Rose the Riveter was the symbol of women, called to do men’s work while the men were fighting Nazis and Japs in World War II. All of a sudden, women were men’s equals. But, Rosie’s mother and others of that generation couldn’t vote in this democracy Rosie was helping to defend. All the WACs and WAAFs and SPARs, women in uniform were probably the first females in their families to vote. Wartime empowered these women and made them equals. But, come 1945 and war’s end- the returning men wanted their women the way their fathers wanted their women: subservient, good cooks, good mothers, and obedient to the whims of their husbands. Even the new medium, television, made sure that “Father Knows Best” and that poor Ricky had to rescue his ditzy wife, Lucy, week after week from some embarrassing situation.
It took a while for the relations between men and women to find a more meaningful and equalizing niche. In the meantime, “Beginning in the 1950s….new heroines…were most often young and frivolous, almost childlike; fluffy and feminine, gaily content in a world of bedroom and kitchen” (Davidson para. 4). In addition to Lucy, there was My Little Margie, the Betty White show, the girls from Petticoat Junction and the wife and kids who were beholden to Make Room for Daddy’s Danny Thomas or the foibles of Joan Davis’ character versus her husband, Jim Backus, in I Married Joan. Davidson (2002) considers Harriet to be calm, cool and collected in that long-running family sit-com Ozzie and Harriet, while the forerunner of the Lucy character certainly was Gracie Allen in Burns and Allen, a vaudeville pair which had a successful radio and then television career. Of course, except for Lucille Kallen a head writer on I Love Lucy, there were simply no women involved in writing for films or television at that time. Yet, the best mystery writers were often women (Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Patricia Highsmith).
took more than a decade for the macho Sgt. Friday of Dragnet to meet his feminine match, Angie Dickenson’s Policewoman, to be followed another decade later by the two most familiar female cops- Cagney and Lacey. But even in these cops and robbers television programming, the females were all too often resented and even coddled as females by their fellow male cops. Interestingly enough, except for the character of Cagney (Tyne Daly) on that cops show, none of the women who had jobs equal or nearly so to the men, were married. It was still a time when women in the professions were not really the equal of men, and often seen (even if merely hints) that what they missed most was a husband and kids so they could stay home and keep house.
Over the same period, the movies made in Hollywood basically followed the same format. From courageous women in wartime (Mrs. Miniver, The Doughgirls, Since You Went Away, Casablanca, etc.) to women eagerly bedding their returning husbands to create a family or trying to find a husband, often with comic effects such as American female officer Ann Sheridan bringing her intended, Cary Grant a “European” back to the U.S. on a ship filled with G. I.’s brides in I Was A Male War Bride. If there was a woman (or girl) attempting to stand on her own, it was usually to tragic effects: (Pinky, Mildred Pierce).
What came next was realizing that neither man nor woman can survive a movie plot on his or her own. So, pairings of stars began, often to great success: Bogart and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn and eventually Doris Day and Rock Hudson. However, for the most part, the female was alluring and sometimes even had more than just beauty, but it was still “man chases dreamboat.” It was still that way in real life situations: Men were in charge. Even in similar jobs where women actually managed to climb a little up the corporate ladder, women were still paid less than their male equals. Following World War II, it was generally assumed to turn back into a Man’s World: “The new women did not work ‘except housework and work to keep their bodies beautiful and to get and keep a man'” (Davidson para. 4). And those who tried a career and did not put getting a man as their major priority were spotlighted in comedies like Our Miss Brooks (the maiden school-teacher syndrome),
According to the men in charge of the media- TV as well as magazines and newspapers, their viewers, listeners and readers “no longer identified with career women, no longer red serious fiction, and lost almost all interest in public issues, except perhaps those that affected the price of groceries (Davidson para. 5). A truly damning point of view by the men in command!
This trend continued in the mass media which television was fast becoming, women were in dramas and sit-coms, but not yet allowed to be serious newscasters on national networks. Why, in the early days of television, well before Katie Couric and Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer, among others, there was no credible woman on national television news programming. One reason, as expressed by Aaron Devor (1989) is the patriarchal nature of Americans. “The patriarchal gender scheme currently in use in mainstream North American society reserves highly valued attributes to males…” (Devor 388). This observance of masculinity as positive reinforcement of serious news is not hearsay: “Despite their growing ranks as experts in fields ranging from national security and military spending to technology and health care, women are drasticallyunderrepresentedin the news media as shapers of policy and leading voices of experience and authority on critical issues” (“Jessica” para. 3).
one can literally summarize the decades following the Second World War as being reinforced by men who, returning from war, wanted things back to the way they were. It was a time when husbands still referred to their wives as “the little woman.” Women were loving idolizers of their busy career husbands, or inane comedic counterpoints to men who sometimes, to hilarious effect, could not figure out why they had married those women.
Then along came the female “revolution, perhaps headlined by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique- a means of empowering American women. While there was a radical movement of “bra-burners” this feminine revolution sought and finally achieved some sort of equal rights, politically (NOW) as well as economically. The only problem with this feminine empowerment was that it left out a large segment of American women: “Working women, especially Negro women, labor not only under the disadvantages imposed by the feminine mystique, but under the more pressing disadvantages of economic discrimination. To leave them out of consideration of the problem or to ignore the contributions they can make toward a solution, is something we simply cannot afford to do” (Horowitz 22). African-American women were seen as maids (Beulah) or welfare mothers, but never as equals. That is, until the phenomenon, Oprah, arrived (and remains) an international media powerhouse.
The mass media now features stronger, more meaningful women’s roles- from the President’s press secretary (Allison Janney’s character in The West Wing) to actually a female President (24). In films, too, women are now seen as successful crusaders (Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich). Politically, women are making headway, of course, Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin etc.)
Women’s roles have come a long way from Rosie the Riveter. Still most of the mass media “big money” stars remain men: Charlie Sheen, Ray Romano, Kiefer Sutherland, while women seem stuck either in “reality” shows or talk shows (Oprah, Ellen deGeneris, et al). Women still are not quite on parity, because to many it still is a man’s world.
Devor, Aaron H.: “Becoming Members of Society: Learning the
Social Meanings of Gender” (from Gender Blending:
Confronting the Limits of Duality Bloomington IN:
Indiana University Press, 1989)
Davidson, James West: Chapter Thirteen: “From Rosie to Lucy”
In After the fact, Interactive New York: McGraw Hill (2002)
Horowitz, Daniel: “Rethinking Betty Friedan and the Feminine
Mystique” American Quarterly Magazine online at:
“Jessica: New project addresses lack of women in the media”
accessed May 18, 2010 on