From Nerves to Neurosis : America's Cold War Anxieties about Discontent Women Demonstrated through Popular Media, 1950s-1960s
Martin, Sophia J.
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Women faced immense challenges regarding their portrayal in relation to mental illnesses in the 1950s and 1960s due to a lack of understanding and compassion toward their discontentment. The politics of the post-war and Cold War era shaped women's lives and promoted the idea that American women should return to the home in opposition of Soviet women who found themselves de-sexed through the workings of communism. In the mid-century, the American home seemed to promise a haven from the chaos and uncertainty that plagued the Cold War era. The emphasis on marriage as an institution and the responsibility that fell on a woman when she married contributed to feelings of being trapped and misunderstood, and the isolation of the suburbs only fueled this issue. The expectation that women be satisfied fully by their work in the home tending to their children and their husbands meant that when a woman did not feel fully satisfied, she felt as though the problem originated within herself. This sentiment was bolstered by the experts of the time who claimed that a woman's attitude in marriage would solely determine the success of it. Women who previously held careers and moved to the suburbs when they married found themselves longing for the excitement and familiarity of the city, as well as the mental stimulation that came along with life in the business world. They felt disconnected from their neighbors who appeared to live perfect lives in harmonious contentment, and with the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, this issue was finally named and discussion of it flourished. Though some housewives vehemently disagreed with Friedan's claims, others felt as though they had found salvation through her work and that she had freed them by providing them with the language necessary to describe the discontentment that they felt. Newspaper and magazine articles had discussed the phenomenon of unhappy housewives since the dawn of the 1950s, and men and women alike formed ideas of what caused mental illness in women through these writings. While newspapers were eager to publish doctors' opinions on the matter, depression in women was still greatly misunderstood and the root of depression could almost always be traced back to a woman's actions. Newspapers supported the idea that when a woman stepped out of her feminine realm, she quickly became confused, anxious, and depressed. They were viewed as incapable of successfully navigating a man's world and therefore creators of their own unhappiness when they abandoned their traditional roles. This abandonment of roles was portrayed as having catastrophic consequences for the American family, and therefore America's prosperity as a whole. Marriage was viewed as the centerpiece to the American dream, and a successful home life meant the enjoyment of new innovations in domestic living as well as the supposed bliss that came from a happy, strong marriage. Therefore, when women began discussing the discontentment they felt with their home lives, anxieties regarding the perpetuation of America's family structure came to surface and impacted what advice was given to unhappy housewives. Further, advertisements for drugs suggested that women's hormones were the sole cause of her misery and those around her. Psychologists overprescribed women tranquilizers as well as sedatives in an effort to quell any mental unrest that a housewife demonstrated, with many doctors preferring the use of quick-fixes over other methods such as talk therapy. However, by the 1970s, the second wave of feminism was in full swing, and feminist psychologists argued against the treatment methods that male physicians had imposed on women for decades. This would impact the ways in which mental health reform was discussed and thought of in relation to women, and feminists began encouraging women to seek out female psychologists and psychiatrists who would better understand the emotions that a woman experienced.