Ethel at 100 (part 3): "The Ideal Woman" - Ethel Rosenberg and Women’s Magazines

This is my third blog in a series which uses "Unknown Secrets," a collage by Martha Rosler*, as an organizing principle to explore how the popular press, the prosecution, the defense, supporters, politicians, and the highly charged political and cultural climate influenced how people perceived my grandmother, Ethel Rosenberg.

The first two blogs explored housewives and communists in the kitchen. An additional image surrounding Ethel in Martha Rosler’s collage is of another female icon of the 1950s: a mother with her child. In this case, she’s a well-dressed woman in a white apron, with a young boy clutching her legs. Woman's Day, Seventeen, Vanity Fair and similar publications paid homage to this icon in the covers and stories they published in the early 1950s.

I spent some time as an undergrad at the Schlesinger Library (part of the Radcliff Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University) reviewing the most popular women’s magazines of the early 1950s to get a sense of what women (and probably some men) were reading before, during and after my grandparents’ trial. Of the 12 Woman's Day issues for 1951, eight covers featured photos of children (most with their mother), one pictured a cat, another showed puppies, and two were nature scenes. Woman's Day published a column called "How to be a Girl" which appeared in every issue of the magazine throughout the 1950s. Titles for this section ranged from "Keep Your Emotions in Proportion" in February of 1951 to "Dressing for His Football Games" in October of 1953.

As they still do today, these magazines were selling a very specific representation of womanhood focused on a post-war idealization of the family and kitchen. While reviewing the images of smiling children, happy homemakers, and chipper dogs, I found myself most intrigued not by what these magazines were pushing women towards, but what they were pushing them away from. I believe these magazines created a narrative of deliberately constructed, “proper” roles for women at least partially out of fear of women’s potential acceptance of improper ones. In addition to offering advice on cooking, fashion and child rearing, articles endlessly cautioned women against being too smart, too flirtatious, too demanding.

The fictional stories highlighted in these magazines reinforced these messages.
One example is the story "Reluctant Feet" by Eleanor Griggs, featured in Woman’s Day in January 1950. The clichéd plot revolves around a young girl falling for the older married man who directs her community play. Her childhood friend, the boy next door, has a crush on her, but she ignores him to pursue the forbidden fruit. Not surprisingly, in the end the director leaves, she cries, and then she turns to her steadfast friend.

Despite the melodramatic, unoriginal plot, I was intrigued that the story is told from the point of view of her father as he watches his little girl coping with her first real crush. Her father's first description of his daughter sets up the story while providing fascinating and disturbing insight about his ideal woman:

She was his princess, she was his little beauty--soon to be a grown-up beauty, and he knew he might tease her a little about her manicure (purple nails) but he wouldn't be severe. Here was his ideal woman, the one woman who understood him, as dear as a mother but without the power to discipline [emphasis added].

In the story, he comes home to his wife, who throws herself into his arms and hugs and kisses him, has gingerbread prepared for him, wears a skirt and sweater "better than his daughter" and was considered "too young a type" for the role of the mother in the community play. But it is the man’s daughter who is his ideal woman-as dear as a mother but without the power to discipline.

What did this story and others like them say to women in the 1950s? I think it warns them about the limits of their roles. It cautions them to be cheerful, pleasant, and consistent. An advice column like "Keep Your Emotions in Proportion" doesn't only tell a woman what to do, it steers her away from who she's not supposed to be: Ethel Rosenberg, among others.

We now know that most of the 1950's messages were pure fantasy. For one thing, even though the typical woman in the 1950s was not a spy, many also were not full time housewives. According to Brett Harvey’s The Fifties: A Woman's Oral History, by 1960, there were twice as many working women as in 1940 and the proportion of working wives had also doubled (p. xix). Frank Levy’s study, Dollars and Dreams: The Changing American Income Distribution, confirms this statistic, noting that in 1944, at the peak of women's participation in the war labor market, 35% of women over the age of 14 held jobs (p. 33). According to Levy, this number dipped slightly with the end of the war, but held steady at 31% throughout the post-war years of the late 40's and early 50's before rising again in the 60's. Despite this reality, as Betty Friedan noted in her landmark book, The Feminine Mystique, “In the 1950's women's magazines printed virtually no articles except those that serviced women as housewives, or described women as housewives, or permitted a purely feminine identification,” (p. 52).

A striking example of the power of the cultural constraints on women comes from my grandmother’s therapist, whom she saw before and a few times after her incarceration. As my father and uncle noted in their book We Are Your Sons, when the therapist visited Ethel in prison after a one-year gap in their sessions caused by her imprisonment, he found that she had put away her former "self hatred and misery" and had become "a resolute person” (p. 71). In writing about his mother's development to "resolute person" and emerging writer in his essay “Rosenberg Realities” in Secret Agents: The Rosenberg Case, McCarthyism & Fifties America my father noted "I find it ironic that only my mother's imprisonment gave her the 'freedom' to develop as a writer. This speaks volumes about the 'imprisonment' of many women by traditional sex roles," (page 243).

The advice these magazines offered is clear: It was okay to be a little dumb, often tearful, and always boy-crazy as long as you were a loyal caregiver and homemaker; not powerful enough to discipline anyone or master anything; and certainly not a Communist, let alone a spy.

 

*Martha Rosler's collage was part of the Rosenberg Era Art Project, a collection of art about the Rosenbergs and the 1950s, which resulted in a book and film.

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Comments

The period proceeding WWll was particularly difficult for women. My mom worked in a war plant on navy radios. She was a member of UE union. The day after the war, all the women were fired. They were sent back to the kitchens. My mom was devastated. Working gave her a place and a position of dignity. She was never to work again.

Incidentally, I believe I remember that your grandma wrote the song in prison something about "What Shines from my Cell to Your Lonely Cell, My Loved one." We were all in my family involved in the efforts to save the lives of your wonderful grandparents. Thanks for your keeping this alive for all to learn from.

There was an effort to impose conformity on the rising middle class whose wealth was made possible by the vastly expanded postwar US global empire. The power of consumerism made that conformity seem desirable. At the same time, the new buying power reinforced the dominant ideology of the ruling (and military) class: anti-communism. The line outside of which one could be perceived as weird and not normal was very narrow.

The sixties represented an assault on that conformity, spiritual, political, and cultural. Interestingly, many of the gains of the sixties have been reversed by a new consumerism which made a fetish out of sixties icons and permitted a new wave of commodities to distract the the young and infiltrate the momentum of cultural change, including drugs like cocaine and crack.

For example, who would have thought, after the strong feminism that emerged in the sixties in reaction to female stereotypes, who would have thought that high heeled shoes would again emerge as an attractive commodity, and adorn the advertising pages of women's magazines?

Minority women never accepted this brand of femininity. Black and brown women worked outside the home in the 40s, 50s, and 60s… before that and since that. Immigrant women also worked outside the home. What you are examining is the white, middle class ideal and not the real lives of the majority of women at the time.

Everything you have written is very interesting. I am a retired academic but also old enough to remember well the 1950s. Until faced with divorce in the late 1960s I would never have undertaken graduate education and looking for a university position. When you look at women in the 1950s, should not you consider being Jewish. What did the mean to the image of the ideal woman? What did being a Jewish woman mean to your grandmother? Sheila McCoy

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