Essays Women Society

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These responsibilities added stress to family life.

The divorce rate rose, and the phenomenon of the single, working mother became more commonplace.

Consequently, the women’s rights movement and the sexual revolution of the 1960s challenged many of the traditional notions of motherhood and marital relationships.

Many young women rejected the sexual conventions of their parents’ generation.

Historian Elaine Tyler May called it a kind of “domestic containment”: In seeking to nurture their families in the suburbs of the 1950s, housewives and mothers often gave up their aspirations for fulfillment outside the home. A woman enters into a man’s world of politics, into back-fighting and grubbing. and [being] the subject of devastating rumors every day.” The primacy of family responsibilities and the power of society’s expectations of what constituted a “woman’s sphere” in the 1950s is aptly illustrated by the demise of Coya Knutson’s congressional career.

For instance, the decline in the proportion of women who sought higher education degrees can be attributed in large part to marital and familial priorities. Before she puts her name on the ballot, she encounters prejudice and people saying, ‘A woman’s place is in the home.’ She has to walk a very tight wire in conducting her campaign. Also, she can’t go to the other extreme: belligerent, coarse, nasty.” Congresswoman Gracie Pfost of Idaho observed that a woman seeking political office “must be willing to have her every motive challenged, her every move criticized,” and added that she “must submit to having her private life scrutinized under a microscope . The first woman to represent Minnesota, Knutson was an early advocate for the creation of a food stamp program, funding for school lunches, and federal student loans.

Knutson’s 1960 bid for re-election failed by an even wider margin.

Knutson’s experience reinforced the widely held perception that women politicians could not manage both a career and family.

Amidst the routine of household duties, many postwar wives and mothers were frustrated by their lack of professional fulfillment.

Betty Friedan memorably identified this malaise as “the problem with no name” in her landmark book The Feminine Mystique (1963).


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