No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States

By Nancy F. Cott | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Pushing the Limits
1940–1961

Elaine Tyler May

When the Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor in 1941, the country went to war, fighting Nazi aggression and genocide in Europe and Japanese expansion in Asia. Peace came in 1945, but it was a tense and fragile peace marked by what was called the Cold War between the two new superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, which lasted until the late 1980s.

As soon as the nation entered the war, the worst economic depression in the nation’s history ended suddenly, to be followed by decades of prosperity with a booming economy. These were the years of the major demographic upheaval of the century: the Baby Boom. Marriage rates increased, men and women married younger, the divorce rate declined, the birth rate soared, and Americans streamed into rapidly expanding suburbs. Technological advances came rapidly. The United States dropped the first nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, unleashing the atomic age; television came to American homes in 1950; houses filled with appliances.

Mainstream politics dwindled to a call for unity and patriotism in defense of war and Cold War aims, but beneath the surface, artists, activists, and those excluded from the bland political mood of the Cold War consensus planted the seeds of massive social change. The civil rights movement took shape in the South and began the agitation that would transform race relations more profoundly than anything since the Civil War. It also laid the groundwork for other movements that would emerge later on behalf of women, farm workers, American Indians, gays and lesbians, and other groups seeking their rightful place as full American citizens.

American women were part of all these dramatic events and developments. They shaped them and were also affected by them. Some women had more choices than others, but they all took advantage of new opportunities and pushed against the constraints that remained. They were not watching from the sidelines; they were on the march. Often their choices were limited. These were not years of steady progress. Opportunities opened in some areas for some women, and shrank

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