Title: Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era
Author: Elaine Tyler May
Year: 1988
Categories: Cultural History, Cold War, Politics, Domesticity, Gender, Suburbanization 
Place: United States
Time Period: 1930s-1960s

Argument Synopsis
Elaine Tyler May traces the rise of a powerful ideology of domesticity and the home in the post-war years that was directly linked to the geopolitical ideology of the Cold War. May argues for the centrality of containment in linking both ideologies: national security depended on domestic stability containing dangerous social forces. This conservative domestic ideology was not a "last gasp" of traditional gendered hierarchies, but a fundamentally new culture that emphasized domestic sexual fulfillment and consumer-oriented personal life that stood as an anchor for the precariousness and instability of global politics.

May begins with an earlier moment of contingency: the Depression Era and World War II years. May argues that the greater individual autonomy of women during the Depression represented a lost opportunity for an alternative ideology to develop along the lines of a "dual breadwinner" model. Instead, New Deal policies did not go far enough to redress workplace gender inequality and popular culture could not reconcile dual identities of mothers and wage-earners. During the war, the large-scale entrance of women into the workplace also represented a chance for greater sexual equality, but ultimately anxieties at the close of the war - nuclear threat, sexual deviance as a threat to American system (often linked to Communism), and dislocations of men returning home from the war front and wanting to reassert their authority - led to women's turn towards the home rather than the workplace. 

May uses a trove of survey respondents from the Kelly Longitudinal Study that tracked couples' answers to a variety of domestic questions over time in order to get at how white, middle-class American couples saw their marriages. Sex became a flashpoint of this new domestic culture. May charts a rising belief that a healthy sex life was crucial for a healthy marriage, but this came with a conservative bent: the containment of pre-marital sexual activity, which, like nuclear power, represented a potentially dangerous force in need of control. She similarly charts the seemingly paradoxical rise in the use of birth control. For May, this was not a radical drive for women's equality or sexual freedom, but instead part of a conservative turn towards wanting a healthy sex life within marriage in a way that heavily regulated by professionalized male doctors. Like sex, consumerism had a central role in this domestic ideology. From the Nixon's "kitchen debate" onwards, American consumerism coalesced into a suburban culture that emphasized access to home-ownership as necessary for all citizens (except, of course, non-whites). May notes that this domestic ideology forced people into making personal adjustments to try to fit within the dominant framework rather than change the framework itself - a trend that continued until the 1960s, when the baby-boomer generation began to challenge this gendered ideology of domesticity. 

Key Themes and Concepts
- Linkage of domestic ideology and culture with political ideology of Cold War
- Depression/WWII offers a chance for alternative dual breadwinning model
- Metaphor and strategy of containment: domestic stability based on ability of home to contain dangerous social forces explicitly linked to national security
- Conservative co-opting of sexuality by emphasizing sexual fulfillment within marriage
- Consumerism rises into a dominant suburban homeowner culture

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U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries by Cameron Blevins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.