When I write about the superiority of patriarchy as a principle of social and family organization, a lot of people automatically assume I’m arguing for a return to Father Knows Best. While I do think the 50s had a lot going for them, our perceptions of that era (which really includes the early 60s, too) are often obfuscated by the fact that contemporary feminists are, for the most part, culturally ignorant, and only aware of children’s programming of the time. Their concept of the 1950s is limited to the reruns of sitcoms and shows they themselves saw as children in the 70s (I remember the old 50s programming myself). Baby boomer feminists may have the same impression — only people around 70 or above would have been exposed to adult entertainment in the 50s.
Despite the conservative sitcoms and afternoon shows, 1950s entertainment was, in its own way, as subversive as anything we have today. Divorcées were portrayed as glamorous on the silver screen, hypergamy was encouraged by children’s productions such as Cinderella, and leading men were rakish badboys as often as not. Sometimes, when I watch old films from the 50s, I wonder how people today can seriously characterize the era as so “square.” It wasn’t.
The reason people generally behaved in a conservative manner was not because the culture forced them to, but because the hard lessons of the Great Depression and war were such recent memories. Your typical middle-aged man in the 1950s, like my paternal grandfather, had been a struggling youth in the depths of the Great Depression, and young fathers had faced the very real possibility of death in uniform. My 90-year-old maternal grandfather, who flew 32 missions from ’43-’44, watched men burn to death after bailing out of stricken B-17s. My uncle Buddy watched Shanghai burn as Japanese bombed the city, uncle Edgar’s destroyer was bombed and almost sunk, and uncle Barney died in the Philippines. This is the perspective men had at the time. The idea that they could suffer through that and be bossed around in their own homes was unthinkable. Feminists who complain about how oppressed women were in the 50s never would have signed up for what grown men of the time had faced, and most women knew it, so they shut up and did the laundry.
To see things accurately, we must separate the reality from the myth of the 50s. Yes, there was a fair amount of lip service paid to the idea that men ought to be respected as head of household, but the culture was already moving away from that at a rapid pace. There is a constant, unyielding desire in the human heart to be liberated from reality, and to forget hard lessons. Those who sacrifice are always resented, despite our deference to them — we are not by nature an obedient, grateful lot. The decade was merely an interlude; a time of uneasy peace between husbands and wives and fathers and children. Founded on poverty and war, it was not built to last in a growing, increasingly wealthy society.
But what society is built to last without change? I look at what we have today, and the fact that societies never remain the same is one of the few consolations that remains.