Femininity; History; Sex role; Sexuality; Suburban life; Women — Sexual behavior


History | History of Gender | United States History | Women's History


America in the two decades after World War II experienced conditions that seemed to indicate an unprecedented focus on domesticity and traditional gender roles. Couples married at younger ages, fertility rates soared, and population shifted to suburban areas all over the country. Just beneath this surface, however, a more complex discourse about gender norms was also emerging. Gay and lesbian communities began to organize, teenagers emerged as a cultural force, and young single women began to view economic independence as a legitimate goal. These contradictory forces coexisted in a culture struggling to define gender and sexuality in the anxiety-ridden era of the Cold War. Journalists, psychologists, and other experts described a crisis of masculinity in American culture and gave women advice on how best to fulfill the roles of wives and mothers. The popularity of Playboy Magazine and the publication of the Kinsey Reports illustrate how central sexuality was in this ongoing postwar debate. Women’s sexuality in particular was tied to the larger fears gripping the nation. This essay explores how historians approach the postwar constructions of femininity and female sexuality. Some investigate the origins of the stereotypical suburban housewife model of domesticity and how it was perpetuated in American culture. Others address how some women modified that model for their own ends. A third group of historians is concerned with the women who resisted the domesticity model and how their femininity was constructed and understood in the discourse. Taken together, these three strands of inquiry paint a complex, nuanced picture of gender and sexuality in postwar America.