Publication Date

March 1, 2012


Cultural, Economic, Military, Political

The tendency of textbooks and courses related to Post-1945 U.S. History to focus exclusively on the feminism of the 1960s and the 1970s has contributed to many students’ misperceptions about women’s activism and unwillingness to self-identify as feminist. This skewed focus often leads students to conclude that the feminist movement was an isolated event unconnected to broader political and economic trend and reinforces the idea that women’s activism is peripheral to understanding of key developments in recent American history. As people who both research and teach U.S. political and gender history we have sought strategies to overcome these problems. We have found that making women’s activism a fundamental part of all of our courses enhances discussion of the central themes of postwar American politics, including political economy, social welfare policy, and social movement history. At the same time, it can offer students a richer and more positive view of 1960s and 1970s feminism by helping them understand its broad motivations, diverse actors, landmark achievements, and significant shortcomings. This approach requires reimagining key historical developments with an eye to women’s activism rather than entirely overhauling existing lectures and frameworks. We will offer a few examples.

1: More than June Cleaver and Betty Friedan

Most courses on postwar America devote several early classes to the 1950s, especially the widespread expansion of suburbia. This topic provides an excellent opportunity to challenge basic assumptions and to introduce broader trends and themes regarding gender and political economy. By examining the way the main forces of suburbanization—the G.I. Bill and the Federal Housing Agency—did not just favor white middle-class Americans, but also heterosexual married couples, students learn that it was not solely Leave It to Beaver and popular advertisements that promoted the ideal of the nuclear family. These ideals were also codified firmly into federal policies that extended the New Deal’s gendered segmentation of social welfare policy and the workforce. Discussing the difficulties women had trying to gain access to credit and mortgages in the 1950s helps make concrete for students the ways in which federal housing policy, tax laws and other forms of government subsidy significantly favored traditional married couples in which the wife was financially dependent on the breadwinner husband.1

These same policies encouraged the increasing number of married women who did work outside the home to perceive themselves as secondary wage earners, and steered them into lower paying and often part-time service sector work. As Connie Fields’s documentary The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter brilliantly highlights, for most single women and women whose partners did not earn a family wage, including many African American women, the rigidly gendered segmentation of the labor force meant exclusion from the affluent life and meaningful work regardless of skill or ability. By studying these policies and the ways in which they circumscribed women’s lives, students learn that Betty Friedan and the women her Feminine Mystique influenced to become politically active were not simply aiming to seek personal fulfillment. By recognizing that activists were seeking to address some of the inequities embedded in the New Deal State, students come away with a fuller understanding of the economic circumstances and limitations that inspired and structured 1960s and 1970s feminism.

2: Rethinking Civil Rights and Rosa Parks

Most students learn about Rosa Parks in elementary school and she remains a key figure in undergraduate courses, but highlighting the gendered dimensions of her actions helps to challenge students’ preconceptions of the civil rights movement and expand their ideas about feminism. Danielle McGuire’s discussion of Parks’s earlier activism—especially her longstanding campaign against the sexual violence toward black women—fundamentally destabilizes ideas about the chronology, dimensions, and issues at the heart of the struggle for racial justice. Looking at Parks in this light also offers the chance to expose students to other African American female activists such as Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Septima Clarke whose activism at the local level played a pivotal role and also served as a key inspiration of many leaders and grassroots organizers in the civil rights and feminist causes. Moreover, asking students to question Parks’s decision to present herself not as a seasoned activist, but rather as a respectable and apolitical seamstress forces them to analyze the benefits as well as the costs of using gendered and classed norms to challenge forms of exclusion and oppression.2

The National Welfare Rights Movement (NWRO) offers another important way to understand the dynamics of gender, race, and class at work in the civil rights movement. The NWRO fused black power and civil rights tactics, sometimes challenging and other times aiming to work within the political system to gain economic justice. Discussing why the NWRO frequently gets left out of the national civil rights narrative and the standard accounts of second-wave activism further helps students to understand the linkages between the civil rights movement and black power. Such a discussion also challenges assumptions that black power activists are primarily African American men and that second-wave feminists are white-middle class women, and shows students the broad spectrum of activists and claims involved in these pivotal social movements.3

3: Economic Restructuring and Family in Crisis

As the 1970s and 1980s have moved from forgotten to pivotal decades in most courses on the post-1945 history, a discussion of the fate of the family wage and changing family structures can help enhance understanding of fundamental changes in both political realignment and everyday life in the United States and further expand students’ understanding of the feminist movements. Pairing primary sources from the so-called “family values” debates from the 1970s and 1980s alongside data on real wages and income, private-sector labor union membership, and the political economy of caregiving work, provides one crucial way to achieve these objectives.

An eye to the increased role of women in sustaining the family economy not only indicates complicated changes in the labor market, but also illuminates how these economic forces have altered gender roles within both traditional and alternative family structures. To maintain their consumption standards, American households in recent decades have had to work more hours and go into debt. Women workers have contributed most of those new hours, and many rightly perceive men’s falling real wages as a loss and the double day of waged work and unpaid caregiving and domestic work as a burden.4

Studying changes in the economy and family structures helps to correct the erroneous belief that it was feminism alone that thrust women across the class spectrum into the workforce in the 1970s. Looking at successes such as the dramatic increase in female professionals, as well as failures like the persistent disparity in pink and blue collar wages can help students understand the incomplete nature of the feminist revolution and the entrenched poverty among single mothers and their children. However, this debate about work and family can also force students to recognize the significant achievements of second-wave feminism and the ways in which it helped introduce key topics about the division of labor and equitable partnerships into public discourse and individual relationships which have had important and tangible benefits to the lives of many men as well as women.

4: The New Gendered Welfare State

Finally, the reconstituted welfare state of the last 20 years cannot be completely understood without using gender as a category of analysis. Examining welfare to work reforms and the rise of mass incarceration reveals how federal policy over the last 30 years has recrafted the gendered assumptions of the New Deal social reform. Specifically, changes in welfare benefits have withdrawn much of the financial support that had been previously allocated to poor women for the caregiving work they performed within their own families. The increasing necessity of full-time paid work for most working and middle class mothers in the 1980s and 1990s led to widespread public support for welfare to work reforms for poor mothers culminating in the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), with a life-time limit of five years. Conservative politicians’ emphasis on marriage as a solution to enduring high poverty among single mothers and their children is a tacit acknowledgement that these welfare to work reforms leave many single women unable to fully provide for their families, even if they are working full time.

Looking at the five-fold increase in incarceration rates since the 1970s, which has disproportionately placed African American and Latino men in prison, helps students recognize the problems with using marriage as the basis for welfare policy as well at the new forms of gender division taking shape. These social policies also mark important changes in Americans’ conceptions of the general welfare and the appropriate scope of government action. Welfare reform and the rise of mass incarceration, therefore, show not just new and deeply entrenched divisions of gender and race, but also that the embrace of the free market and abandonment of a social welfare safety net transcends party lines—though the use of family values rhetoric often deliberately obscures this fact. Studying these developments gives students a more accurate understanding of the labels of Democrat and Republican and liberal and conservative. Examining the bipartisan and gendered dimensions of these attitudes also helps students to understand the new challenges and issues that feminism must address in the coming decades.5


The GI Bill and the growth of suburbia; the civil rights movement; the transformation of the economy and the family values debates, and the implementation of the new welfare state and mass incarceration are all major political developments in the post-WWII United States, and all of them mobilized, strengthened, eroded, or revamped gendered assumptions about the appropriate role of men and women and the role of families in maintaining social stability. Bracketing women’s activism into just one class session misses the opportunity to explore its deeper significance to a wider range of political and economic developments. By utilizing feminism as an analytic category throughout the course, students interested in the history of the post-1945 period better understand the relationships linking social policy, social movements, the changing daily lives of men and women, and how race, class, and gender become interrelated categories of experience.

When this happens, feminism will be understood less as an individualistic quest for personal satisfaction and cultural change, but, rather, as a necessary social movement which emerged when changes in the political economy required a rethinking of survival strategies for people and families being buffeted about by a changing landscape and shrinking economic horizons. This approach can help students move beyond their negative responses to the term feminism. It can help them identify its successes, all too rarely understood, as well as its unfinished business and constraints, without missing its continuing relevance. Most importantly, they will recognize how crucial gender and women’s experiences are to understanding the larger trajectory of American history. Armed with these insights, students may recognize that the personal is political, and conversely, that the political constrains or enables the personal in ways they might well need to more clearly comprehend in order to make sense of the complex world around them.

Tamar Carroll is assistant professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Lily Geismer is assistant professor of history at Claremont McKenna College.


1. Key texts on gender and social welfare policy during the New Deal and postwar eras include Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America (Princeton, 2009); Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003); Nancy Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), Ruth Feldstein,Motherhood in Black and White: Race and Sex in American Liberalism, 1930–1965 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), Linda Gordon, Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare (New York: Free Press, 1994), and Alice Kessler-Harris,In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). See also Joanne Meyerowitz, ed.,Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945–1960 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004).

2. Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Knopf, 2010); Katherine Mellen Charron,Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Charles Payne,I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California, Press, 1997); Barbara Ransby,Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

3. Annalise Orleck,Storming Caesar’s Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006); Felicia Kornbluh, The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); and Premilla Nadasen, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2005).

4. On women’s work and changing family structure, see especially Susan Thistle,From Marriage to Market: The Transformation of Women’s Lives and Work (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) and Natasha Zaretsy,No Direction Home: the American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968–1980 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). For primary sources from the family value debates and an introductory essay placing second wave feminism in the context of women’s activism in the labor, peace, and civil rights movements , see Nancy Maclean,The American Women’s Movement, 1945–2000: A Brief History With Documents (Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2008) . Good overviews of the challenges mothers face in the paid workforce include The American Prospect‘s March 2007 special issue “Motherload,” available at, and Maria Shriver, Heather Boushey and Ann O’Leary, The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything (2009), available at

5. On welfare reform, see Marisa Chappell, The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty and Politics in Modern America (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), Gwendolyn Mink,Welfare’s End (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998). On mass incarceration, see Michelle Alexander,The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010), Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline and Transformation in Postwar American History,” Journal of American History Dec. 2010, 703–734, Bruce Western,Punishment and Inequality in America (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.