Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. By Elaine Tyler May (New York: Basic Books, 1988). vii + 284 pp. Reviewed by in her book, Elaine Tyler May begins by describing a Life magazine feature involving a couple in 1959 who spent their honeymoon in a bomb shelter. This is the attention-grabbing start of a work that seeks to explore, in depth, the various components involved in domestic life and the regard for its importance in the aftermath of World War II and the start of the Cold War. In the introduction, the author mentions that, more than before or since, people were getting married and procreating, resulting in what is known today as the "Baby Boom."
One possible reason the author offers for the importance attached to the home, family, and gender roles during this time was the American search for security in uncertain times created by war and social and political upheaval. From the information in the introduction of the book, the author is interested in examining existing claims regarding prosperity as a driving force for the turn towards family life during 1940-1960, while also seeking support for her own claim regarding the issue of safety in a tumultuous world. May suggests that the period of investigation is a unique combination of factors that called for a unique and unprecedented response by citizens across the borders of differentiating factors such as race and class.
The author mentions that, although the return of prosperity and peace in the wake of World War II certainly does play a role in driving people to creating stable homes and families, this phenomenon has occurred in history without any concomitant drive to marry and have children. For her thesis, she is therefore searching for something somewhat unique to the period, and she uses the opening image of the 1959 honeymoon couple to demonstrate this. The couple is surrounded by peace and prosperity within the confines of their shelter, but they also acknowledge that the scope of their prosperity is very limited, reaching only as far as the confines of their home and being only as strong as the walls that mark these confines.
As part of this thesis, May uses the term "domestic containment," which refers to the home as a safeguard not only from the after-effects of the war, but also from "social forces of the new age" (p. 14). In other words, there was a kind of dichotomy to break away from the confines of the violent past while trading this for a new type of confinement within the home, were peace, prosperity, and stable family values would prosper. As such, the home offered an arena of private adaptation to the social environment.
May makes the further claim that this tendency towards a conformist type of peace led to the well-known effects of anticommunism and cold war consensus in favor of political acivism or any sort of protest against the powers that be (p. 14)
To support these claims, May uses a total of nine chapters, starting with "containment at home" and using the final chapter to describe the end of containment. Several areas of social and family development are considered within these chapters, one of which concerns the glamorization of single women during the 1930s and 1940s. In terms of the family unit, Hollywood, which exerted widespread influence over the public consciousness of the time, tended to suggest that women had to choose between independence and happy family life. Traditional gender roles within families were therefore strongly emphasized.
World War II and the subsequent threat of nuclaer war further solidified fear and the search for a safe haven from the political upheaval of the time. And increasing number of people turned to the family unit for such safety. Even during World War II, according to May, the drive to establish committed relationships drove procreation.
When she comes to her description of the nuclaer threat, May makes further interesting claims. She furthers her initial claim that the home environment became the location to tame "dangerous" forces, either from a political or social point-of-view. Indeed, atomic power and female sexuality were regarded as equally destabilizing forces, to be kept under containment within the bomb-shelter environment of the home. As such, the initial image of the honeymoon couple in the bomb shelter becomes symbolically significant of the social consciousness of the time. Stability and safety took precedence over all else.
In this portion of her argument, May uses the Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev to lend substance to the idea of connection between the domestic environment and containment. Further, she cites the connections between sexually provocative women and bombs in terms of languag, where a sexy woman (outside of the home environment) was often referred to in terms like "bombshell," "knockout," and "dynamite woman" (p. 110). Indeed, the connection is further substantiated by the hydrogen bomb dropped on the Bikini islands. A photograph of Rita Hayworth was attached to the bomb. Only four days after the bombing, the two-piece swimsuit took its name from the islands to suggest that it had "explosive potential" (p. 111).
The rest of the book demonstrates an interesting dichotomy between the ideas of liberation and entrapment within the home of the fifties. The sublimation and high expectations of sex within the confines of marriage were met with a cruel reality that was bitterly disappointing. Although the culture of the time created an image of sex within the home as something that is both highly desirable and pleasurable, the disappointment when this expectation was not met was mitigated by regarding children and the consumerism created by the needs and desires of the collective family unit as rewards for an otherwise unsatisfactory union (p. 180). Many families searched for a "deeper meaning" within the family unit and in the joys of consumerism, but more frequently than not did not find it. Nevertheless, the family unit remained tightly knit, with women and men carrying on the tradition in union, despite rampant dissatisfaction. According to May, and not surprisingly, this dissatisfaction was particularly intnse for women. Having no other outlet, this female discontent remained contained in the home. The perpetuated forcs of cold war consensus and anticommunism created a social and political atmosphere in which personal experimentation and political resistance were all too likely to be prosecuted as treason. Women were therefore not only the anchors of the home, but were also, as it were, anchored to the home, without any means of escape or broader horizons (p. 207).
The author concludes that the focus on the ideal of marriage and family bliss, with very clearly delineated gender roles, was a "natural" response to the social and political upheaval following World War II and as a result of the cold war. As such, homes played the symbolic role of "bomb shelter." It offered an isolating effect, retaining stability within the home environment in the face of what is regarded as unwholesome social, sexual, and political forces. The fact that there was no escape created a situation in which couples remained together, despite personal disappointment and unhappiness in the face of the betrayed ideals of marriage and sexual bliss. Hence, divorce rates declined not because the couples involved were particularly happy or functional, but because there was simply no other choice.
It was hardly a premise that could continue indefinitely, and the children of 1950s couples, like children do, broke away from the ideals promoted by their parents. In the wake of the many social injustices created by McCarthyism and the oppression of the feminine spirit, the children born to these families broke away and created their own ideals and pursuits. According to May, the success of such endeavors relative to those of the parental home remains to be revealed. In my view, however, this is certainly better than imposing false ideals and expectations, which can hardly be considered preferable to self-fulfilment and freedom, which are the ideals of the young today. Indeed, the many debates around all kinds of freedom after the 9/11 events might be seen as a manifestation of the drive to avoid a return to the 1950s ideal, when there was no debate at all, especially among the white middle class, whose members were safely locked away in their homes against the dangers of the outside world.
Today, we are deprived of our bomb shelters, with no safety either inside or outside our homes. This is perhaps the most prominent insight I received from reading the book. The 1950s have an aura of domestic bliss, but May reveals that this bliss was a veneer for deeper-lying unhappiness and resentment, and an ultimate failure to find meaning first in love and marriage and then in procreation and consumerism. Indeed, I would not have enjoyed being a woman, a person of color, or a person from one of the lower classes in this world. It appears to have held only unhappiness for all involved; even the most privileged…