The goal of this exercise is to determine whether the realities of women's lives in the 1950s match the idealized view of that time period we have today. Crosstabulation and comparison of means will be used.
Sociologists consider the family one of the most important social institutions, a building block of society. Indeed the family is responsible for the biological and social (re)production of individuals, and it is widely understood that the norms, values, statuses and roles that organize it are designed to meet the wider needs of society.
In the US at the turn of the 21st century, it is not unusual for commentators to lament the collapse of the traditional family, along with the commitments and values that it represented. Many who express concern over the state of the family see women's changing roles as partly responsible for destroying the warmth, security and stability of family life, thereby giving rise to a number of social issues.
Among the traditional images of family that come to mind during these discussions (the strict patriarchal discipline of Colonial families; the gentle domesticity of Victorian families; the tightening of kinship networks during the Great Depression), visions of 1950s family life (informed by reruns of old television series such as Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet) are particularly powerful. Contemporary rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, cohabitation and single parenthood are thus contrasted with the idealized 1950s nuclear family centered around a breadwinner husband and a mother fully absorbed with her homemaking duties.
However research suggests that what we think of as the "traditional" family may have never existed. In this exercise, we will compare and contrast the realities of women's lives in the 1950s to our idealized view of them during this period in American history.
Examples of research questions about the family:
This exercise will use the Growth of American Families, 1955, survey--the first in a series of surveys (later replaced by the National Fertility Survey and the National Survey of Family Growth) that measured women's attitudes and behaviors on various topics related to fertility and family planning. The sample was composed of 2,713 married white women aged 18-39 living in the United States. The survey included the following main subjects: residence history, marital history, education, income, occupation and employment, religiosity, family background, attitudes toward contraception, contraception use, pregnancies and births, fecundity, opinions on childbearing and rearing, and fertility expectations.
This exercise will use the following variables:
For ease of interpretation, recoding variables is sometimes necessary or helpful. (Note: the online analysis package used here requires recoding variables for the sole reason of modifying or adding labels.) The following variables were recoded:
Education and work history
Let us begin by examining respondents' highest level of education, as shown in the crosstab of
Next please turn your attention to the results of the crosstab of
The crosstab with
What reasons did respondents give for working? Examine the results of the crosstab with
Overall do these results paint a picture that is congruent with our view of 1950s women as homemakers primarily?
Respondents were asked how their first marriage ended, if it did. Consider the results of the crosstab with
Looking at the family status of respondents' parents (PAR_FAMSTAT) may help us identify trends and differences. Examine the
Attitudes on childbearing and rearing
Respondents were asked about the ideal number of children for the average American family (ATT_IDEALCH). Responses were coded "10" for "1", "20" for "2", "30" for "3", and so on, therefore numbers in the table should be divided by 10 when reading the results. According to the
Now look at the
Respondents were asked whether raising children was easier or harder than when they were children themselves (PARENTING). According to the
What reasons did they give for their opinion on raising children? Let's look at the crosstab of
The variable SATIS is used to measure respondents' satisfaction with the way their way has turned out. According to the
Think about your answers to the application questions before you click through to the interpretation guide for help in answering them.
What percentage of 18-29 year-olds has only a high school education? Overall, which of the two age groups would you say tended to be better educated? Why should we be careful when drawing conclusions about the younger group's highest level of education?
What percentage of women worked before they were first married? Which age group was most likely to answer "yes" to this question?
What percentage of respondents indicated that they had not worked since marriage? Are there significant differences between the two age groups?
What were the top 5 reasons respondents cited for working? Did both age groups mention similar reasons?
Overall do these results paint a picture that is congruent with our view of 1950s women as homemakers?
Examine the results of the analysis of how first marriages ended. Why is the total number of respondents in this table (bottom right cell) much lower than the total number of respondents in the survey (about 2,700)? Keeping this in mind, how were first marriages most likely to end? For which of the two age groups is this number higher? Are these results what you expected? Why/why not?
What major difference in the family status of the parents of each group do you notice? Recall the results from the previous analysis; do you see a possible trend?
What did each age group indicate as the ideal number of children for the average American family?
How does the number of children wanted change over time? Are there significant differences between the older and younger respondents?
What percentage of the younger age group said it was easier to raise children than when they were children themselves? Were older respondents more likely to say that it was easier or harder?
What are the two most often cited reasons for raising kids being easier? What are the two most often cited reasons for raising kids being harder?
Are the majority of respondents satisfied or dissatisfied with the way their life has turned out?
Things to think about in interpreting the results:
Reading the results:
The goal of this exercise was to compare and contrast the realities of women's lives in the 1950s to our idealized view of them during this period in American history. It is important to note that this survey included only white, married women between the ages of 18 and 40. Therefore the results are not representative of women as a whole and only apply to a very specific, limited segment of this social group. Results suggest that women in the 1950s were becoming better educated, and that the vast majority of them worked, out of necessity as well as for personal reasons. While most marriages were intact, a large and increasing percentage of the marriages that ended, ended in divorce. Women wanted to have fewer children than they thought was the ideal number for the average American family, and fewer still after the birth of their first child -- maybe a reflection of their ambiguity about whether raising children was easier or harder than they expected based on their experiences when they were children themselves. Overall, however, the vast majority expressed satisfaction with their life. These data suggest that the traditional family presented in television shows like Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet was somewhat idealized. That is, the majority of women had worked at some point in their lives, even after marriage. Women tended to marry fairly young but divorce was not as uncommon as one might expect (remember that it is likely underestimated with this sample as the women were still relatively young and raising children when interviewed).
Further research might explore the extent to which the lives of minority and unmarried women differed from those of the women in this survey.