The Beginning

An introduction

An American history of the 1950s is easily identifiable: thriving consumerism, iconic domesticity, a social cry for civil rights, and the threat of communism. The aftermath of the Second World War saw the fear of communism truly peak, engulfing the country’s culture, accompanied by a simultaneous economic comfort that solidified qualities of the domestic sphere, and a reshaping of social expectations. Rising commercialism dominated the family home, encouraging a dynamic that relied on the steady foundations of mothers and wives more than ever before. With the persistent threat of communism looming from eastern Europe, Americans actively rethought the standards of their environment, and established the home as a refuge and symbol of true American values.

The American anti-communist movement stands pronounced amongst both legislative and social history of the 1950s, a result of its top-down character. Mass reception of the HUAC investigations, the McCarthy witch hunts, and infamous Cold War fear often work to overwhelm the importance of local level and grassroots organizing. Infiltrating societal and familial expectations, the anti-communist movement mobilized through gender representation and ideological idealism.  

During this decade, women’s domestic and household responsibilities increased dramatically – white, middle-class women witnessed a regression into the home, focused on serving their families selflessly. The first of the twentieth century, defined by disruption of the wars and economic strife, left Americans longing for the safety and normalcy of the ‘good ol’ days’. A family was shaped by a father who worked hard to provide, a mother who kept the household intact, laced with a game of keeping up appearances[1].

Largely isolated from civic contribution, suburban women found allegiance within local level anti-communist groups, their reliance upon traditional American values fitting neatly with their desire to maintain conservative family structures. For these women, communism posed a real threat “not only to their identity as women, but also to their identity as Americans,”[2] seeing the movement as an opportunity to output their confidence in key conservative morals and gender representations, as well as to secure themselves as members of the political realm.

This is not to neglect the activism of conservative women prior to the anti-communist movement. Dating back to the nineteenth century, groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union battled the consumption of alcohol in producing lazy and idle fathers, effectively contributing to the inception of prohibition in 1920. Echoes of this conservative backlash from women is seen again in anti-suffragist movements prominent throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, claiming women were capable of managing their femininity from within a patriarchal domestic sphere, choosing not to be independent of their husbands and in gendered elements civil rights movement. Underpinning each of these elements of activism, furthermore, is the efforts of elite white women to uphold the standards of the American family, and the traditional values they hold.

A series of short infobites throughout this online exhibition, littered with audio and visual sources, can steer us towards a developed understanding of activism by women in the 1950s from their social organizing, domestic responsibilities, to representations of anti-communist women in the media. The gendered comprehension of anti-communism proves vital, as an “emphasis on women’s participation [can] show the depth of fear and paranoia Communism created in America.”[3]

Follow the links to hear more:

Women’s Activism

The Domestic Front Line

Reflections


References

[1] Mary Brennan, Wives, Mothers and the Red Menace: Conservative Women and the Crusade against Communism, (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2008), 16.

[2] Rusty L. Monhollon, This is America? The Sixties in Lawrence, Kansas, (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 32.

[3] Brennan, Wives, Mothers and the Red Menace, 17.