Female Ambitions

Female Ambitions


The 1950s was a time of increased expectations of gender roles. During World War II, fighters abroad and citizens at home were fed stories of the peace and domestic bliss that would follow the war. Once fighting ended and soldiers were brought home, women who had previously expanded into male-only sectors to fill the void left by wartime service were encouraged to leave these spheres and return home, themselves. As a reaction to the upset of gender roles during the war, post-war expecations were stronger than they had been previously. The idea of a strong, hard-working husband and devoted, domestic-bound wife were pumped across the nation as being the height of American prosperity. The repercussions of this can be seen in the marriage rates of young people during this decade, as well as the overall lack of opportunity afforded to women who might today chose to pursue higher education and sustained employment.



A bride feeds a groom cake in Tallahassee, Florida. After the impact of WWII in the late 1940s, the 1950s saw America embrace a specific image of domestic bliss. Couples were expected to marry young, with women giving up their careers to become stay-at-home mothers while men worked to provide for the family. In 1950, the estimated median age of first marriage for women and men were 20.3 and 22.8 respectively, compared to 26.1 and 28.2 in 2010[2].



Woman sewing at home in Gainsville, FL. Middle-class women experienced socially-reinforced expectations to provide from within the home. Childcare, domestic upkeep, and other duties were considered to be the “women’s sphere”, leading to the ideal of a stay-at-home mother and wife. Though many single women worked, upon marriage payed work outside the home were most often given up in place of domestic attention. Due to this, in 1950 married mothers represented only 12% of the workforce[4].



The Cornell Social Sciences building at Rollins College, Winter Park. Higher education has experienced significant changes related to gender since the 1950s. Though the stereotype of attending to receive an ‘MRS’ was well known, women still only made up 31.6% of college populations in 1950[6]. Today, The United States actually has more women enrolled in higher education than men – a ratio of 1.4 to 1[7].



Secretary at the Governor’s office, Tallahassee FL. Although the most common positions in the workforce held by women have not changed dramatically since 1950 (Secretary, teller, sales clerk, private housework, and teacher compared to secretary, cashier, teacher, nurse, and nursing aid), both the treatment of these positions and the ability to find work outside them have changed dramatically[9]. The phrase “raises, not roses” gained prominence in the fight for respect for positions which have now come to be known as ‘administrative assistance’.



The T. Denny Sanford Pediatric Center at the Florida Hospital for Children, Orlando. The Weight Management program of the Florida Hospital for Children is headed by a woman, bariatric pediatrician Dr. Angela Fals. Of her colleagues that make up the other positions, two are women and one is a man. This department and many like it represent a major shift from past decades – in 1954, only 5.3% of entrants to medical programs in higher education were women[11]. In contrast, in 2010 women represented 47% of all first-year medical students[12].


Ultimately, women in the professional world were given little in the way of equal respect or expectations compared to their male counterparts. The middle-class ideal of a stay-at-home wife and mother truly impacted the opportunities and ambitions afforded to young women, leading to lower rates of college attendance, along with less respect and positions available for women among more ‘successful’ careers. Ultimately, though, these trends have changed for the better. Today, though many careers are still considered ‘for men’ or ‘for women’, the opportunities afforded to women have in many instances been successfully equalized.


[1] “Bride Feeding the Groom Wedding Cake, 1953,” accessed April 10, 2013, http://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/45648

[2] . Estimated Median Age at First Marriage, by Sex. 2003: U.S. Bureau of the Census.

[3] “Woman Sewing at Home”, accessed April 11, 2013. http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00036924/00001

[4] Wattenburg, Ben. 2010. “Working Women.” PBS.  n.d.  Accessed 10 Apr. 2013.

[5] Jacklyn Stanley, CSS Lunch at Rollins College,  Photograph. April 2013.

[6] Woloch, Nancy. 2009. “The Changing Status of Women.” In A companion to the modern American novel 1900-1950. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.. 23.

[7] Hausmann, Ricardo, Laura Tyson, and Saadia Zahidi. 2011. The Global Gender Gap Report: World Economic Forum.

[8] “Secretary in Governor’s Office Using Newly-Installed Telephone,” accessed April 8th 2013. http://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/128063

[9] Kurtz, Annalyn. 2013. “Why Secretary Is Still the Top Job for Women.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network.

[10] Jacklyn Stanley, Pediatric Center, Photograph. April 2013.

[11] Hill, Kathryn and Laura Morris. 1982. “Women Physicians 1945-1960.”Old Dominion University Libraries.

[12] Barzansky, Barbara and Sylvia I. Etzel, “Medical Schools in the United States, 2010-2011,” JAMA, vol. 306, no. 9