- Higher Education for Women in Postwar America, 1945–1965
The decade of the 1950s has become an increasingly interesting period for historians' examination. Part of the fascination is in the growing body of work challenging [End Page 191] earlier assumptions about acquiescence to the status quo and middle-class, suburban self-contentment as reflected in popular culture, including television and film and, particularly, in comparison to reform movements in the 1960s. Historians of women have led the charge to reexamine the whole postwar period with more critical questions about what was occurring in political and social institutions in this period and with greater attention to how such activity was interpreted in its own time, rather than in light of the later period.1 Linda Eisenmann is bringing just such questions to bear on women's education in Higher Education for Women in Postwar America.
Eisenmann situates her study within this body of research on the postwar period and argues that examining the history of women's education in these two decades enables us to understand better how women perceived their own efforts to expand educational opportunities for American college-aged women, while also addressing larger social and cultural issues: the growing need for educated manpower, the cultural demands for safe and well tended domestic spaces on the "home front", and the political concerns about gender roles and national security during the Cold War. She suggests that a focus on education, as opposed to domesticity, the political arena, and the arts, for example, has been largely neglected by historians; addressing this gap in the literature is critical to exploring these "bridge" years, between women's active participation in education, work, and politics from the 1920s to the 1940s and women's increasingly assertive feminist activity of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Two central questions shape her approach: 1) why, even as women's presence on American college and university campuses increased steadily from the middle 1950s did they continue to be treated as "incidental students"? and 2) Why, when faced with a variety of forms of gender discrimination in educational institutions and professions, did educational leaders continue to press for individual solutions to the problems they articulated? The answers lie in the signal contribution of this study: her exploration of what she calls the four overlapping ideologies shaping women's lives from the middle 1940s to the early 1960s; she labels them as patriotic, economic, cultural, and psychological and argues that each sent mixed messages to American women. The patriotic ideology emphasized three foci for women's activity: maintaining a stable domestic environment in a changing and threatening world, with a focus on inuring children to communism and other 'dangerous' doctrines; voting, office holding, and volunteer activism; and fulfilling the national need for womanpower in sciences, nursing, and technology.
The economic ideology encouraged women's increasing work force participation, but characterized women as "less serious, peripatetic workers" (20). Although women were entering pink collar work, union organizing, and industrial labor, the assumption was that the best contribution women could make was to stay home and care for families. As Eisenmann points out, this option was open primarily to wealthy and middle-class women. The cultural ideology reflected the expectation that work could be treated as a temporary activity for women, given their domestic obligations, but that women could enter more public activities if those could be framed as appropriately feminine—in voluntary and civic organizations, in part-time work, as consumers.
The psychological ideology relied on recent developments in the social sciences, but defined women's [End Page 192] psychological health in the context of heterosexual marriage and childrearing. By claiming that such domestic roles were the 'natural' domain of women, psychologists and their popularizers cast feminism as a pathology that could harm both families and the nation and leave women in a state of perpetual neurosis.
Eisenmann skillfully uses this framework of ideologies to examine the organizations that explored women's participation in higher education and the uses women were making of their...