Baby Boomers and Women in the 1950's

The "Baby Boomers"

The "Baby Boom" which occurred between the years of 1946 and 1964, was one of the biggest population increases the United States has ever seen. During this time period, 78 MILLION babies were born. This increase in birth rate was due to the returning of soldiers to their homes and wanting to create families. Business Week predicted this phenomenon in 1941 when it stated " For many a family, now that prosperity seems to be here, there's a baby just around the corner."

The Baby Boomers, as the generation was called, moved through time and societal phases in one large "demographic lump":
A simplified time line would look something like this:
1940's: overflow in maternity wards due to huge number of babies being born.
1950's: overflow in schools.
  • This leads to the construction of new schools.
  • Term "juvenile delinquent" was coined due to many of the baby boomers not fitting into "social molds"
1960's & 1970's: Colleges overflowing with students
  • Twice as many students continued their education, as opposed to the previous generation.
1970's & 1980's: Job markets filled with baby boomers graduating from college.
1990's: Housing prices rise
  • Many baby boomers approach middle age and are ready to settle down and create families of their own

This graph shows the increase in births during the Baby Boom
This graph shows the increase in births during the Baby Boom
This graph shows the spike of fertility during the Baby Boom
This graph shows the spike of fertility during the Baby Boom

Economic improvement also added to the idea that Americans were living in a better world to bring babies into. During the depression, parents of the baby boomers learned to save their money and be thrifty. They did not want to bring a child into a world where there was no chance of leading a favorable life. When the economy drastically improved due to the demands of the war, families realized that it was a great idea to have children when the economy was doing so well.
The Pill was a newly released form of oral contraceptive
The Pill was a newly released form of oral contraceptive

Decline of the Baby Boom:
With the introduction of "the Pill", an oral contraceptive which can be taken to prevent pregnancy, in the 1960's the birth rate began to slow. In addition to this new method of birth control, many Americans were changing their attitudes and opinions on family size and control of the population. They now believed it to be more beneficial to have a smaller family size where a mother can focus on raising her children and not simply making babies. Republican Motherhood, anyone?

Women, and their role in society
When the soldiers came back from war, women were pressured to leave their jobs are return back home. There, they would have more time to take care of the children and their husbands. With a huge increase in babies, there was also more of a need for women to remain at home. This was the justification used by many to get women out of the work place and into the home.

The 'Burbs
The 'Burbs

By the 1950's, the idea of a working women was unconventional and the perfect picture of American society was a happy white family -Mom, Dad and kids- living in the suburbs. This idea of Suburbia was huge during the Baby Boom. After the war, veterans were promised housing, so the government cleared acres and acres of farmland, to create inexpensive, identical houses. These new developments were far away from other family members like parents and grandparents who, in the past, had often helped out with raising the children.

A new trend that developed during this time period was child-care "manuals" that helped women raise their children by reading up on appropriate forms of child rearing. This was very controversial because many mothers felt that these manuals were telling them how to raise their children and made them fee like they were doing a terrible job is they did not abide by the text.

The introduction of
A 1950's McDonald's Ad
A 1950's McDonald's Ad
fast food chain restaurants also helped mothers of many children provide their families with quick, easy, inexpensive dinners. Also, credit cards became bigger during this time period. In order to "Keep up with the Joneses" families would charge whatever they needed to live the "good life". Also new in this time period were "labor saving devices" or your common household appliances, which were intended to decrease the amount of time spent in the kitchen. It didn't counteract, however, the extreme increase of time needed to be spent in the kitchen by women with large, growing families.

Cult of Domesticity
These ideals, reinforced the idea of a "cult of domesticity", or that a woman's proper place wa
Leave It To Beaver, and very popular show during the '50's
Leave It To Beaver, and very popular show during the '50's
s in the home. Governor of Illinois, Aldai Stevenson, while giving a speech on a woman's place in the home said "But for my part I want merely to tell you young ladies that I think there is much you can do about that crisis in the humble role of housewife--which, statistically, is what most of you are going to be whether you like the idea or not just now--and you'll like it!" (link for further information on Aldai Stevenson's speech below) This quotation reveals the opinion of most Americans on this issue. This included women as well, including Agnes E. Meyer, a trustee of Barnard College in New York City, who gave a speech in which she said that "women must realize that no job is more important than that of wife and mother."

All of these ideas were mirrored in the media as well. Television shows that portrayed the ideas were those like Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver. All of these shows were about an ideal "perfect American family" with a mother who kept a spotless house and a father who was always spewing out words of wisdom to keep the family in line.

Women Wearing the Pants
However there were women who were very strongly opposed to the objectification and belittling of the role of women in society. These women were referred to as the "pioneers". They acted like men in order to pursue their careers. One of these pioneers, Clare Boothe Luce was the first woman to represent America as an ambassador (to Italy). She gave a speech in 1960 "in which she warned reporters against contributing to a 'passive, yielding, and, curiously, an effeminate press.'"
When the men returned to the work force, though many women returned to their homes, a great majority remained working. During the 50's and 60's the percentage of women in the workforce increased from 29 to 35 percent. Even though they remained in the work force, they could not keep the well paying jobs they held before, such as positions in factories and ship yards. The men that returned from war seized these positions and forced women to become waitresses, secretaries, or sales clerks, who were poorly paid. During this time period, women earned only about 60 percent of a man's pay.
Feeling that this was unfair, many women took their cases to court. They believed that they were e
Betty Friedan's popular feminist book
Betty Friedan's popular feminist book
ntitled to the same rights, and therefore wages, that men had. An example of one of these cases was Goessart vs. Clearly. This settlement backed a Michigan law that denied women the right to work as bartenders. In addition, many feminist authors began to write books speaking against sexist actions. Betty Friedan, one of the most influential women writers of the time, wrote that public attitude about the roles women should play led to silent despair among women. She described in her book, The Feminine Mystique, the daily struggle of American women who were frustrated with society and its belief that women should "find fulfillment primarily through the achievements of husbands and children." (Link to bio about Betty Friedan below)

Significance in 50's
The Baby Boomers were very significant in the 50's because they were a physical representation of all the growth during this decade. They moved through all the societal phases and created an overflow in every phase that they entered. Many community resources, including schools and hospitals, were not large enough to support the baby boomer generation when they came to them. This forced such resources to expand and improve. The baby boomers also represent the change in women's role in society. With new families to take care of, most women now became more focused around the home. This was the general opinion of most Americans. They believed that a woman's place was in the home and not in the work place. Women were significant in the 50's because public opinion shifted from women being helpful to the war and economy to being better off at home. This sparked many feminist movements because after having a taste of what they could do for society during the war, women were more determined than ever to win equal rights in the work place. They believed they contributed just as much to the economy as men did, and therefore deserved the same pay and respect. Overall, the Baby Boomers and Women in the 1950's were a starting point for some of the great societal changes to come.

Relevant Links:
Betty Friedan
Aldai Stevenson

Fun Facts:
  • Baby Boomers make up 60% of all divorced people over the age of 15 in the U.S.
  • During the Baby Boom era, the first airplane to break the speed of sound was manufactured.
  • In 1947, the first sightings of "flying saucers" were reported
  • In the first year of the Baby Boom, 1946, Americans eat a record 714 million gallons of ice cream, strapless bras become popular, ushering in a trend toward bare-shouldered women’s fashion, & suntan lotions, developed for troops during World War II, marketed to consumers for the first time
  • In the final year of the Baby Boom, 1964, the first lung transplant occurred, "Beatlemania" spreads, and According to reports, not a single juvenile crime is reported in New York City the night of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964
Suntan lotion became publicly popular in 1946

Sources Cited:

"Baby Boomers." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. 5 vols. St. James Press, 2000. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.

"Commentary on Benjamin McLane Spock." American Journey Online: Women in America. Primary Source Microfilm, 1999. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.

Stevenson, Adlai. "Commencement Address by Adlai Stevenson, Smith College." Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.
"Women at Home After World War II."
American Journey Online: Women in America. Primary Source Microfilm, 1999. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.

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