College Women in the Nuclear Age: Cultural Literacy and Female Identity, 1940-1960

College Women in the Nuclear Age: Cultural Literacy and Female Identity, 1940-1960

College Women in the Nuclear Age: Cultural Literacy and Female Identity, 1940-1960

College Women in the Nuclear Age: Cultural Literacy and Female Identity, 1940-1960

Synopsis

In the popular imagination, American women during the time between the end of World War II and the 1960s--the era of the so-called "feminine mystique"--were ultraconservative and passive. College Women in the Nuclear Age takes a fresh look at these women, showing them actively searching for their place in the world while engaging with the larger intellectual and political movements of the times.

Drawing from the letters and diaries of young women in the Cold War era, Babette Faehmel seeks to restore their unique voices and to chronicle their collective ambitions. She also explores the shifting roles that higher education played in establishing these hopes and dreams, making the case that the GI Bill served to diminish the ambitions of many American women even as it opened opportunities for many American men. A treasure-trove of original research, the book should stimulate scholarly discussion and captivate any reader interested in the thoughts and lives of American women.

Excerpt

Betty Friedan, a graduate of the private, all-women’s Smith College, in her 1963 bestseller The Feminine Mystique described what had struck her as common sentiments among the young women she met and interviewed when she returned for research to her alma mater. “Taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or presidents,” they had surrendered to fear that too much education hurt their chances to catch a husband. Glorifying marriage and motherhood as the be-all and end-all of a woman’s existence, they early on made it their goal to find husbands. On dates, they played dumb. As soon as they had made their catch, they dropped out. By the mid 1950s, wrote Friedan, 60 percent of women left college before completion of their degrees either “to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bar.” Instead of trying to achieve in their own right, they contended themselves with a “‘Ph.T.’ (Putting Husband Through)” degree. “The suburban housewife” she concluded, became “the dream image of the young American women.”

Friedan told her readers that she herself had become a victim of the “mystique.” As a young woman, she argued, she too had fallen for the message that even the most satisfying career could not possibly compare to the heights of happiness that a woman reached through marriage, motherhood, and sex with her husband. Yet while she conceded that only the benefit of hindsight had enabled her to look with critical distance at the messages with which the mass media and the mental health profession were bombarding American women, her evaluation of the marriage craze among female students was harsh nonetheless: Women who had enjoyed all the educational privileges imaginable, she argued, “adjusted” to the feminine mystique because it was “easier to build the need for love and sex into the end-all purpose of life, avoiding personal commitment to truth in a catch-all commitment to ‘home’ and ‘family.’” in spite of their high level of educational attainment, they contented themselves to live through their husbands and children. Craving only to be loved and secure, and accepted by others, they “chose … not to use the door education could have opened for them” and “race[d] back home.” in other words, Friedan likened the nation’s most highly educated women to dupable consumers who had fallen for a sales pitch. Rather than tackling . . .

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