My Grandmother and the Gender Roles of Post-War America

For this post I interviewed my maternal grandmother.  My grandmother was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1937, moving to New Orleans in 1941 before the Atlantic became too unsafe for a sea crossing.  After their neighborhood in New Orleans was deemed too unsafe for a child, she was sent to live with her grandparents in Baton Rouge for several years.  Her father was a doctor with the U.S. Public Health Service and the World Health Organization who worked all over the country as well as overseas, and her mother got her doctorate and eventually became a college professor.   A lifelong bookworm and eventual librarian, my grandmother said during the interview that she did not consume that much media in her childhood and adolescence because she was always reading books instead (I guess books could be counted as media, but for some reason I didn’t treat them as such during the interview).  She is similar to many of the interviewees in We Didn’t Have Any Hannah Montanas in feeling that media did not play a large role in her childhood (119).  The media she did consume was mostly in radio form, as her family did not get a TV until she was a freshman in high school.  Her favorite radio shows were the crime dramas, like the Shadow and the Green Hornet.

Her parents and grandparents monitored her consumption of these shows to make sure that they were not too violent (my grandma noted that the violence in them, in audition to being only auditory, was nothing compared to today’s crime shows).  Her grandmother liked to listen to soap opera type shows like One Man’s Family and Stella Dallas, so my grandmother sometimes listened to thoseAs stated in We Didn’t Have Any Hannah Montanas, listening to the radio was a social activity for the family (not for when friends were over) (119).

When they finally got a TV, they found it to be much more addicting than radio.  Sometimes they would schedule things around airtimes.  Her grandmother absolutely loved the Beverly Hillbillies and made sure to watch it as often as possible.  My grandmother and her friends liked to watch Ed Sullivan, and the day after every episode they would gather to talk about it.  Westerns were also popular (my grandma did not mention any specific ones she watched).  Singers were shown on TV, and when Elvis Presley was on, the camera made sure to only film him from the waist up, because his pelvis was apparently too scandalous.  Any hint at sexuality was not allowed, as she mentioned that couples were always shown sleeping in separate beds.

When I asked my grandma about depictions of female characters in the shows, she said that they were always in a passive role, generally as the wife of the male character.  In Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, and Father Knows Best the women were in subservient roles that reinforced the idea that women should not have careers and should instead focus on their husband and family.

Female characters were generally shown as “weak, ineffectual, victimized, supportive, laughable, or ’merely token females’” (Gauntlett 47).  She theorized that this emphasis on rigidly traditional gender roles was partially a result of the end of World War II.  Many women had gone to work during the war, and now men were returning to their jobs and women were being forced back into more traditional roles.  However, she said that in her opinion, many women wanted to go back to more traditional roles because they saw it as a return to what life was like before the conflict, hardship, and long absences of the war and the Depression the preceded it.  When I asked her if the pervasiveness of these gender roles influenced her goals, she said that when she went to college many of her friends joked about getting a “Mrs. Degree,” essentially only going to college so they could find a husband and start a family.  Education had expanded greatly for women since the beginning of the century, but like Gauntlett states, “finding a man to marry and have those children with was still a primary—and seemingly inevitable—goal” (56).  The phrase was not said in my grandmother’s family, as her mother was a very independent, highly educated woman, and education was extremely important in her family, but her father did say that my grandmother should consider becoming a teacher so that her holidays would be the same as her kid’s.  She says he would have supported her in whatever she wanted to do, whether it be a doctor or something else, but the expectation was clear: whatever else she did, she was going to get married and raise kids.  My grandmother ended up marrying at 19, and by the age of 25, she had four children.  She did finish her college degree (how she managed that with four small children, I’ll never know) and have a career as a librarian, but in a way, her life fit with some of the gender roles presented on TV, though none of these gender roles seem to have been imparted to my mother.  She said that this was all before the women’s movement, and that when The Feminine Mystique came out in 1963, it was revolutionary.  She mirrors Gauntlett’s assertion of the book as “the first major assault on these images of ‘the happy housewife heroine’” (54), saying that it showed for the first time that having a career outside the home was an option.  The beginnings of the women’s movement sparked social change, and by the time my twin sister and I were born, our parents shared the child care, with our father staying home during the day for the first several years of our life while our mother worked, reversing in the evenings so our dad could go to work, a departure from the rigidly split gender roles shown in the TV shows of my grandmother’s adolescence.

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2 thoughts on “My Grandmother and the Gender Roles of Post-War America

  1. What I found most striking about your interview was the realization that “whatever else [your grandmother] did, she was going to get married and raise kids.” As a woman with a college degree, she had a greater chance of being successful in the workforce than most women did. However, even a woman as persistent and independent as your grandmother felt pressure to succumb to more “naturally” female roles – the mother and homemaker. Perhaps Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, and Father Knows Best, had a greater ideological impact on your grandmother than she realized. At the same time, perhaps it was pressure from her family and friends, the relationships she had, that had a greater impact on her decision to marry young and follow a more stereotypically feminine career path.

  2. Totally agree with Jess here — amazing that your great-grandmother GOT HER PHD (that’s awesome/crazy and so, so rare at that time) and *still,* media perceptions reign. I think that sometimes we think that the more educated, the more upper-class, the less susceptible to implicit suggestions from the media….but the media is part and parcel of cultural ideologies, which remain strong no matter how educated, sophisticated, and worldly your family is. Wonderful post!

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