World War II produced a fracture in American society. While men created their own social order at the front, women revolutionised their role at home.
The war put soldiers in an environment that forced them to redefine the characteristics that were useful in a man: courage and bravery, physical prowess, strategic thinking and, not least, the ability to successfully use violence to achieve a particular goal.
The men who survived the war and went back home had become very skilful in these fields, but once home, they discovered what were chief skills in the fight of survival at the front, were utterly useless, when not even considered dangerous and undesirable in a peaceful society.
At the same time, the war effort had pushed many women out of the house and into the workforce. Since men were at the front, women were not only allowed, but outright encouraged to replace men in positions that had never before been available to them. The ardent response of the American women to the war effort to some degree reflected a pervasive frustration with their traditional genre assignments. When given the possibility, women searched for even limited amount of autonomy and self-reliance. Their place in American society was transformed forever.
All through the war years, the social role of men and women evolved in very different directions, and when veterans went home, and those two worlds found themselves together once more, they didn’t match anymore.
This created uncertainty, anxiety and a powerful sense of confusion, on the part of both men and women. It was what people cared about. Creative people caught on these feelings and transformed them into new forms of entertainment.
Film noir was one of these new forms, one that spontaneously arose from the cultural and social environment.
In film noir, men tried to use the skills they learned at the front. Tries to be cool and professional. They often ended up in very uncomfortable positions, unable to effectively handle the situation and sometimes caught in plots on which they had no control.
Because film noir mostly took up the male perspective, women were frequently portrayed disparagingly. They became duplicitous vixen, sexually powerful and poisonous to the men. And this is, of course, a transfiguration of the anxiety the shifting role of women was projecting on a changing society.
Although in a completely transformed look, film noir truly speaks of the anxiety of a generation, of the confusion and the uncertainty to which it could offer very little solutions.
Mildred Pierce (1945) by Michael Curtiz
When Mildred Pierce’s (Joan Crawford) wealthy husband leaves her for another woman, Mildred decides to raise her two daughters on her own. Despite Mildred’s financial successes in the restaurant business, her oldest daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), resents her mother for degrading their social status. In the midst of a police investigation after the death of her second husband (Zachary Scott), Mildred must evaluate her own freedom and her complicated relationship with her daughter. (Google synopsis)
The Glass Key (1947) by Stuart Heisler
Political boss Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) falls for reform politician Ralph Henry’s attractive daughter Janet (Veronica Lake), despite the caution of his best friend, Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd). Paul’s efforts to disassociate himself from the criminal underworld backfire, however, when he is accused of murdering Janet’s disreputable brother, and a casino owner Paul had offended sends his sadistic thugs after Ed in revenge. (Google synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
Scott Snyder, Personality Disorder and the Film Noir Femme Fatale, University of Georgia, 2001
Thinking back to growing up in the 1950s, most of the women in my neighborhood worked outside of the home. Anyway, I’ll have to look for some of the films you mentioned above.
It’s been a revolution that happened in steps that started way back in the XIX century. Slow moving, I agree, but move it did 😉
Whether or not women worked actually depended more on social class than anything else. Wealthy women didn’t work and middle class women were encouraged not to (in fact the suburban craze after WW2 in part was to separate women from where they could get work and stay at home, but you had to be middle class to afford to live there). Poor women (especially immigrants and women of color) have always worked to support their families–they had to. It was that or starve.
That’s parcially true. But the revolution that started in the 1920s was exactly that: even middle class women started to work and it became increasingly acceptable… as long as it was understood that they would stop working as soon as they got married.
working class women had always worked – because they needed to. But middle class women started to work because they ‘wanted’ to. That was the revolution.
How true about the women and the men and how much their lives were changed after WW2 . I think of The Best Years of Our Lives. They rarely talked about PTSD either. I do love Mildred Fierce:)
PTSD wasn’t considered a health condition back then, though shell-shocking had started been considered a illness after WWI. This is how I undertand it.
And I imagine the war how it became from WWI onward really was something more horrifying than it used to be.
I couldn’t help thinking as I was reading this that the divide between men and women (or in some cases today women and men depending on who is the one in the service) is still there in some regards. When a woman (or man) has been left at home with the family for extended periods of time and they set up a routine with that parent functioning as the one in charge, then the spouse comes home and all hell breaks loose because the home routine gets threatened and the serviceman or woman doesn’t know quite how to react. We watched that happen to some friends of ours. They were not able to over come the damaged the extended absences caused and eventually they divorces. It has just morphed into something a little bit different.
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Thanks so much for contibuting this, Cheryl. I had not considered the matter quite like that, but I now see the truth of it.
Human relationships are so complicated.
This post is so insightful! I did not know a lot about it! Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for stopping by 🙂
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It’s kind of sad, really, the worlds of men and women evolving differently during the war. I mean it makes sense, and good in that it led to women becoming more independent. But it’s sad that it took a terrible war to make it happen, and that it couldn’t happen with the men at home. But then I suppose significant change will always require a significant catalyst.
It may be true that this kind of change might have not happened for a long time if not for the war. Besides, another big change in this regard happened in the 1920s, and there had been a war (a World War) then too.
You’r eprobably right: significant change will always require a significant catalyst.
Never read about world war in that way. Thanks for sharing.
Happy you found it interesting, Upasna. And thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
Hi Jazz – so interesting to read … and thinking back on my parent’s life – I know my mother wanted to be a doctor .. but I suspect it was suppressed by my father’s family – the wives didn’t work and we weren’t in a town. Also reading about First World War women essentially doing everything a man had done – running the railways, playing football – yet at the end of the war they were ousted … today it seems extraordinary – how intolerant so many are … and how we don’t seem to be able to integrate comfortably and accept women are as good as men – and deserve to be allowed to do their thing too even if steps on a few male toes … cheers Hilary
A similar thing happend after WWI too. Wemen started working out of the house because men were not awailable, then when veterans came back there was a tension between them wanting a job back and women wanting to retain theirs.
I’m under the impression that back in the 1920s the tention was a lot weaker than in the 1940s, at least in America. I mean, in spite of the scandal, flappers were generally accepted ino society. The image of women became energetic, certainly they didn’t become femme fatale. It would be intersting to investigate why.
It’s crazy how quickly the world change during the WW2 years. I mean, the world changes quickly today, too, but we often look at the past at long stretches of nothing, highlighted by occasionally little blips of interest. But those 6 years or so in the mid-twentieth century had such a staggering effect worldwide (killing tens of millions of people will do that) that we’re still dealing with today.
There’s a dabate among historians that WWI and WWII were actually connected. That is isn’t the case that two World Wars happened with a short period of peace in between, but that they belonged to the same hsitorical event, that started with WWI and ended with WWII. They call it the European Civil War.
Other historians argue that the two World Wars, although connected, were so different under so many aspects that they can’t be considered as just one event.
Personally, I tend to lean toward the European Civil War, which effectively uprooted the entire Western Wrold and rebuilt it on completley new grounds (I know other parts of the world were involved, especially during WWII, but I’m not sure the effect of destruction/rebuilt was as total as it was in the Western World. I might be wrong).
So I’d say that the triggering events that started such a huge change in our society lasted not just 6, but 30 years.
What a war! I love how each country has their own reference to it–America’s being WWII.
I expect that such huge event, with so many catastrofic consequences, will be recongnise by many societies, each in its own way.
Many lives and many things did change because of WWII . This was an interesting read.
Thanks Reema, I’m happy you found it interesting. And thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
not necessarily WW2 but what about Ronald Colman in Random Harvest (WWI)?
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I’ve just checked out that film. It sounds intersting and kind of noirish. Thanks for mentioning it, I’ll have a go at it 😉
You know, I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re quite right about the impact of WWII. It was hard when the soldiers came home for that sort of reason (among many others!). Women had their own worlds now, and where did men fit in? Men brought back a lot from the war, and how were women to deal with that? Samuel Goldwyn’s The Best Years of Our Lives is, admittedly, not noir So apologies for the digression. But I think it illustrates this issue.
Margot, I don’t think I’ve been able to explaing it as well as you did in this comment!
WWII was the first crack in the split between men and women in the workplace. the repercussions are still felt today. When I started working in the ’80’s, I missed by only a few years the directive that women could only work in dresses, not slacks. By the time I retired, it was normal to wear jeans to work.
Unfortunately, some of the strides made have not leveled the pay scale. Equal pay for equal rights should be a standard.
Thanks for sharing, and showing a photo from one of my favorite movies, Casablanca!
I don’t believe it! There was such a directive still in the 1980s? That’s crazy!
Equality is still hard to achieve, that’s true, but if we look at whare we started from, I think it’s very incouraging 😉
The changing social roles of men and women in my former denomination took an interesting and disheartening turn after WW2. My former Christian denomination was the Church of the Nazarene (an evangelical church that broke off from the United Methodist Church at the turn of the 19th century). They ordained women from their beginning in 1903. In 1930s 30-40% of their ordained clergy were women. After WW2 that number plunged to less than 5% as the backlash of men returning from war not wanting women in “their” places spread through the country. They started recovering at the turn of this century, but still the ordination rate for women in the denomination is still under 20%.
That’s unbelieveable. I mean, I may understnad (yeah, well…) that society discouraged women to ‘take’ the place of men after such traumatic expereince, but I dont’ see whay places that were always covered by women should be taken from them.
Thanks so much for sharing this piece of oral history.
The changed social roles of women during WWII laid the groundwork for the Second Wave of feminism in the Sixties and Seventies, as well as for all the other sweeping social and cultural changes of that era. While it’s tempting to dismiss the Fifties as a one-dimensional, cookie-cutter era, there was lots of dissent brewing under the surface that made the changes of the coming decades possible. That dissent began brewing precisely because of what had happened during WWII, and because so many women were forced out of their jobs and into marriage and motherhood as soon as the men came home. They’d tasted freedom, and knew there was a problem without a name, as Betty Friedan famously called it.
That’s a good point. It’s true, we look at the 1950s in America as a kind of fairytale period, but so much discontent brewed underground. Besides, the angst of the 1960s had to come from soemwhere.
You have really worked hard in gathering information about WWII.I was not aware of many details that you have shared in your post.
Happy you found it interesting, Geethica. And thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
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How amazing old films were, no graphics, no action nothing but simply amazing.
True, eh? They were more creative, in a way, because they had so many limitations.