The American Way was built on very distinct and separate gender identities, with distinctive roles and expectations for each gender. The nuclear family, headed by a “breadwinner” male, was understood as foundational to the American democracy, and was seen as the central location through which values and civics were transmitted. The male breadwinner archetype was also deeply embedded within understandings of masculinity, as it was positioned at the intersection of two of the essential components of the American Way - labor market and the family. The breadwinner archetype was understood as having great importance to the nation, because success in the workplace and proper fatherhood and child-rearing were both seen as essential to American stability and American power during the Cold War.
The twin crises of the Great Depression and World War Two set the stage for a return to conservative family ideology through the long fifties. Robert Griswold examined the war’s role in this, and argued; “By emphasizing the contributions of fathers to social order, democracy, middle-class capitalism, eugenic trends, personality development, and psychological health, family researchers, politicians, and ideologues reemphasized the importance of fatherhood after its decline in the 1930s. But they did so without challenging a sex-based division of labor that relegated women to the home and left men in control of political, economic, and social affairs.”[^] The postwar years restored and increased all of the factors that pulled breadwinners from their children in the first decades of the twentieth century - work outside the home, non-familial institutions, activities for children outside the home, and an emphasis on consumption and family income. According to Courdileone, ideals of the nuclear family and the divided gender roles within families were ”…promoted after decades of social disruption brought on by depression and war, and were sanctioned by professional experts, politicians, and religious leaders and expressed in popular culture through magazines, film, television, and advertising.”[^] The family was understood as the most fundamental component of American society, and by becoming functional and proficient fathers, men were proving not only proving their status as heterosexual, healthy men, but were also actively contributing to the fight for the economic and ideological American Way.
Although successful breadwinners were a central pillar of American prosperity in the “American Way” narrative, not every employed man with children fit the bill or was celebrated. Potential breadwinners were aplenty - couples were getting married and having children at higher rates and lower ages than every before. Griswold argued that a new family model and definitions of fatherhood arose near the end of the nineteenth century, amid changing class, residential, and economic factors, and also occupied a key space in what he terms “compulsive heterosexuality.”[^] The rising influence of psychologist and sociologists, combined with the struggles of the Great Depression brought about a great deal of concern over a father’s role in the home and their ability to provide a role model for their children.[^] This conversation centered upon conflicting notions of manhood and concerns over a lack of masculine influence on children fortified the importance of men in families. Throughout the long fifties, sociologists, psychologists, and popular writers became increasingly concerned with the direction society was going, including proper sex role identity and juvenile delinquency, and placed the blame on a lack of a proper male guidance in families.[^] The role of the breadwinner in a social and economic system that demanded they be active fathers and financially provide for the entire family was rife with conflict. If men were expected to earn money to support their families in a consumer society, they would often have to work long hours outside of the home. Although this could strain a breadwinner’s time commitment, Jessica Weiss, in her research on Institute of Human Development (IHD) longitudinal family studies, found that most men throughout the 50s, when forced to choose between breadwinning and fathering, chose breadwinning.[^] In addition, non familial institutions were beginning to fill many of the needs previously filled by the family, and children were spending more time outside of the home. Griswold wrote that in the 1920s, popular cultural critics believed that new institutions that grew as part of urbanization and industrialization - namely schools, factories, hospitals, welfare agencies, and juvenile courts - put public authority over realms that were previously internal to the family.[^] Griswold went on to argue that, for middle class men, economic success often brought more goods and institutions that caused children to spend more time away from home, such as prolonged schooling, increased mobility via automobiles, and teen dating.[^]
Men who were not ideal breadwinners came under great scrutiny and criticism. The absence of men during WWII brought a new focus on the role of men in families, and cultural critics and intellectuals, ranging from anthropologist Margaret Mead to pediatrician Benjamin Spock, urged fathers to take a more active role and spend more time with their children.[^] Weiss found that even though many men felt comfortable focusing on employment because their wives were with the children full time, men in the IHD study did feel an obligation to spend time with their children, and many expressed that they wanted to spend more time with their children.[^] There were also a number of ways in which the breadwinner role could otherwise harm a man’s masculinity. Even as fatherhood became included in definitions of manhood, there remained fears that the soft, care-giving tasks could derail a man from his more traditional role.[^] Other possible pitfalls of the postwar middle class male included conformity, emasculation, and “momism.”
Thus the stakes of breadwinning were raised – if a man could attain a proper breadwinner status and fulfill all of the family’s financial needs while also being a proper male role model for their children, he was an invaluable participant in the ideological battle of the Cold War. If he failed to properly fulfill either of those roles, he failed himself, his family and - potentially - the nation. A number of negative theories and archetypes swirled around American men in the postwar era. Cuordileone wrote, “The plight of the American male - trapped, manipulated, struggling against forces that robbed him of his freedom, his individuality, his will, his sexual potency, and his soul - became a central theme for many postwar cultural critics, novelists, and filmmakers.”[^] “Look” Magazine even featured a series in 1958 entitled, “The Decline of the American Male,” which centered around momsim and the control exhibited by overbearing mothers.[^]
Another prominent understanding of the cultural zeitgeist was that of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character.[^] The understanding of The Lonely Crowd was that conformity was a direct result of modernity, and can also be drawn from the enlargement of the middle class and the push for new groups to place themselves into the singular American identity. These concerns were a direct result of a changing economy and the growth of large corporations, which cast doubt on classic ideas about masculinity and male independence. Riesman’s work on the “other directed man,” whose definitive quality was his need to gain the approval of others, largely through consumer spending, served as a warning against the transitioning from the so-called Self-Made Man to a manhood less embedded in an entrepreneurial economy.[^]
The single breadwinner ethic, though largely touted through military documents and cultural depictions as being the principle formulation of the family, was not always the preferred or realistic family organization. The arrangement of an equitable division of labor such that the male earned a living for the family, and the female stayed home to tend to the children and home was not the case in many households, especially those outside white, middle class suburbia. The nuclear family ”…represented the ideal toward which upwardly mobile Americans strove and reflected the standard against which nonconforming individuals were judged.”[^] Even after the majority of women were forced out of the workforce to make way for men from war, there were more women in the workplace than before the war, and more married women were working in 1952 than at the peak of wartime production.[^] Stephanie Coontz wrote, “…a full 25 percent of Americans, forty to fifty million people, were poor in the mid-1950s, and in the absence of food stamps and housing programs, this poverty was searing. Even at the end of the 1950s, a third of American children were poor.”[^] Coontz added, “The June Cleaver or Donna Stone homemaker role was not available to the more than 40 percent of black women with small children who worked outside the home. Twenty-five percent of these women headed their own households, but even minorities who conformed to the dominant family form faced conditions quite unlike those portrayed on television.”[^] The single breadwinner family was promoted as the ideal family form, so men who were not able to earn enough to support their entire families were seen as insufficient and as disappointments. Additionally, by touting these rigid gendered divisions, men and women who sought nontraditional roles were stifled, maligned, and denied access to ideal citizenship.
Although the nuclear family was a part of the ‘American Way’ narrative, Elaine Tyler May argued that it attained high social value and relative popularity through more organic means. According to May, affluent, white families saw the Cold War-era ideology of containment to be the path for security in both the diplomatic and domestic realms. This ideology of containment, May argued, placed the focus of public policy, personal behavior, and political values on the home.[^] In the home, one could buffer themselves against social upheaval, challenges to the status quo, or diverging ideologies. Idealistic gender roles hearken back to idealized images of the middle-class Victorian era, but differed in some important areas. Middle-class Victorian homes often depended upon domestic labor for childcare and housework, but housewives of the 1950s spent more time with housework and childcare than women of the prior decades.[^] The focus on the home extended to consumerism, and Americans sought happiness and status symbols within the home. The suburban home, the automobile and expensive appliances, symbolized economic security and domestic tranquility. As a result, purchases of household furnishings and appliances grew 240 percent the five years after World War Two.[^] The most notable example of this emphasis on domestic good as a representative of the American Way is perhaps Richard Nixon’s “kitchen debate” with Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. Kitchen appliances were held up as a central success of the capitalist system, its innovations, and its focus on making women’s lives easier.
Even within the middle class suburban home, the separated roles of the nuclear family were not always so distinct, static, or blissful. Women, especially minorities and working class whites, held jobs outside the home at a higher rate than they had in the interwar era.[^] In contrast to the narrative’s rigid gender roles and division of labor, the actual experiences of women were much more fluid, and the domestic homemaker role was often only part of a brief stage of a woman’s life. According to Weiss, many homemakers of the 1950s had worked outside the home prior to childrearing, and returned to the workplace as their children got older and left the home.[^] Weiss drew upon a study conducted by the Institute of Human Development at the University of California at Berkeley, which followed one hundred white, middle-class families from the 1950s through the 1980s. Though Weiss used a small sample, her work challenges the traditionalism and rigid norms that dominate the common narrative of middle-class Americans in the 1950s.
Americans who challenged the ideals of the nuclear family of the white middle class, especially when they did so vocally and aggressively, were labeled as outcasts and were marginalized.[^] However, most of the discontent with and rebellion against the nuclear family ethos was done silently, and remained non-confrontational. May wrote, “If American men and women felt frustrated with their lot, the women were more likely to turn to tranquilizers, and the men to Playboy magazine, for escape. But few were willing to give up the rewards of conforming for the risks of resisting the domestic path.”[^] Families in the 1950s could not always foster the security and tranquility they were assumed to provide in the 1950s. Coontz noted that child and spousal abuse went largely unreported and untreated, and nearly half of all couples reported that their marriages were unhappy or of ‘medium happiness.’[^] Women also drank at a higher rate, and physicians began prescribing tranquilizers to women to treat anxiety, frustration, and boredom.[^] The hegemony of the American family, and the societal expectations levied against individuals were immense, and thus carved a path for “The American Way.”
As American society further idealized the nuclear family and the breadwinning male, the pressure to conform was raised. A surging economy and increased access to higher education for men made nineteenth century notions of middle-class femininity - women free to focus on the home and family, and “free” from the burdens of education or work - more accessible, though they existed in a completely different economy. This put a great amount of strain on men, as expectations for their performance were increasingly raised, and the ability to achieve the idealized middle-class lifestyle that was only achieved by a small portion of the population. Furthermore, this middle-class lifestyle was often less fulfilling than expected, especially for women. However, the hegemonic power of this idealized imagery kept many men struggling in futility to achieve the promises of the new era of American success.