The Glass Ceiling: Were assertive women accepted in the 1950s?
Advertisements in women’s magazines of the 1950s, showed women of the decade, as sparkling eyed housekeepers who wore high heels and party dresses as they mopped their kitchen floors. Are scrubbing and dusting a true form of entertainment and fulfillment? Celina will tell you that cleaning and scouring can be satisfying, but it’s not a lot of fun.
Like Celina, many women of the 50s hoped for additional ways to enhance their lives. Few options existed, and women had to be assertive, as well as tenacious, in order to change the status quo.
In A Woman’s Role, Celina is determined to become a journalist. She may think that she is alone in her quest for a career, but she is not; although few women had bylines in either local or national newspapers.
Groundbreaking writer and activist, Betty Friedan, was nothing if not assertive and resolute. Even as a young girl, she said she had “a passion against injustice.” She carried that passion with her all of her life. After graduating from the University of California, she became a journalist and freelance writer. Through her work, she gained an awareness of women’s issues. In 1957, Friedan conducted a survey among college graduates, and found what she called “the problem that has no name.” Like Celina, there were women who wanted both home and career, but most submitted to the pressure of the times, and gave up their career aspirations. The information Friedan gathered led to the publication of her bestseller, The Feminine Mystique. She spent the rest of her life fighting for justice and equality.
Althea Gibson was a tennis player and professional golfer. She was the first woman of color to win the French Open, in 1956. She was voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press, in 1958. No small feat for a young woman from Harlem who learned to play sports at the Police Athletic League designated play area during the Great Depression. Celina’s family struggled through the Depression. Gibson’s determination enabled her to be the first African-American woman to be part of the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour, in 1964.
Politician, Margaret Chase Smith, served both in the U. S. House of Representatives and the U. S. Senate. Like Celina, she grew up in a small town. Her father owned a barbershop, and her mother worked as a waitress and store clerk. As a young woman Smith taught at a one-room school. She married Clyde Smith, representative from Maine, and followed him to Washington, D.C., working as his secretary. In 1940, when her husband fell ill and passed away, she stepped in and won a special election for his open seat. In 1948, Smith won election to the Senate. In June of 1950, she took the courageous act of speaking against McCarthyism at the time when Joe McCarthy had the power to remove her from the Senate. Smith voted to censure McCarthy in 1954. The Senator from Maine exercised her independent spirit throughout her career.
When speaking of women reporters, who can forget the feisty Helen Thomas? She was one of nine children born to an immigrant family that came from Tripoli, what is now Lebanon. Tomas knew she wanted to be a journalist while she was still in high school. After graduating from Wayne University in Detroit, she obtained her first job as copygirl. In 1943 she joined United Press and reported on women’s issues. By 1955, the year our story takes place, Thomas was covering the U.S. Department of Health and Capitol Hill. She and other female journalists pushed the (men only) National Press Club to admit them to an address given by Nakita Khrushechev. Forceful and unrelenting, Thomas earned the respect given her by the press corps and world Leaders.
The decade of the 50s may have appeared placid and conformist, but women were making it known that they wanted a more equal role in the work place. Celina tells her mother that she read about women stepping out and into careers that had been denied them in the past. Maybe Friedan, Gibson, Smith, and Thomas were among the women who inspired Celina.
What is your view about the roles women were assigned to in the 1950s?