Essay about Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound

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Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound

     Elaine Tyler May's Homeward Bound weaves two traditional narratives of the fifties -- suburban domesticity and rampant anticommunism -- into one compelling historical argument. Aiming to ascertain why, unlike both their parents and children, postwar Americans turned to marriage and parenthood with such enthusiasm and commitment, May discovers that cold war ideology and the domestic revival [were] two sides of the same coin: postwar Americans' intense need to feel liberated from the past and secure in the future. (May, p. 5-6, 10) According to May, "domestic containment" was an outgrowth of the fears and aspirations unleashed after the war -- Within the home, potentially dangerous social forces of the new age might be tamed, where they could contribute to the secure and fulfilling life to which postwar women and men aspired.(May, p. 14) Moreover, the therapeutic emphases of fifties psychologists and intellectuals offered private and personal solutions to social problems. The family was the arena in which that adaptation was expected to occur; the home was the environment in which people could feel good about themselves. In this way, domestic containment and its therapeutic corollary undermined the potential for political activism and reinforced the chilling effects of anticommunism and the cold war consensus.(May, p.14)

     May begins by exploring the origins of this "domestic containment" in the 30's and 40's. During the Depression, she argues, two different views of the family competed -- one with two breadwinners who shared tasks and the other with spouses whose roles were sharply differentiated. Yet, despite the many single women glamorized in popular culture of the 1930's, families ultimately came to choose the latter option. Why? For one, according to May, for all its affirmation of the emancipation of women, Hollywood fell short of pointing the way toward a restructured family that would incorporate independent women. (May p.42) Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday and Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, for example, are both forced to choose between independence and a happy domestic life - the two cannot be squared. For another, New Deal programs aimed to raise the male employment level, which often meant doing nothing for female employment. And, finally, as historian Ruth Milkman has also noted, the g...

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...suburban home ownership, they were homeward bound. But, as the years went by, they also found themselves bound to the home." (May p.207)

     In the end, it is clear that in recent decades, the domestic ideology and cold war militance have risen and fallen together. Immediately after World War II, stable family life seemed necessary for national security, civil defense, and the struggle for supremacy over the Soviet Union. For a generation of young adults who grew up amid depression and war, domestic containment was a logical response to specific historical circumstances. It allowed them to pursue, in the midst of a tense and precarious world situation, the quest for a sexually-fulfilling, consumer-oriented personal life that was free from hardship. But the circumstances were different for their children, who broke the consensus surrounding the cold war and domestic containment. Whether the baby-boom children will ultimately be more successful than their parents in achieving fulfilling lives and a more just and tolerant world remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: gender, family, and national politics are still intertwined in the ongoing saga of postwar cultural change.

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