Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
Immediately following World War II, many white, middle class families achieved political and economic stability through the benefits granted by the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act. Meanwhile, groups lacking access to said assistance, due to discrimination, countered through creation of the feminist movement, Civil Rights movement and Black Power movement, and response to HIV/AIDS stigmatization. In response to their sense of exclusion and persecution, these leftist movements both garnered public support and legal claims, thus challenging the “traditional family” and sparking concern for the newly imperiled conservative way of life. At the beginning of the post war period, the idea of a single “traditional family” structure was created through institutional support, but due to progressive social movements, has ceased to exist, over time, as women have entered the workplace, homosexuality has become more visible, and single motherhood, especially among African American women, has increased.
The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, also known as the GI Bill, was implemented in 1944, by president Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to reintegrate troops in to society. The GI Bill offered cash payments for tuition and living expenses, low-cost mortgages, low-interest business loans and one year of unemployment benefits. Although this piece of legislation is typically seen as having mainly positive effects, such as strengthening the economy through more people earning a college degree and the boom of the suburbs, it did have limitations on the grounds of class, race, gender and sexuality. These limitations created a power imbalance during the post war period based upon economic inequality. For example, many working class veterans attended vocational training, instead of college, and still struggled to get loans without sufficient capital. Regarding race, many African American veterans were dishonorably discharged. In the rare case that they did enroll in college (5%), many were faced with discrimination or focused on low-wage training jobs. Traditionally African American colleges, such as Howard, were overwhelmed by the demand. Furthermore, in housing, African Americans often faced redlining, which prevented them from getting loans in “high-risk” neighborhoods, even if they qualified for mortgages.
Regarding gender, women’s participation in the military was capped to 2% of men’s up until 1967. Instead, many served in the WAC, WASPs or WAVES and were not guaranteed access to the GI Bill. In order to gain benefits, women would have to prove a lack of a male breadwinner in their homes. Additionally, they were not considered part of the army when applying for higher education and were denied mortgages on the basis of “unstable” wages. Furthermore, many white women working industrial jobs during WWII, also known as Rosie the Riveters, lost their jobs as companies were required to rehire veterans. These women then either returned to being full-time stay-at-home mothers or pursued pink-collar jobs, like secretaries or clerks. Homosexuals were similarly denied benefits after being given a “blue” discharge, for having “undesirable traits or character.” The GI Bill assisted in establishing the traditional family structure in America as one based around a heterosexual marriage between two white, middle class individuals: a breadwinning father and stay-at-home mother.
During this age of rapid suburbanization and mass consumption, the conventional, heterosexual, and nuclear family structure was considered a critical defense against communism during the Cold War. By way of illustration, in July of 1959, vice president Richard Nixon debated Soviet Premier Khruschev on the merits of capitalism versus those of communism, in a model home located in the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park in Moscow, Russia. During this event, which came to be known as the Kitchen Debate, Nixon cited the life of a steel worker and his wife as an example of the success of capitalism. He explained how new “time- saving” appliances like washing machines make the lives of American women, whom he considered to all be housewives, easier. During this time period, there was a strong association between a woman’s work status and her femininity. American propaganda portrayed Russian women as “manly” and being “exploited” by indolent communist men. The United States government stuck to a narrative in which women need to be “protected” and should be submissive to their husbands in order to be considered attractive. This ideology severely limited women’s employment opportunities.
In addition to being detrimental to women, rigid gender roles placed undue stress on men. For example, in Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman becomes so raveled up in his role as “breadwinner” that it ultimately leads to his undoing. Obsessed with status, Willy strives to be “well-liked” (Miller, p. 33) and pretends that he is wealthier than he is. For instance, when he sees his wife, Linda, mending stockings, he yells at her claiming they can buy new ones (Miller, p. 39). Similarly, Willy is critical of his son, Biff, for not making anything of himself, as it is reflective of Willy’s own shortcomings (Miller, p. 16). Ultimately, Willy spends his whole life as a hardworking salesman in order to pay off his house, only to commit suicide before his “American Dream” can be realized, thus begging the question of whether or not it is even worth pursuing (Miller, p.137-8). In failing to achieve this “American Dream” for his family, Willy does not measure up to the standards of “masculinity” in the late 1940s.
This patriotic entrenchment of gender roles was challenged in 1963, with Betty Friedan’s publication of The Feminine Mystique. Through this book, Friedan discussed the “problem that has no name” or women’s dissatisfaction with being housewives and mothers exclusively. Although Friedan did not call for a complete upheaval of gender roles, she did suggest a balance between responsibilities at home and part time employment or volunteering. Furthermore, she created an opportunity for dialogue on such topics, which would be readdressed during the feminist movements, in which experiences originally believed to be private matters were politicized. For instance, in 1968, Kathie Sarachild held the first “consciousness-raising” meeting, during which women would confidentially discuss issues such as domestic violence, rape, desires to work outside of the home, and sexuality.
Sexuality had been appearing more in public dialogue in the 20 years prior, since the introduction of the Kinsey Scale, which claimed that sexuality is not discretely split between heterosexual and homosexual; instead it is a gradient. That being said, during this era, it was still particularly challenging to “come out,” especially with the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which first appeared among gay men in 1981. Many conservatives thought the disease, originally named Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), was a form of divine intervention. As Pat Buchanan, of the Moral Majority, writes, gays “have declared war on nature.” The effects of this rhetoric are seen in Fun Home, a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, in which she tells her story of embracing her own sexuality, while her father, Bruce, suppresses his due to living in a small, conservative town for his entire life (Bechdel, p. 125) and due to the stigma surrounding the few openly gay people prior to the Stonewall riots (Bechdel, p. 105). Ultimately, Bruce’s repression provokes him to have affairs against his wife (Bechdel, p.100) and even to molest teenage boys (Bechdel, p. 161). In response to said HIV/AIDS-based discrimination, PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) was founded. For one of the first times, homosexuals were viewed as part of a family (not as opposition to family), a development that grew with legalization of gay marriage through Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).
Similarly, many individuals—but particularly women—were excluded from successfully establishing a family within the United States based upon race and class. For instance, “consciousness-raising” groups often required regular attendance at meetings and the ability to send one’s husband out of the house, which many African American women could not commit to while working long hours and with a lack of substantial capital. Moreover, certain issues affected African American women overwhelmingly, such as forced sterilization. One example of the government’s attempt at this limiting of reproduction, especially of “undesirable” groups, occurred in 1973, when Minnie Lee (age 14) and Mary Alice Elf (age 12) were told they were being placed on birth-control but were actually sterilized unknowingly. As a result, their mother brought a case, Relf v. Weinberger (1973), to court and won, requiring that doctors obtain “informed consent” prior to sterilization. African Americans, particularly women, were targets of this sterilization due to stigma regarding single, female-headed households and poverty.
Reproach of these single, female-headed households is illustrated through Assistant Secretary of Labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s publishing of The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965) in which he explained that single motherhood is the reason why many African American children of the time could not reach success. He even went so far as to suggest taking away jobs from African American women. This narrative worsened in the 1980s when the false idea of a “welfare queen,” or a non-working mother becoming wealthy from government aid, surfaced. In 1984, on Good Morning America, president Ronald Reagan even went so far as to state that many people in poverty were “homeless by choice.” In reality, many poor people were displaced from their homes due to “gentrification,” or the purchasing and renovation of property in urban areas. Contradictory to the rhetoric of apathy, the Black Panther Party, typically associated with militancy due to its advocacy for armed self-defense in response to police brutality, established “Survival Programs” including a free school breakfast program, clothing donations, free ambulance services and treatment for sickle cell anemia. Continuing on this basis of self-reliance, Ella Baker, a grassroots organizer of the Civil Rights movement, proclaimed that dependence on Civil Rights leaders outside of actual community life reinforces an individuals’ sense of helplessness. She advocated for personal dedication to the cause, stating “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” Despite lack of institutional support, African American activists displayed their capability to care for their own families and communities.
After such rapid and broad change, many conservatives became concerned that their conventional view of family was under siege. One such conservative activist is Phyllis Schafly. In 1972, she founded the organization “The Eagle Forum,” an umbrella organization for her voting campaign, “Stop ERA.” The goal of this movement was to vote down the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have granted “equality of rights under law, regardless of sex.” Schafly was concerned that this amendment attacks family through denying the roles of wives and mothers, encouraging abortion, and resulting in increased frequency of homosexuality. Anita Bryant echoed similar concerns with her “Save our Children” campaign (1977) through which she successfully repealed a local ordinance in Dade County, FL that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. She argued on the platform that gay and lesbian school teachers would “recruit” the children of traditional families due to their inability to biologically reproduce. Conservative proponents often viewed liberal efforts to be an attack on their own values, rather than an alternative for those excluded under the preexisting model.
Economically, similar conservative fears of upheaval surfaced. Led by conservative senator from AZ, Barry Goldwater, and supported by conservative youth movement, “Young Americans for Freedom,” Proposition 13 was passed as part of a larger tax revolt. Wealthy homeowners, frustrated at the tax burden shifting from businesses onto them, called for lower property taxes. Unfortunately, this legislation led to a lack of tax revenue, which had previously paid for public schooling, resulting in economic disparity. The use of Reaganomics only worsened this issue as the richest 1% of Americans owned 40% of the country’s wealth. This economic plan cut taxes, especially for businesses and the wealthy, which led to a rise in the stock market and an expanded economy. However, minorities were negatively affected by the policy’s deindustrialization and decreased government spending on social services. Essentially, the upper class (typically white men) became wealthier as the lower class (typically African American women) became poorer, thus amplifying the established power dynamic. Reaganomics functioned on a false narrative of wealth as solely the results of one’s efforts, ignoring the obstacles caused by decades of discrimination.
Succeeding World War II, the traditional, white, patriarchal, middle class family structure offered steadiness to conservative ideals and thus was given preferential treatment while excluding unconventional individuals and relationships. In response, groups such as women, African Americans, and homosexuals formed movements and fought legal battles in order to establish their “legitimacy” in American politics. Although this issue is still prevalent today, the qualifying characteristics have expanded to discussions regarding country of origin and method of arrival. This trend can be seen through the debate over DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which grants work authorization and temporary deportation relief to the children of undocumented immigrants. Similarly, there has been an increase of Islamophobia since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as seen by the enactment of “Anti-Sharia” laws despite lack of evidence of this actually being a threat. Ultimately, the definition of an “American family” is always changing, and despite attempts at suppression by threatened institutions, will continue to diversify and become more inclusive, given the continual persistence of underrepresented groups and their allies.