Government Mobilizing Women and Women Mobilizing Government in the Mid-20th Century

Endorsed by the Women and Social Movements in the U.S., 1600–2000 and the Society for History in the Federal Government

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 12:45 PM - 2:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender; Politics; Women's History


This timely panel will critically examine gendered politics and policymaking in the years after World War II, a generation after women’s enfranchisement in 1920. Vanessa May, Associate Professor of History at Seton Hall, and Hannah Ontiveros, graduate student in History at Duke University, will examine the role of American women in carrying out gendered political work on a global stage. Ontiveros will explore how the American government deployed women workers in Korea and used gendered rhetoric to justify American presence after the Korean War. Women’s gendered work in Korea allowed American policymakers to frame foreign intervention in Korea as unofficial reform rather than as part of a drive for global hegemony. May will also interrogate gendered politics, examining how gendered rhetoric about women’s Progressive Era reform worked to sideline maternalist policymakers in the 1950s and 1960s. Through an examination of debates over child labor, May will demonstrate the impact of this gendered political shift from maternalists to liberals in designing policy for women and children, especially in terms of whether to expose minors to unskilled labor markets. Melissa Estes Blair, Assistant Professor of History at Auburn University, on the other hand, adds a critical dimension to this panel in finding that, even at the height of the 1950s, presidential campaigns largely denied that women had any specific political interests, even as they produced campaign material targeted at female voters.

At its heart, this panel will examine where and how gendered politics did (and did not) play out, demonstrating the impact these gendered politics had on inequalities between nations, between classes, and between men and women. By drawing attention to the multifaceted nature of women’s government work, their successes as well as their failures, at a time of gender conservatism, the panel complicates our understanding of the midcentury federal state. This panel highlights contested understandings of women, their appropriate roles in government and politics, and how gender shaped policy. Reckoning with women’s participation in a wide variety of government work in this era deepens historical depictions of empire, liberal policymaking, and electoral politics.

Robyn Muncy, Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at the University of Maryland, who has written extensively on women’s politics, naming women’s Progressive-Era power in social welfare reform a “female dominion,” will comment. Melissa Soto-Schwartz, professor of history and women’s studies at Cuyahoga Community College, will chair the panel.

Papers Presented

“Not As Women but as American Citizens”: Presidential Campaigns and Female Voters, 1940–1956

This paper examines how successful presidential campaigns courted female voters in the 1940s and 1950s. It argues that successful campaigns in these years understood women to be important swing voters and actively pursued their votes, contrary to history and political science scholarship that either suggests or explicitly states that national politicians ignored women as a distinct group of voters from the late 1920s until the late 1960s or early 1970s. Midcentury campaigns produced postcards, fliers, and radio programs that specifically targeted female voters. This material, however, addressed more than “women’s issues.” Whether one understands “women’s issues” to mean feminist issues such as the equal rights amendment or maternalist concerns such as programs for women and children or international peace, campaign media targeting women went beyond those topics. Maternalist concerns were certainly present, but they were not the only issues campaigns used to secure women’s votes. Dwight D. Eisenhower stated in 1958 that he did not believe there was “a ‘woman’s angle’ to the great issues of our day,” and his predecessors in the Oval Office appear to have agreed with that assessment. This paper will explore this tension—between media produced specifically for women, on the one hand, and statements that posited there was no distinct “woman’s angle,” on the other—and argue that politicians in this era had a complicated, even contradictory understanding of women as voters but that they never ignored those female votes. The paper will show that women were critical components of all successful presidential campaign at midcentury.

Presented By
Melissa Estes Blair, Auburn University

Overgrown Boys and Old Maids: Cold War Debates over Child Labor, Juvenile Delinquency, and Maternalist Reform

This paper will consider the shift from Progressive Era reform to Cold War liberalism through gendered post–World War II debates over child labor. Throughout the Progressive Era, maternalist reformers created, in the words of Robyn Muncy, a “female dominion” in American reform. Proceeding on an ethic of protecting poor women and children, these reformers sought to ban child labor. In contrast, liberal policy makers after World War II created youth employment programs, notably Job Corps, to train youth for vocational jobs. As this paper will demonstrate, social welfare policy making after World War II was characterized by a shift from women who prioritized protection from labor exploitation for women and children to men who shared a widespread belief in waged labor as the answer to poverty. This gendered conflict was also apparent in the language liberals used to discredit maternalists and maternalist policy. Liberal policy makers argued that maternalists’ childlessness disqualified them from enacting reform for children even as their age and gender led them to a “nostalgic” and overly “emotional” approach to reform. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, critics insisted that child labor reforms, like the overprotective mother figure featured in 1950s attacks on American motherhood, smothered the ambitions of “big boys.” They argued that child labor laws encouraged juvenile delinquency by leaving high school dropouts at loose ends. Liberal policy makers thus posed poverty, juvenile delinquency, and other social ills, as not only a failure of individual mothers and families but also a failure of the maternalist state.

Presented By
Vanessa May, Seton Hall University

Caring for Empire: Aid to Korea in the 1950s and the Engendering of American Hegemony

This paper considers the role of American women in relief to Korea efforts in the 1950s. This paper showcases how the federal government utilized women and the gendered imagery of their aid work to balance its role as global police with its claims to the American public that the United States was not overly embroiled in empire or world affairs. Women played key roles in federal agencies, United Nations (UN) appointments, and voluntary agencies, as liaisons, organizers, and caregivers. The work that women did on this aid front was gendered, as were its targets—propaganda and press coverage on aid to Korea relied heavily on imagery and language about starving children, widowed women, and disabled men. By utilizing women and their gendered work, I argue, the United States framed its position in Korea as one that was unofficial, not overly committed, and a function of individuals’ (not the state’s) prerogative: women made empire in Korea palatable to the American public. Throughout the 1950s, Korea served as a proving ground for modes of American influence in foreign countries. The federal government utilized the cooperation of the UN and voluntary organizations to test strategies for military, financial, and cultural control in Korea—strategies that would form the basis for American empire in the context of “limited” war around the globe in the rest of the twentieth century. This paper highlights that the Korean War and its aftermath are vitally important to understanding how American empire played out in a post–World War II world.

Presented By
Hannah Margaret Ontiveros, Duke University

Session Participants

Chair: Melissa M. Soto-Schwartz, Cuyahoga Community College
Melissa M. Soto-Schwartz is a professor of history and women’s studies at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio. Professor Soto-Schwartz is a historian who has taught at Tri-C for twenty years and specializes in gender and race. She was instrumental in developing the Women’s Studies program at the Western campus of the college and is often a featured speaker within the College and greater Cleveland community on race and gender issues. Her current research interests include racial disparities in the law, international women’s issues (particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring), and modern Africa. Professor Soto-Schwartz is currently working on a interdisciplinary project on the plays of August Wilson, the blues, the Great Migration and Black diasporas. She is a member of the National Women’s Studies Association and their Community College Caucus. In 2008-2010 she was a member of the OAH Community College Committee.

Presenter: Melissa Estes Blair, Auburn University
Melissa Estes Blair is an assistant professor of history and Women’s Studies affiliate faculty at Auburn University, where she has taught since 2015. She received her BA from the University of Kentucky in 2002, and her Ph.D from the University of Virginia in 2008. Prior to joining the Auburn faculty she taught for six years at Warren Wilson College, a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. She is the author of Revolutionizing Expectations: Women’s Organizations, Feminism, and American Politics 1965-1980, published in 2014 by the University of Georgia Press. She is currently working on a book-length study of how presidential campaigns appealed to female voters throughout the twentieth century. A version of her proposed paper will also appear in Century of Suffrage, a forthcoming volume edited by Leandra Zarnow and Stacie Taranto that will be published in 2020 to mark the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment. She is also co-author (with Erin Kempker) of a forthcoming Women and Social Movements document project titled “How Did Feminists and Anti-Feminists Define Their Agendas in 1970s Indiana?” She has served on the Southern Historical Association’s Committee on Women, Gender, & Sexuality and the Darlene Clark Hine prize committee of the OAH.

Presenter: Vanessa May, Seton Hall University
Vanessa May is an Associate Professor of History at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, where she also co-directs the Women and Gender Studies Program. She is the author of Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940, published by University of North Carolina Press. She is currently working on a history of maternalism and social welfare reform after World War II.

Commentator: Robyn L. Muncy, University of Maryland, College Park
Robyn Muncy is Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. She received her Ph.D. in U.S. history from Northwestern University in 1987. Since then, she has been writing about and teaching twentieth-century U.S. history, focusing especially on women, social policy, and progressive social movements.
Professor Muncy is qualified to comment on this panel especially because of her scholarship on women’s work in the federal government during the twentieth century. Her first book, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890-1935 (Oxford University Press, 1991), explored the work of women in creating and running the Children’s Bureau in the federal Department of Labor between 1912 and 1935; her most recent book, Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton University Press, 2015), is a biography of the second highest-ranking woman in the New Deal government. Josephine Roche served briefly in the Children’s Bureau during the 1920s, but her major contributions to federal policy emerged from her New Deal appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, service on the Committee on Economic Security (which drafted the Social Security Bill), and chairmanship of an interdepartmental committee that developed the first national health plan in United States history. That health plan was implemented piecemeal over the course of many decades, culminating in the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s.
The biography of Josephine Roche, for which Professor Muncy won a fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, took her research into the post-World War II era, where the papers for this panel are situated. Her additional work on the postwar period includes “Cooperative Motherhood and Democratic Civic Culture in Postwar Suburbia, 1940-1965,” Journal of Social History (December 2004): 285-310 (nominated for the Berkshire Prize for best article by a woman historian); “Coal-Fired Reforms: Social Citizenship, Dissident Miners, and the Great Society,” Journal of American History (June 2009): 72-98; and “The Strange Career of ‘the Working Class’ in U.S. Political Culture Since the 1950s,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History (December 2018): 37-58.
Professor Muncy has served as Interim Chair of the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland and is now an elected member of the Board of Directors for the Labor and Working-Class History Association. She is co-curating an exhibit at the National Archives on the struggle for women’s voting rights in the United States.
In the bulk of her work, Professor Muncy has explored relationships that women and workers have forged between society and the state, between social movements and social policy. Because the papers on this panel provide new perspectives on those very relationships, they are situated directly in the field of Professor Muncy’s greatest interest.

Presenter: Hannah Margaret Ontiveros, Duke University
Hannah Ontiveros is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Duke University, working on 20th Century U.S. History, empire, and gender. Hannah’s dissertation is titled “Caring for Empire: Aid to Korea in the 1950s and the Engendering of American Hegemony.” Her research explores how private, religious, voluntary organizations played an important and highly visible role in creating and maintaining relief networks in Korea. In so doing, these organizations facilitated American experimentation with modes of influence abroad over the course of the decade. Hannah’s work further exposes the U.S. federal government and military utilized religion and gender as a means of making their imperial experiment in Korea palatable to the American public.
Hannah received her B.A. in history from Auburn University in 2014, and and her M.A. from Duke in 2017. She has received support for her research from Auburn University, the Truman Library Institute, the University of Minnesota, and various institutions at Duke University, including the Program in Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, and the Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. In the 2018-2019 academic year, Hannah was a fellow at the Sanford School of Public Policy’s Center for the Study of Philanthropy and Voluntarism.
Hannah has served as the Executive Assistant for the Labor and Working-Class History Association, and as an intern at the National Humanities Center. In 2018-2019, she served as the Co-President of the Duke Department of History Graduate Student Association (GSA), and was the primary organizer of the GSA’s “Conference on Conferences.” Hannah is the project coordinator for Bass Connections’ America’s Sacred Spaces, a collaborative, interdisciplinary research project including undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty, geared toward examining and showcasing (through a public-facing Digital Humanities product) the importance of place in American history, culture, and politics.