceptionally good places for doing so.  Shielded from the multiplying problems and growing diversity of the rest of society, residents of these areas could afford to be neighborly.  Church attendance and membership in voluntary associations tended to be higher in the suburbs than in the cities, although contact with extended kin was less frequent.  Children played in the neighborhoods and cul-de-sacs with only cursory warnings about strangers.[33]

            In her autobiographical account of a 1950s adolescence, Susan Allen Toth remembers growing up “gradually” and “quietly” in a small town of the period:  “We were not seared by fierce poverty, racial tensions, drug abuse, street crimes.”  Perhaps this innocence was “constricting,” she admitted, but it also gave a child “shelter and space to grow.”  For Toth, insulation from external problems meant that growing up was a process of being cosseted, gently warmed, transmuted by slow degrees.”[34]

            For many other children, however, growing up in the 1950s families was not so much a matter of being protected from the harsh realities of the outside world as preventing the outside world from learning the harsh realities of family life.  Few would have guessed that radiant Marilyn Van Derbur, crowned Miss American in 1958, had been sexually violated by her wealthy, respectable father from the time she was five until she was eighteen, when she moved away to college.[35]  While not all family secrets were quite so shocking, author Benita Eisler recalls a common middle-class experience:

As college classmates became close friends, I heard sagas of life at home that were Gothic horror stories.  Behind the hedges and driveways of upper-middle-class suburbia were tragedies of madness, suicide, and – most prevalent of all – chronic and severe alcoholism….

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The real revelation for me was the role played by children in…keeping up appearances.  Many of my new friends had been pressed into service early as happy smiling fronts, emissaries of family normalcy, cheerful proof that “nothing was really wrong” at the Joneses.[36]

Beneath the polished facades of many ideal families, suburban as well as urban, was violence, terror, or simply grinding misery that only occasionally came to light.  Although Colorado researchers found 302 battered-child cases, including 33 deaths, in their state during one year alone, the major journal of American family sociology did not carry a single article on family violence between 1939 and 1969.  Wife battering was not considered a “real” crime by most people.  Psychiatrists in the 1950s, following Helene Deutsch, “regarded the battered woman as a masochist who provoked her husband into beating her.”[37]

Historian Elizabeth Pleck describes how one Family Service Association translated his psychological approach into patient counseling during the 1950s.  Mrs. K came to the Association because her husband was an alcoholic who repeatedly abused her, both physically and sexually.  The agency felt, however, that is was simplistic to blame the couple’s problems on his drinking.  When counselors learned that Mrs. K refused her husband’s demands for sex after he came from working the night shift, they decided that they had found a deep difficulty:  Mrs. K needed therapy to “bring out some of her anxiety about sex activities.”[38]

We will probably never know how prevalent incest and sexual abuse were in the 1950s, but we do know that when girls or women reported incidents of such abuse to therapists, they were frequently told that they were “fantasizing” their unconscious oedipal desires.  Although incest cases were common throughout the records of caseworkers from 1880 to 1960, according to historian Linda Gordon’s study of these documents, the problem was increasingly redefined as one of female “sex delinquency.”  By 1960, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, experts described incest as a “one-in-a-million occurrence.”  Not until the 1970s, heartened by a supportive women’s movement, were many women able to speak out about the sexual abuse they had suffered in silent agony during the 1950s; others, such as Marilyn Van Derbur, are only now coming forward.[39]

Less dramatic but more widespread was the existence of significant marital unhappiness.  Between one-quarter and one-third of the

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Marriages contracted in the 1950s eventually ended in divorce; during that decade two million legally married people lived apart from each other.  Many more couples simply toughed it out.  Sociologist Mirra Komarovsky concluded that of the working-class couples she interview in the 1950s, “slightly less than one-third [were] happily or very happily married.”[40]

            National polls found that 20 percent of all couples considered their marriages unhappy, and another 20 percent reported only “medium happiness.”  In the middle-class sample studied by Elaine Tyler May, two-thirds of the husbands and wives rather their marriages “decidedly happier than average,” but an outside observer might well have scaled this back to a percentage much like Komarovsky’s, for even the happiest couples reported many dissatisfactions and communication problems.  “The idea of a ‘working marriage was one that often included constant day-to-day misery for one or both partners.”[41]

            A successful 1950s family, moreover, was often achieved at enormous cost to the wife, who was expected to subordinate her own needs and aspirations to those of both her husband and her children.  In consequence, no sooner was the ideal of the postwar family accepted than observers began to comment perplexedly on how discontented women seemed in the very roles they supposedly desired most.  In 1949, Life magazine reported that “suddenly and for no plain reason” American women were “seized with an eerie restlessness.”  Under a “mask of placidity” and an outwardly feminine appearance, one physician wrote in 1953, there was often “an inwardly tense and emotionally unstable individual seething with hidden aggressiveness and resentment.”[42]

            Some women took this resentment out on their families.  Surely some of the bizarre behaviors that Joan Crawford exhibited toward her children, according to her daughter’s bitter remembrance, Mommie Dearest, flowed from the frustration of being forced into a domestic role about which she was intensely ambivalent.  Other women tried to dull the pain with alcohol or drugs.  Tranquilizers were developed in the 1950s in response to a need that physicians explicitly saw as female:  Virtually nonexistent in 1955, tranquilizer consumption reached 462,000 pounds in 1958 and soared to 1.15 million pounds merely a year later.  Commentators noted a sharp increase in women’s drinking during the decade, even though many middle-class housewives kept their liquor stash hidden and thought no one

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knew that they needed a couple of drinks to face an evening of family “togetherness.”[43]

            But not even “the four b’s,” as the mother of a colleague of mine used to label her life in the 1950s – “booze, bowling, bridge, and boredom” – could entirely conceal the discontents.  In 1956, the Ladies’ Home Journal devoted an issue to “The Plight of the Young Mother.”  When McCall’s ran an article entitled “The Mother Who Ran Away” in the same year, the magazine set a new record for readership.  A former editor commented:  “We suddenly realized that all those women at home with their three and a half children were miserably unhappy.”  By 1960, almost every major news journal was using the word trapped to describe the feelings of the American housewife.  When Redbook’s editors asked readers to provide them with examples of “Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped,” they received 24,000 replies.[44]

            Although Betty Friedan’s bestseller The Feminine Mystique did not appear until 1963, it was a product of the 1950s, originating in the discontented responses Friedan received in 1957 when she surveyed fellow college classmates from the class of 1942.  The heartfelt identification of the other 1950s women with “the problem that has no name” is preserved in the letters Friedan received after her book was published, letters now at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe.[45]

            Men tended to be more satisfied with marriage than were women, especially over time, but they, too, had their discontents.  Even the most successful strivers after the American dream sometimes muttered about “mindless conformity.”  The titles of books such as The Organization Man, by William Whyte (1956), and the Lonely Crowd, by David Riesman (1958), summarized a widespread critique of 1950s culture.  Male resentments against women were expressed in the only partly humorous diatribes of Playboy magazine (founded in 1953) against “money-hungry” gold diggers or lazy “parasites” trying to trap men into commitment.[46]


Contradictions of the 1950s Family Boom

Happy memories of 1950s family life are not all illusion, of course – there were good times for many families.  But even the most positive aspects had another side.  One reason that the 1950s family model

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was so fleeting was that it contained the seeds of its own destruction, a point I will explore further in chapter 7.  It was during the 1950s, not the 1960s, that the youth market was first produced, then institutionalized into the youth culture.  It was through such innocuous shows as “Howdy Doody” and “the Disney Hour” that advertisers first discovered the riches to be gained by bypassing parents and appealing directly to youth.  It was also during this period that advertising and consumerism became saturated with sex.[47]

            In the 1950s, family life was financed by economic practices that were to have unanticipated consequences in the 1970s.  Wives and mothers first started to work in great numbers during the 1950s in order to supplement their families’ purchasing power; expansion of household comforts came “at the cost of an astronomical increase of indebtedness.”  The labor-management accord of the 1950s helped erode the union movement’s ability to oppose the takebacks and runaway shops that destroyed the “family wage system” during the 1970s and 1980s.[48]

            Family and gender strategies also contained some time bombs.  Women who “played dumb” to catch a man, as 40 percent of Barnard College women admitted to doing, sometimes despised their husbands for not living up to the fiction of male superiority they had worked so hard to promote.  Commitment to improving the quality of family life by manipulating the timing and spacing of childbearing led to the social acceptability of family planning and the spread of birth-control techniques.  Concentration of childbearing in early marriage meant that growing numbers of women had years to spare for paid work after the bulk of their child-care duties were finished.  Finally, 1950s families fostered intense feelings and values that produced young people with a sharp eye for hypocrisy; many of the so-called rebels of the 1960s were simply acting on values that they had internalized in the bosom of their families.[49]


Teen Pregnancy and the 1950s Family

Whatever its other unexpected features, the 1950s family does appear, at least when compared to families in the last two decades, to be a bastion of “traditional” sexual morality.  Many modern observers, accordingly, look back to the sexual values of this decade as a possible solution to what they see as the peculiarly modern “epi-

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demic” of teen pregnancy.  On closer examination, however, the issue of teen pregnancy is a classic example of both the novelty and the contradictions of the 1950s family.

            Those who advocate that today’s youth should be taught abstinence or deferred gratification rather than sex education will find no 1950s model for such restraint.  “Heavy petting” became a norm of dating in this period, while the proportion of white brides who were pregnant at marriage more than doubled.  Teen birth rates soared, reaching highs that have not been equaled since.  In 1957, 97 out of every 1,000 girls aged fifteen to nineteen gave birth, compared to only 52 of every 1,000 in 1983.  A surprising number of these births were illegitimate, although 1950s census codes made it impossible to identify an unmarried mother if she lived at home with her parents.  The incidence of illegitimacy was also disguised by the new emphasis on “rehabilitating” the white mother (though not the black) by putting her baby up for adoption and encouraging her to “start over”; there was an 80 percent increase in the number of out-of-wedlock babies placed for adoption between 1944 and 1955.[50]

            The main reason that teenage sexual behavior did not result in many more illegitimate births during this period was that the age of marriage dropped sharply.  Young people were not taught how to “say no” – they were simply handed wedding rings.  In fact, the growing willingness of parents to subsidize young married couples and the new prevalence of government educational stipends and home ownership loans for veterans undermined the former assumption that a man should be able to support a family before embarking on marriage.  Among the middle class, it became common for young wives to work while their husbands finished school.  Prior to the 1950s, as David Riesman wrote of his Depression-era classmates, it would not “have occurred to us to have our wives support us through graduate school.”[51]

            Contemporary teenage motherhood, as we shall see in chapter 8, in some ways represents a continuation of 1950s values in a new economic situation that makes early marriage less viable.  Of course, modern teen pregnancy also reflects the rejection of some of those earlier values.  The values that have broken down, however, have little to do with sexual restraint.  What we now think of as 1950s sexual morality depended not so much on stricter sexual control as on intensification of the sexual double standard.  Elaine Tyler May argues that sexual “repression” gave way to sexual “containment.”  The new practice of going steady “widened the boundaries of permissible sex-

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ual activity,” creating a “sexual brinksmanship” in which women bore the burden of “drawing the line,” but that line was constantly changing.  Popular opinion admitted, as the Ladies’ Home Journal put it in 1956, that “sex suggestiveness” was here to stay, but insisted that it was up to women to “put the brakes on.”[52]

            This double standard led to a Byzantine code of sexual conduct:  “Petting” was sanctioned so long as one didn’t go “too far” (though this was an elastic and ambiguous prohibition); a woman could be touched on various parts of her body (how low depended on how serious the relationship was) but “nice girls” refused to fondle the comparable male parts in return; mutual stimulation to orgasm was compatible with maintaining a “good” reputation as long as penetration did not occur.

            The success of sexual containment depended on sexual inequality.  Men no longer bore the responsibility of “saving themselves for marriage”; this was now exclusively a woman’s job.  In sharp contrast to the nineteenth century, when “oversexed” or demanding men were considered to have serious problems, it was now considered “normal” or “natural” for men to be sexually aggressive.  The “average man,” advice writers for women commented indulgently, “will go as far as you let him go.”  When women succeeded in “holding out” (a phrase charged with ambiguity), they sometimes experienced problems “letting go,” even after marriage; when they failed, they were often reproached later by their husbands for having “giving in.”  The contradictions of this double standard could not long withstand the period’s pressures for companionate romance:  By 1959, a more liberal single standard had already gained ground among older teenagers across America .[53]

The Problem of Women in Traditional Families

People who romanticize the 1950s, or any model of the traditional family, are usually put in an uncomfortable position why they attempt to gain popular support.  The legitimacy of women’s rights is so widely accepted today that only a tiny minority of Americans seriously propose that women should go back to being full-time housewives or should be denied educational and job opportunities because of their family responsibilities.  Yet when commentators lament the collapse of traditional family commitments and values, they almost

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invariably mean the uniquely female duties associated with the doctrine of separate spheres for men and women. 

            Karl Zinsmeister of the American Enterprise Institute, for example, bemoans the fact that “workaholism and family dereliction have become equal-opportunity diseases, striking mothers as much as fathers.”  David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values expresses sympathy for the needs of working women but warns that “employed women do not a family make.  The goals of women (and of men, too) in the workplace are primarily individualistic:  social recognition, wages, opportunities for advancement, and self-fulfillment.  But the family is about collective goals…building life’s most important bonds of affection, nurturance, mutual support, and long-term commitment."[54]

            In both statements, a seemingly gender-neutral indictment of family irresponsibility ends up being directed most forcefully against women.  For Blankenhorn, it is not surprising that men’s goals should be individualistic.  This is parenthetical aside.  For Zinsmeister, the problem with the disease of family dereliction is that it has spread to women.  So long as it was confined to men, evidently, there was no urgency about finding a cure.

            The crisis of commitment in America is usually seen as a problem associated with women’s changing roles because women’s family functions have historically mediated the worst effects of competition and individualism in the larger society.  Most people who talk about balancing private advancement and individual rights with “nurturance, mutual support, and long-term commitment” do not envision any serious rethinking of the individualistic, antisocial tendencies in our society, nor any ways of broadening our sources of nurturance and mutual assistance.  Instead, they seek ways – sometimes through repression, sometimes through reform – of rebuilding a family in which women can continue to compensate for, rather than challenge, the individualism in our larger economy and polity….


[1] Boston Globe, 11 April 1989 ; David Blankenhorn, “Ozzie and Harriet, Alive and Well,” Washington Post,  11 June 1989 ; “Ozzie and Harriet Redux,” Fortune, 25 March 1991; Richard Morin, “Family Life Makes a Comeback:  Maybe Ozzie and Harriet Had a Point,” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 25 November- 1 December 1991.

[2] William Chafe, The American Woman:  Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970 (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 217.

[3] Joseph Mason, History of Housing in the U.S., 1930-1980 (Houston:  Gulf, 1982); Martin Mayer, The Builders (New York:  Gulf, 1978), p. 132.

[4] William Chafe, The Unfinished Journey:  America Since World War II (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 111-18; Stephen Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolution:  A Social History of American Family Life (New York:  Free Press, 1988), pp. 182-83; Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound:  American Families in the Cold War Era (New York:  Basic Books, 1988), p. 165.

[5] May, Homeward Bound, p. 167; Clifford Clark, Jr., “Ranch-House Suburbia:  Ideals and Realities,” in Recasting America :  Culture and politics in the Age of Cold War, ed. Lary May (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 188.

[6] David Marc, Comic Visions:  Television Comedy and American Culture (Boston:  Unwin Hyman, 1989), p. 50; May, Homeward Bound, p. 28; Mintz and Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions, p. 180.

[7] Steven D. McLaughlin et al., The Changing Lives of American Women (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1988), p. 7; Donald Brogue, The Population of the United States (Glencoe, Ill.:  Free Press, 1959).

[8] Susan Ware, Holding Their Own:  American Women in the 1930s (Boston:  Twayne, 1982); Ruth Milkman, “Women’s Work and Economic Crisis:  Some Lessons from the Great Depression,” Review of Radical Political Economics 8 (1976):  84; “Marriage and Divorce,” a March of Time film, vol. 14, no. 7, 1948.

[9] Talcott Parsons and Robert Bales, Family, Socialization, and Interaction Process (Glencoe:  Free Press, 1955); Judith E. Smith, “the Marrying Kind:  Working Class Courtship and Marriage in Postwar Popular Culture” (Paper presented at American Studies Association Conference, New Orleans, October 1990), p. 3; Linda Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives:  The Politics and History of Family Violence, 1880-1960 (New York:  Viking, 1988), p. 161.

[10] May, Homeward Bound, p. 137; Mary Ryan, Womanhood in America from Colonial Times to the Present (New York:  Franklin Watts, 1983), pp. 271-72; Susan Householder Van Horn, Women, Work, and Fertility, 1900-1986 (New York:  New York University Press, 1988); Landon Jones, Great Expectations:  America and the Baby Boom Generation (New York:  Ballantine, 1980), p. 34.

[11] May, Homeward Bound, p. 11.

[12] Glenna Mathews, “Just a Housewife”:  The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1987); Betty Friedan, the Feminine Mystique (New York:  Dell, 1963), p. 204.

[13] Peter Viskind, Seeing Is Believing:  How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (New York:  Pantheon, 1983), pp. 252, 255.

[14] Lary May, “Movie Star Politics,” in Recasting America :  Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War, ed. Lary May (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 146; May, Homeward Bound, pp. 64, 140-42.

[15] Clifford Clark, The American Family Home, 1800-1960 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1986), pp. 209, 216; Clifford Clark, “Ranch-House Suburbia:  Ideals and Realities,” in Recasting America , ed. Lary May, pp. 171, 182; May, Homeward Bound, p. 162.

[16] Marc, Comic Visions, p. 81; May, Homeward Bound, p. 162.

[17] Lynda Glennon and Richard Bustch, “The Family as Portrayed on Television, 1949-1978,” in Television and Behavior:  Ten Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the Eighties, ed. David Pearle et al. (Washington, D.C.:  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1982); May, Homeward Bound, p. 146; Ella Taylor, Prime-time Families:  Television Culture in Postwar America (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1989).

[18] Samuel Bowles, David Gordon, and Thomas Weisskopf, Beyond the Wasteland:  A Democratic Alternative to Economic Decline (Garden City, N.Y.:  Doubleday, 1983), pp. 66-67, 74; Chafe, Unfinished Journey, pp. 111-18; James A. Henretta et al., America’s History, vol. 2 (Chicago:  Dorsey Press, 1987), p. 852; David Potter, People of Plenty (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1959).

[19] James Patterson, America Struggles Against Poverty, 1900-1985 (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 13; Douglas Miller and Marion Nowak, the fifties:  The Way We Really Were (Garden City, N.Y.:  Doubleday, 1977), p. 122; Michael Harrington, The Other America:  Poverty in the United States (New York:  Macmillan, 1962); Social Security Bulletin, July 1963, pp. 3-13; Chafe, Unfinished Journey, p. 143; mark Stern, “Poverty and the Life-Cycle, 1940-1960,” Journal of Social History 24 (1991):  538.

[20] Taylor, Prime-time Families, p. 40; David Marc, “The Sit-Com Sensibility,” Washington Post, 25 June 1989; Eric Barnow, Tube of Plenty:  The Evolution of American television (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1975); Richard Griswold del Castillo, La Familia:  Chicano Families in the Urban Southwest, 1848 to the Present (Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), pp. 113-14; Henretta et al., America’s History, vol. 2, p. 845.

[21] Glenda Riley, Inventing the American Woman (Arlington Heights, Va:  Harlan Davidson, 1987), p. 240; Harrington, Other America , p. 53; Edward R. Murrow, “Harvest of Same,” CBS Reports, 25 November 1960; John Collier, “Indian Takeaway,” Nation, 2 October 1954.

[22] Herbert Shapiro, White Violence and Black Response:  From Reconstruction to Montgomery (Amherst:  University of Massachusetts Press, 1988); Michael Danielson, the Politics of Exclusion (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1976); Miller and Nowak, The Fifties, pp. 199-201; Life, 11 March 1957 , p. 163.

[23] Joan Ellen Trey, “Women in the World War II Economy,” Review of Radical Political Economics, July 1972; Chafe, American Woman, pp. 178-179.

[24] Ruth Milkman, Gender at Work:  The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex During World War II (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 1987), p. 102; Sheila Tobias and Lisa Anderson, “What Really Happened to Rosie the Riveter” MSS Modular Publications 9 (1973); Steven D. McLaughlin et al., The Changing Lives of American Women (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina, 1988), p. 24.

[25] Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg, Modern Woman:  The Lost Sex (New York:  Harper and Brothers, 1947), p. 24; Susan Hartman, The Home Front and Beyond:  American Women in the 1940s (Boston:  Twayne Publishers, 1982), pp. 173, 179-80; May, Homeward Bound, pp. 96-97.

[26] Carol Warren, Madwives:  Schizophrenic Women in the 1950s (New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press, 1987); Hartmann, Home Front, p. 174.

[27] Miller and Nowak, The Fifties, pp. 164-65.

[28] Mintz and Kellog, Domestic Revolutions, p. 181; Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men:  American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (Garden City, N.Y.:  Anchor Press, 1983), pp. 14-28; Miller and Nowak, The Fifties, p. 154.

[29] Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light:  American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (New York:  Pantheon, 1985); Roger Morris, Richard Milhous Nixon:  The Rise of an American Politician (New York:  Holt, 1990); Ellen Schrecker, No Ivory Tower:  McCarthyism and the Universities (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1986); David Caute, The Great Fear:  The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1978); Henretta et al., America’s History, p. 867; May, Homeward Bound, pp. 13-14, 94-95.

[30] Benita Eisler, Private Lives:  Men and Women of the Fifties (New York: Franklin Watts, 1986), p. 342.

[31] May, Homeward Bound, p. 91.

[32] May, Homeward Bound, p. 109; James Gilbert, A Cycle of Outrage:  America ’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 3, 8, 66.

[33] For a defense of the suburbs, see Scott Donaldson, The Suburban Myth (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1969).  See also John Seeley, R. Alexander Sim, and E.W. Loosely, Crestwood Heights:  A Study of Culture in Suburban Life (New York:  Basic Books, 1956), and William H. Whyte, The Organization Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956).  Though Whyte criticized the lack of individualism in the suburbs he described, his description of boring group life might sound rather comforting to many alienated modern Americans.

[34] Susan Allen Toth, Blooming:  A Small-Town Girlhood (Boston:  Little, Brown, 1978), pp. 3, 4.

[35] Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, “The Darkest Secret,” People, 6 July 1991 .

[36] Eisler, Private Lives, p. 170.  See also Nancy Hall, A True Story of a Drunken Mother (Boston:  south End Press, 1990).

[37] Mintz and Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions, p. 194; C. Henry Kempe et al., “The Battered Child Syndrome,” Journal of the American Medial Association (1962):  181; Elizabeth Pleck, Domestic Tyranny:  The Making of Social Policy Against Family Violence fro Colonial Times to the Present (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 169, 182.

[38] Pleck, Domestic Tyranny, pp. 162-63.

[39] Pleck, Domestic Tyranny, pp. 156-57; Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives, pp. 206-22.

[40] Mira Komarovsky, Blue Collar Marriage (New Haven:  Vintage, 1962), p. 331.

[41] Mintz and Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions, p. 194; May, Homeward Bound, p. 202.

[42] Mintz and Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions, p. 195; Miller and Nowak, The Fifties, p. 174.  The physician reported that most of these women had fulfilled their wifely and motherly roles for years, in seemingly irreproachable ways, but were nevertheless unfulfilled.  Unable to accept the logic of his own evidence, the doctor concluded that their problems were a result of their “intense strivings for masculinity.”

[43] Christina Crawford, Mommie Dearest (New York:  William Morrow, 1978), especially pp. 51-56, 82-88; Chafe, Unfinished Journey, p. 126; Edith Lisansky, “The woman Alcoholic,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences (1958):  315.

[44] Eisler, Private Lives, pp. 209-10; Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, pp. 44, 59.

[45] Mathews, “Just a Housewife,” pp. 219-220.

[46] Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men.

[47] Jones, Great Expectations, pp. 41-49; Friedan, Feminine Mystique, pp. 250-51.

[48] Chafe, Unfinished Journey, p. 144.

[49] Chafe, Unfinished Journey, p. 125; Eisler, Private Lives, p. 369; Chafe, American Woman, p. 218; Ryan, Womanhood in America, p. 277; May, Homeward Bound, pp. 149-52; Joseph Demartini, “Change Agents and Generational Relationships:  A Reevaluation of Mannheim’s Problem of Generations,” Social forces 64 (1985).

[50] Ellen Rothman, Hands and Hearts, pp. 304-5; May, Homeward Bound, pp. 117, 121, 127; Maris Vinovskis, An “Epidemic” of Adolescent Pregnancy?”  Some Historical and Policy Considerations (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 25; Rickie Solinger, Wake Up Little Susie:  Single Pregnancy and Race in the Pre-Roe v. Wade Era (New York:  Routledge, forthcoming).

[51] Rothman, Hands and Hearts, p. 301; Eisler, Private Lives, p. 199.

[52] May, Homeward Bound, p. 101-2, 127-28; Andrea Sanders, “Sex, Politics, and Good Taste in Nabokov’s Lolita and Ike’s America” (Paper delivered at “Ike’s America, a conference on the Eisenhower Presidency and American Life in the 1950s,” University of Kansas, Lawrence, 4-6 October 1990), pp. 11-12.

[53] Beth Bailey, From Front Port to Back Seat:  Courtship in Twentieth Century America (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), p. 90; Rothman, Hands and Hearts, pp. 304-306.

[54] Paul Taylor, “Who Has Time to Be a Family?” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 14-20 January 1991; David Blankenhorn, “American Family dilemmas,” in Rebuilding the Nest:  A New Commitment to the American Family, ed. David Blankenhorn et al. (Milwaukee:  Family Service America, 1990), pp. 10-12.