As many of you may already know, the political landscape of the 1940s and 50s United States was marked by high anxiety surrounding the ever-present threat of communism’s spread. The most well-known and visible results of these anxieties were the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate suspected communists and the subsequent rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism, an anti-communist movement that culminated in the televised Army-McCarthy Hearings.1 While the formal era of McCarthyism ended in spectacular fashion with the fall of Senator McCarthy in 1954, there were other, subtler shifts happening across that same landscape that we can still see echoes of in today’s political attitudes and maneuvers.
Most Americans are familiar with images of Rosie the Riveter as a champion of women in the workforce during World War II. It’s also fairly common knowledge that the shift away from so-called “traditional” gender roles that began during WWII and intensified after the war led to the modern feminist movement. The Second World War wasn’t the first time American women entered the workforce in large numbers though – the same thing happened during World War I! So why did the 1940s and 50s usher in a new era of gender relations instead of the 1920s?