The mid-1900s was a time of constraining and confusing sexual standards. There were many expectations placed on the 1950s woman, and there were many responsibilities she had that her male counterpart did not. A woman was expected to set the limits on appropriate sexual conduct in her dating life, to abide by parietals and restrictions on freedom as a university student, and to marry young and exhibit traditional gender roles in her family life. In specific expectations and limitations women faced, a sexual double standard became obvious: parietals were only imposed on women, only women faced incarceration when suspected of transmitting Venereal Disease, and women were the ones expected to domesticize their roles. Both Elaine Tyler May’s “Explosive Issues: Sex, Women, and the Bomb” and Beth Bailey’s Sex in the Heartland examine the expectations and limitations placed on women during the mid-1900s.
In the first chapters of Sex in the Heartland, Bailey gives multiple examples of expectations and limitations placed on women in the mid-1900s. One of these is the blame placed on female promiscuity for the spread of Venereal Disease in Lawrence, Kansas during the 1940s. In his blog post “Arrest those women” Garret Whitlock explains that “by jailing them for treatment men once again asserted a sort of dominance over their female counterparts… as if women were natural carriers of these VDs and the men who also partake in sexual acts with them were their victims.” Here Whitlock raises a very important point: this incarceration of solely women was an assertion of male dominance, as were the other limitations placed on women during this era. An example of such a limitation is parietals placed on women university students. Bailey explains that the parietals were solely placed on women due to a sexual double standard. Bailey writes that “young men traditionally had far fewer restrictions on their freedom, sexual and otherwise, and because colleges and universities were concerned primarily with controlling their own students, they did not find it necessary to restrict men’s movements” (Baily, 1054). Here, women students are the only ones facing this restriction, reinforcing the idea of male control. Another example of the sexual double standard is in the heterosexual dating culture of this era. In this dating culture, Bailey explains that men and women were labeled inherently different, “with different roles and interests in sex… women were the limit setters and men the aggressors” (Bailey, 1019-1020). Women were given the responsibility of deciding how much sexual contact was allowed, which could be tricky, as “while a girl was expected to “pet to be popular,” girls and women who went “too far” risked their futures” (Bailey, 1029). Any discussion on how men would be seen from acting too sexually, however, is absent. Women were the ones targeted here; women were the ones who would be held responsible.
These are just a few of the examples in Sex in the Heartland of the gendered expectations and limitations placed on women of the mid-1900s. One could go much further into this, looking at the lack of police and administrative response to calls for help from KU women’s residence halls surrounded by crowds of men (Bailey, 603). One could even point to the “Junior Hostess League” and the exclusion of women who weren’t deemed morally upright enough to attend the dances while all men in uniform were allowed. The point of all of this is that women were held to different, and often stricter and less fair standards as men at this time.
In “Explosive Issues: Sex, Women, and the Bomb” May also outlines the responsibilities and limitations placed on women during the mid-1900s. May explains that as a way to contain sexuality, early marriage was encouraged, and “it was the woman’s responsibility to achieve it” with guidebooks stressing “the need for young women to cultivate good looks, personality, and cheerful subservience” if they hope to achieve the goal of finding a husband (May, 159). Not only was a woman expected to marry by a certain age, she was also expected look and act in ways that would help her “achieve” this goal. Beyond the responsibility of achieving marriage, women were expected to take on total domestic responsibility when married. May explains that in “it was up to women to achieve successful families,” and if they succeeded in their motherly duties, “they would be able to rear children who would avoid juvenile delinquency, stay in school, and become future scientists and experts to defeat the Russians in the cold war” (May, 163). Married women were faced with the responsibility of raising the future generation. Here, responsibility placed on the women of this era has a greater national implication. Again, this familial responsibility is that of the woman, and it was an expectation that women of this time would abide by traditional gender roles to fulfill this domestic expectation.
The mid-1900s came with new expectations, responsibilities, and limitations for women. Single women were held to different standards and faced different repercussions than their male counterparts. It is important to note that much of the above discussion applies to the middle class of the era described (other than the point about VD incarceration, in which working-class women were largely targeted). Both Elaine Tyler May’s “Explosive Issues: Sex, Women, and the Bomb” as well as Beth Bailey’s Sex in the Heartland highlight and examine the expectations, responsibilities, and limitations placed distinctively on women during this era.
Bailey, Beth. Sex in the Heartland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
May, Elaine Tyler. “Explosive Issues: Sex, Women, and the Bomb”.
(Note: page numbers for Sex in the Heartland are based off of the e-book version)