This is part one of a two-part series about gender roles during the Cold War. View part two here.
Discrimination and Civil Rights were a hot topic during the Cold War. Gender roles, relations, and attitudes have been subject to change with respect to the historical context and events that take place. Because the United States retained Victorian values from England regarding how men and women should behave, it is no wonder that the drastic changes leading up to the 1970’s resulted in numerous issues with respect to what was socially acceptable. This sample sociology paper explores how gender stereotypes were impacted by the Cold War.
Cold War era changes to gender roles and intimacy: Bodily control, sexual power & homosexuality
As socially constructed notions of what was considered normal and abnormal developed in the pre-Cold War era, major facets of gender roles and intimacy like sterilization, contraception, sexual power and homosexuality experienced a wave of extremes in which what was considered either right or wrong in one era shifted to the other end of the spectrum. While men were subject to the changes that took place throughout the Cold War era, women’s roles and their experiences with intimacy changed much more significantly. Various historical factors, as evidenced by scholarly, media and sociological sources, played a role in shaping how gender roles and intimate relationships changed. Although women’s gender roles shifted towards more equality and sexual power during this time period, a socially constructed attitude of disapproval towards homosexuality did develop.
In order to show how intimacy and gender relations changed in the course of the twentieth century, it will be important to understand the historical context of the previous century and how those values came to be challenged. The nature of relationships and development of a pleasure based society will be discussed. Next, the relationship between biological factors and socially constructed ones will address how much of the changes in the twentieth century reflected a shift in the way that people perceived sexuality and defined normality.
Women’s roles within the family unit and how intimacy was moderated and defined will show that social attitudes towards egalitarianism were being challenged by women who began to express disdain for socially defined roles and its implications on daily life (See sexual double standard). Next, three major areas of change will be discussed and related to key historical points in showing that gender relations and intimacy were becoming less and less polarized as in previous years. Sterilization, sexual fidelity, and homosexuality will make up most of the evidence and give key insight into how these factors built a foundation for the modern age of gender relations and intimacy that we have today. Finally, a brief discussion will follow that reflects on how these drastic changes were ultimately a product of social construction and historical context.
Gender relations before the Cold War
Traditional gender relations and interactions among men and women were indicative of Victorian conventions before the twentieth century. Society was characterized by very different spheres of gender conformity. At this time, relations between men and women were not even oriented towards pleasure. To exemplify, Jonathan Katz argued in The Invention of Heterosexuality:
“The human body was thought of as a means towards procreation and production; penis and vagina were instruments of reproduction, not of pleasure” (Katz 349).
Essentially, men and women joined together for the sake of resources, raising a family and general conformity. Even the normal connotation of being heterosexual was not widely used (Katz). Consequently, men and women viewed intimacy as an inherent, but not necessary, part of dating. Couples still engaged in arrangements that would benefit each other’s parents and extended families. This was a longstanding tradition related to medieval times. Ultimately, gender roles and intimacy were driven by the need to share resources and reproduce in order to have healthy children.
Intimacy as a secondary facet of gender relations
Intimacy and gender relations among the sexes also reflected rigid boundaries in which men and women still had distinct spaces, both emotionally and socially. Women relied on one another for support networks that would not be evident within relationships with males. In hindsight, this could be interpreted as a form of homosexuality that was socially acceptable, despite the historical context of acting in a conservative fashion. For instance, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg remarked in The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America:
“American society was characterized in large part by rigid gender-role differentiation within the family and within society as a whole, leading to the emotional segregation of women and men” (9).
This allowed women to make strong intimate relations with other women, although this did not necessarily denote homosexual behavior. Again, because the historical context fostered intimate relationships based on the premise of resources and reproduction, men and women retained their own support networks and distinct identity outside of their relationship.
Lack of gender abnormality
It is also important to understand that sexual abnormality in terms of gender relations was not clearly defined. While the Kinsey reports of the twentieth century epitomized society’s attention towards defining normal behavior, this was not the case for generations before that. Smith-Rosenberg asserted that while the latter Cold War period viewed
“Human love and sexuality within a dichotomized universe of deviance and normality,” this sort of attitude “[was] alien to the emotions and attitudes of the nineteenth century” (8).
So, while there was surely a polarized distinction between gender roles and expectations of men and women, there were fewer societal norms and controversies over sexuality. This defined intimate relationships between couples as a very straightforward and simple concept. Women could express strong emotions and feelings towards one another without the duress of potentially breaching social norms and mores.
The changing social construction of gender roles
Sexuality, gender relations and roles began to be more explicitly defined before the Cold War began because society began to socially construct what was normal and abnormal. According to Katz, the theme of normality began to take shape in the early twentieth century. When Sigmund Freud began publishing works that went into more detail regarding normal and abnormal behavioral traits related to sexuality, a polarization began to emerge. Social Darwinism also contributed to this change in attitudes towards gender roles, people and identity. Sterilization of individuals heavily stemmed from the ideas of Francis Galton, who argued that social ills could result from characteristics transmitted genetically among ‘unfit’ populations” (Lerner 280). Because of such views regarding what traits were normal and abnormal, people were sterilized unwillingly and forced to conform to society’s new expectations or face discrimination or alienation. This relates to intimacy and gender relations mainly because normal behavior began to take more distinct forms in society’s view with respect to males and females. It also acted as a catalyst for change because behavior and interaction among the sexes was characterized by more complex criteria such as personal affection and the need for egalitarianism.
Sterilization of individuals heavily stemmed from the ideas of Francis Galton, who argued that social ills could result from characteristics transmitted genetically among ‘unfit’ populations” (Lerner 280). Because of such views regarding what traits were normal and abnormal, people were sterilized unwillingly and forced to conform to society’s new expectations or face discrimination or alienation. This relates to intimacy and gender relations mainly because normal behavior began to take more distinct forms in society’s view with respect to males and females. It also acted as a catalyst for change because behavior and interaction among the sexes were characterized by more complex criteria such as personal affection and the need for egalitarianism.
The advent of consumer culture, social reform movements and the role of women during the World Wars defined sexuality in a new context during the Cold War era. Katz argued that consumer culture was a major reason that intimacy began to shift towards emotion and eroticism as opposed to Victorian conventions. As society had more free time for leisure, shopping and consumption, secondary needs like sexuality became more important. Consequently, women began to dress differently, engaged in men’s activities like sports and had much more fidelity to choose a partner based on personal choice. Also, female sexuality in terms of behavior was beginning to be socially constructed based on what society felt was appropriate, even if that meant a backlash (Smith-Rosenberg). Social reform movements such as America’s role as a protectorate of freedom challenged standard notions of equality. As America swore to protect democracy internationally, the world looked upon a nation that still segregated people by race and treated women as second class citizens. As women contributed to a traditionally male workforce during the World Wars, the conservative “cult of domesticity” mindset came under duress (Katz 352). As a result of these factors, gender roles and intimacy was subject to interpretation from the lens of social construction rather than just biology.
Implications and Results of Changing Values
This is the second of a two-part post on changing gender roles and the Cold War. This historical analysis of gender roles during the Cold War explores how changing policies, improved international relations, and war efforts impacted gender roles.
Sterilization and bodily control
Radically different views on sterilization, contraception, and legislation over the body fostered the view that intimacy was within women’s sphere of control. The notion of control over one’s body was evident with regards to sterilization and the Supreme Court’s upholding of the statute in 1927 via Buck v Bell (Lerner 282). Because of this, Lerner cited that the nation:
“Performed 27,210 [sterilizations] between 1929 and 1941” on women without consent (282).
However, after during the Cold War, this was overturned and by the 1970’s it was viewed as archaic and highly unethical. Tracy Clark-Flory further argued that sterilization is still an unresolved problem even today. The transition towards an unethical viewpoint still reflects a major paradigm shift in terms of gender roles and identity because women have the capacity to control their own bodies. Clark-Flory’s assertion that there is still intense debate over legislation regarding women’s bodies also shows that personal and intimate matters such as abortion rights, sexuality and reproduction are a source of control for women (3). This implicated intimate relationships through the Cold War because society began to socially construct attitudes that were favorable to women as being the sole decision makers of their own bodies.
Changing views on contraception also fostered tendencies to be more sexually open and promiscuous as an accepted mode of behavior. For instance, Margaret Sanger’s The Case for Birth Control in 1917 showed how the pre-Cold War era showcased women that utilized arguments based on scientific appeal. In her nine points that lamented the need for population control, health and safe sexual practices, Sanger took an approach that distinctly addressed society’s needs; to exemplify, one point read that “Children should not be born to parents whose economic circumstances do not guarantee enough to provide the children with the necessities of life” (Sanger 312).
Because women like Sanger had to base their argument against society’s perception towards values of piety, the female body was not fully in control of women. As a result, during this time women were subjected to limitations over themselves and their intimate behaviors with men. However, broader acceptance of contraception and control over one’s body led to women embracing their own sexuality as a personal choice throughout the Cold War. Intimate relations between the sexes were therefore shifted towards women having a choice over sexual partners and their ability to reproduce at their own discretion. Such a shift redefined gender roles in favor of women having power over intimacy and sex without consequences such as pregnancy. Consequently, society accepted women’s control over sex as a determinant of how active and open they wanted to be.
Women’s new power roles
Gender roles and intimacy were also affected by the fact that women were finding themselves much more capable of power and choice over male partners through the Cold War. The fidelity to act how you wanted was a core value that shifted over time and made its way into the socially constructed view sexual relations. For example, Lesley Gore’s 1964 song You Don’t Own Me epitomized both intimate and social freedom that was not evident before the Cold War. While lyrics such as “Oh, I don’t tell you what to say. I don’t tell you what to do. So just let me be myself. That’s all I ask of you” would have been considered insubordinate and outright controversial in the early twentieth century, the tide had shifted towards women having tangible power as a gender (Gore). This fidelity to behave openly without male control reflected stronger notions of egalitarianism, equality, and freedom.
Another example of media before the Cold War sharply shows the transition of social values towards women’s power in intimate contexts: Raoul Walsh’s 1944 film, Uncertain Glory. In this film, the main character’s intimate relationship with the girl he falls in love with is tainted with his lies and freedom to do as he pleases. Such a romanticized view of intimacy and men’s power over women reflects how socially constructed values of male dominance and control were normal. However, even by this time, there was evidence of women having developed intimate power through sexuality. For instance, in a scene where the detective was chasing Picard, Inspector Bonet remarked to the man:
“You’ve always had two great weaknesses: women and Bonet” (Uncertain Glory).
While this scene was oriented towards the Inspector’s vigor in catching his suspect, the notion of the male having a weakness towards women exemplifies the way in which women were portrayed as having social power in mainstream culture. Also, the fact that the archetypical ‘bad-guy’ was swayed to do good by the influence of an innocent girl shows that women were personified as having a gender identity indicative of power.
Homosexuality, alienation, and dissent
Despite the social construction of gender relations with women having power over men, sexuality shifted towards being a personal choice subject to sharp criticism. Again, this process of clearly defining normal versus abnormal behavior did not begin until the twentieth century. Despite the fact that women could previously engage in close intimate contact with other women without much criticism:
“In the twentieth century a number of cultural taboos evolved to cut short the homosocial ties of girlhood and to impel the emerging women of thirteen or fourteen toward heterosexual relationships” (Smith-Rosenberg 27).
The socially constructed view that being heterosexual was the normal and de facto lifestyle compromised the gender identity of both males and females. In essence, intimate relationships of this kind were seen by society with disdain and criticism as complex arguments from religious groups, political parties, and conservative parents took hold. So, while society came to accept that homosexuality did take place throughout the Cold War, this facet of social customs did not embrace it without backlash. This affected intimate relationships among the sexes because social disapproval often led to dissent.
Audre Lorde’s life as an activist and poet gave testament to the kinds of implications such changes in socially constructed attitudes had. For instance, while Lorde’s poetry was an expression of values she held, she acknowledged that being a lesbian was a difficult gender identity to have. Lorde lamented how she might have to face the same social alienation and loneliness as her friend in Sisterhood and Survival:
“And I often think of her, dying alone in an apartment in New York City in 1958, while I was a young black lesbian, in isolation not too far away…” (6).
As her gender role was heavily criticized by society because of her choice of intimate partners, she was subject to facing serious shortcomings in her quality of life. Such a shift towards society’s inability to accept homosexuality resulted in her dissent and devotion to addressing the issue. Such attitudes and criticisms of sexuality were not a prominent facet of pre-Cold War gender relations while they emerged as a major issue in the latter years of the twentieth century.
Understanding gender roles during the Civil War
Gender roles surely diverged away from Victorian standards of conduct throughout the Cold War era. This radical transformation mainly affected women’s gender roles as they experienced more equality, sexual power and control over their bodies. However, negative views of homosexuality were shown to have developed as a socially constructed attitude not present in the pre-Cold War era. Before the twentieth century, reproduction was considered to be a matter of simply acquiring resources and having children as an end in itself. However, the twentieth century showed that intimacy began to develop as a major requisite for choosing a partner. Gender role with respect to sexual abnormality was not widely discussed as the term heterosexual was not even a widely used concept. Social Darwinism, the work of Freud, consumer culture and social reform showed to be key catalysts in the changes that would take place during the Cold War era.
As sterilization was outlawed for its unethical uses, women began to have more control over their bodies. This was also the same time that contraception had become accepted as a common and widely used practice. These factors gave women more control over their bodies and resulted in newly found gender roles that included sexual power and more choice over intimate partners. Examples from the media such as songs and movies showed how this change slowly came to be socially acceptable. Core socially constructed values regarding sexual activity, women’s equality, and expression were redefined to include more control. However, it was shown that because negative attitudes towards homosexuality developed, conflicted gender roles resulted in experiences of dissent and alienation.
Clark-Flory, Tracy. ” Is forced sterilization ever OK? – Salon.com.” Salon.com. N.p., 11 Feb. 2011. Web. 5 Aug. 2012. .
Gore, Lesley. “You Don’t Own Me.” Run Bobby, Run. Mercury, 1963. 7”.
Katz, Jonathan. “The Invention of Heterosexuality.” Major problems in the history of American sexuality: documents and essays . New York, NY: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2002. 348-355. Print.
Lorde, Audre. “Sisterhood and Survival.” The Black Scholar March/April (1986): 5-7. Print.
Pham, Hoangmai, and Barron Lerner. “In the patient’s best interest? Revisiting sexual autonomy and sterilization of the developmentally disabled.” West J Med 175.4 (2001): 280-83. Print.
Sanger, Margaret. “Margaret Sanger Argues â€œThe Case for Birth Control,” 1917.” Major problems in the history of American sexuality: documents and essays. New York, NY: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2002. 311-13. Print.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” Signs 1.1 (1975): 1-29. Print.Uncertain Glory. Dir. Raoul Walsh. Perf. Errol Flynn, Paul Lukas. Warner Bros., 1944. Film.