WHEN SEX BECAME GENDER: MIRRA KOMAROVSKY'S FEMINISM OF THE 1950s

By Tarrant, Shira | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

WHEN SEX BECAME GENDER: MIRRA KOMAROVSKY'S FEMINISM OF THE 1950s


Tarrant, Shira, Women's Studies Quarterly


This essay focuses on Mirra Komarovsky's early interest in sex rolesa concept that came to be termed "gender" in the 1970s. Contrasting conventional accounts of a feminist dry spell after World War II, Komarovsky's theories provide evidence of the constrained yet continuing feminist project that endured throughout the 1950s. Komarovsky's theoretical perspectives enable us to understand the continuities connecting the postwar era with the second wave and beyond. These continuities rejuvenate our understanding of feminist theory's long tradition and suggest that our current conceptualization and categorization system of assigning waves to particular eras limits, m certain ways, feminism's emancipatory potential.

Claiming that feminism died in the 1950s is overstating the case; but neither was this an active feminism like we know it today. The postwar period is instead better understood as a time of constrained feminism, a paradoxical, transitional era that was challenged by the limits of Cold War ideology and functionalist social science methodology. After World War II, the pervasive model of thinking within Western social sciences was a war model, or a weapons model, and social science became a form of social weaponry. Much of the political unrest that emerged in the 1960s was about a struggle to destabilize the militaryindustrial complex of which social weaponry-via the social sciences-was now a part. But even though the years leading up to the civil turbulence of the 1960s were not a time of widespread organized radical action (feminist or otherwise), feminist thinkers in the margins of the mainstream questioned the academic predominance of conservative ideology and its underlying assumptions.

Throughout the 1950s, domestic ideology and American Cold War concerns about security and containment reinforced each other and infused the rest of the West (May 1988). This blending of ideological perspectives encouraged private solutions to social problems, even though this approach ultimately failed to bring about dramatic change. Instead, postwar reconstruction, pronatalist welfare state policies, and domestic ideology combined to form a transnational climate that discouraged overt political activism. The feminine mystique, combined with the popularity of Freudian psychology, defined and attempted to dismiss critical feminist objections in the 1950s as a sign of neurosis. During "the politically troubled climate of the early 1950s, dissent of any kind required courage" (Rosenberg, 205).

Remarkably, despite the formidable hurdles of various Cold War constraints, feminist theorizing continued throughout the putative dry spell of this era. Elizabeth Wilson argues in her study of postwar British feminism that it would, in fact, seem unlikely "that a powerful social movement and political crusade . . . should suddenly have withered away only to reappear as suddenly, and-as it seemed-as if out of nowhere around 1970" (2). Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor's perspective is that feminism managed to survive the doldrum years mainly because it endured as an elite-sustained, academic enterprise. Most feministminded thinkers of the 1950s agreed that discrimination against women was based on crude ideas of masculine superiority-ideas that would have to be eliminated. The challenging question, and one that remained unresolved, was precisely what women's role should be. In looking at Mirra Komarovsky's work on sex roles, our attention is directed toward an emerging modern feminist perspective in the West that focused, in particular ways, on the social construction of womanhood.

Born in Russia in 1905 or 1906 (sources differ), Mirra Komarovsky moved to the United States in 1922 and became a pioneering scholar in the field of sociology.1 Komarovsky's five decades of published research range from comprehensive studies on unemployed men and their families (1940) to the dilemmas of masculinity (1976) to women in college (1985). …

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