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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

Oxford Handbooks Online


Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War  
Helen Laville
The Oxford Handbook of the Cold War
Edited by Richard H. Immerman and Petra Goedde

Print Publication Date: Jan 2013 Subject: History, Cold War, Gender and Sexuality
Online Publication Date: Jan 2013 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199236961.013.0030

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter, which examines the issues of gender and women's rights during the Cold
War, discusses how the United States and the Soviet Union used the status of women as a
measure of national progress. It explains that the United States promoted women's
domesticity and consumerism while the Soviet Union maintained that the measure of
woman's status was her equality to men, which should be measured in terms of equal pay
and the number of women in the workforce. The chapter also discusses the factors that
led to the breakdown of the Cold War paradigms for women's rights, and describes how
non-aligned countries challenged the early Cold War agenda and worked toward a more
nuanced approach to the global improvement of women's status.

Keywords: gender, women's rights, Cold War, United States, Soviet Union, national progress, consumerism,
domesticity, equal pay, women in workforce

Nixon: In America, we like to make life easier for women.

Khrushchev: Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under
Communism.

Nixon: I think that this attitude towards women is universal. What we want to do
is make life more easy for our housewives.

(US National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959)

For many historians the 1959 kitchen debate between US Vice President Richard M.
Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the opening of the American National
Exhibition at Sokolniki Park, Moscow, was testament to the centrality of gender in the
cold war. In an exchange, which was at times tense and at times aggressive, the two
leaders debated the quest for peace, the meaning of communism, censorship, and rival

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

efforts at space exploration. As the competing merits of the USSR and the USA bounced
back and forth, the debate took inspiration from the surroundings of the American
suburban show kitchen, and the two leaders compared the home life of the average
Soviet worker with that of his American counterpart. The quality and availability of
domestic goods served in the debate as a measure of progress and quality of life. These
were terms on which Nixon felt confident, prompting him to ask if it would not be better
to compete on the merits of washing machines rather than the strength of rockets. While
the kitchen debate was shaped by disagreements and airings of vast ideological,
economic, and social differences between the two systems, Nixon and Khrushchev found
common ground on their understanding of heterosexual masculinity. Khrushchev noted
Nixon's admiring glances at the hostesses at the exhibition, joking, “You are for the girls
too!” Later that day, as the two men raised a glass of wine, Nixon urged, “Let's drink to
talking, not fighting!” Unwilling to concede so much diplomatic ground, Khrushchev
suggested, “Let's drink to the ladies!” Nixon quickly agreed: “We can all drink to the
ladies!”1

On the surface the kitchen debates focused on the cutting edge of the modern
(p. 524)

technological world. Underneath the shiny new Formica surfaces, however, was an older
theme of masculine authority and feminine vulnerability. Narratives of international
relations have long drawn upon gender roles to measure and express national progress
and civilization, with gender differentiation serving as a sign of progress. Civilized and
advanced societies were those which relieved women of the burden of work; uncivilized
and backwards societies were those which exacted hard labor from their women.2 The
kitchen debate offered nothing new in terms of its assertion that the progress and
superiority of the nation-state was best measured by the status of its women—reflecting
what Emily Rosenberg succulently summarizes as an “our-women-are-better-off-than-
your-women-no-they-aren’t-yes-they-are kind of masculine debate.”3

This chapter critically examines the early cold war use of the status of women as a
measure of national progress. First, it examines the way in which the US promoted the
measurement of the status of women according to what it argued were universal gender
roles, which prioritized domesticity and consumerism. The US asserted that its ability to
fulfill these desires and the USSR's failure to do so demonstrated American national
superiority in the cold war contest. Second, this essay examines how the USSR sought to
contest these terms, maintaining that the measure of women's status was her equality to
men; an equality that should be measured by economic and political markers such as
state protection of equal pay and the number of women in the workforce. The Soviet
Union regarded domesticity, however technologically assisted, as a burden. Working
through the new institutions of the United Nations, the USSR attacked the US for what it
castigated as a backward approach to women's status, pointing to the lack of women in
political office and the failure of Americans to endorse equal pay and equal rights
legislation as evidence of their lack of commitment to women's equality. Finally, this essay
discusses the breakdown of early cold war paradigms for women's rights, explaining how

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

the efforts of newly liberated and non-aligned countries, together with pressure from
increasingly influential women's non-governmental organizations, successfully challenged
the early cold war agenda and demanded a more nuanced approach to the global
improvement of women's status.

While Americans proudly celebrated the contribution of their women to the Second World
War, this was tempered by constant reminders of the temporary nature of their service. In
an article that sought to defend the rights of women to work after the war, Mary
Anderson, the director of the Women's Bureau, wryly quoted a letter from a male union
activist whose industry had been largely dominated by women during the war. The man
wished Anderson every success, but added that he was “hoping for the day when women
may relax and stay in her beloved kitchen, a loving wife to some man who is now fighting
for his beloved country.”4 He was not alone in making the connection between wartime
upheaval and postwar domestic bliss. An editorial in Life magazine explained, “[T]he trials
and separations of war have made real to millions of Americans the beauties and
contentment of home. As a sentimental notion, the home today is a great success.”5 Once
the war ended, the American embrace of the domestic ideal for women was swift and, for
many women, inexorable. The postwar celebration of domesticity (p. 525) evolved into a
cold war consensus on the importance of the American housewife to the political,
cultural, social, emotional, and sexual stability of the United States.6 Domestic histories of
postwar America have revealed the ways in which this focus on the domestic role of
American women served national needs.

Clear and stable gender roles were crucial in offering, or at least seeming to offer,
stability in a dangerous world.7 Some of these dangers were physical, such as the threat
of atomic attacks on American homes and families. Efforts to counter the atomic danger
quickly became identified with gendered roles, and, in particular, the domestic role of the
American woman. Katherine Howard, special advisor to the Federal Civil Defense
Administration (FCDA), told the Ladies Auxiliary of Foreign Wars in stark terms the new
threat to the American home: “It is my duty . . . to tell you today that the traditional
safeguards upon which we have always relied are no longer enough to save our homes
and families from harm.” As atomic weaponry rendered traditional, masculine forms of
defense obsolete, women and the home became the new battlefront. Howard explained,
“It is in the hands of the American housewife and mother that the defense of our home
front must lie . . . Far from being helpless bystanders, the housewives and mothers of this
country have become as one with the wearers of our proud uniforms.”8 Indeed this
identification was so strong that in 1956 knowledge of civil defense was made one of the
requisites in the judging of the Miss American pageant.9 The strategies which women
were encouraged to deploy in this new era of defense drew from traditional housewifery.
Campaigns such as “Grandma's pantry” harked back to the skills and abilities of pioneer
women, encouraging housewives to stockpile the essential groceries they would need to
provide for their families in the event of an atomic attack.10 Elaine Tyler May concludes
that “a major goal of these civil defense strategies was to infuse the traditional role of

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

women with new meaning and importance, which would help fortify the home as a place
of security amid the cold war.”11

As well as ensuring that the American home had the physical capacity to withstand
atomic attack from the Soviet Union, American housewives had an ideological role to play
in shielding the American home from communist attack. Strongly defined gender roles
served as a bulwark against internal subversion and dangerous political ideologies.
Domestic cold war strength rested on the emotional, psychological, and social
conditioning provided by family life as a defense against political subversion. American
popular culture frequently explained political instability and consequent vulnerability to
communist subversion with reference to weak or abnormal family structures. Not
infrequently, fears of vulnerability to communist subversion as a result of weak domestic
structures went hand in hand with fears of sexual “abnormalities” such as homosexuality
or oedipal desires. American housewives then had an important role to play in ensuring
the establishment of strong family relationships in order to defend against political or
sexual subversion, which threatened American strength and purpose.12

Alongside these important ideological, cultural, and social functions, the post-Second
World War cult of the housewife had a crucial economic function. As housewife-
consumers, American women played a public role in the propagation of mass
consumerism and thus the promotion of national security.13 In a context where Fortune
editor William (p. 526) H. Whyte could confidently declare “thrift is now un-American,”
the spending power of the American housewife served a broader purpose than individual
satisfaction and pleasure.14 It is instructive to note that as domestic consumption became
a public activity, it was increasingly men, rather than women, who were identified as the
holders of the household purse. The 1950s saw an increasing role for men at the decision-
making level of domestic consumption. One marketing study reported that “the middle
class husband serves as the ‘architect of the family's fiscal policy’,” with women serving
as the “purchasing agent” for low expense items.15 This model, which established the
male role as the provider, not only of the funds for domestic consumption but also of the
expertise and authority necessary to make purchasing decisions, pre-staged the public/
private gendered divisions of the kitchen debate. While women's influence in purchasing
decisions may have weakened in the face of the growing involvement and expertise of
their husbands, their role in driving private demand for domestic consumption was
undiminished. Marketing campaigns targeted the desires of housewives as the driving
force behind American mass consumption.

American policymakers in the international field actively promoted the central role played
by women as housewives in the creation of modern capitalist systems. US foreign aid to
India, for example, supported the Community Development Program (CDP) launched by
Nehru in 1952 and modeled upon US agricultural extension programs. CDP sought to
bring about the transition of agricultural units from subsistence-based units, in which all
family members worked, to for-profit production directed by the male head of family. At
the same time, women were instructed in vital home science methods and goals, which
created consumer demand and the need for private capital. A 1958 Ford Foundation

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report on the program explained American conceptions of the importance of the


housewife in moving the Indian economy to a system of mass domestic consumption: “[I]f
rural women learn new ways of sewing and knitting, if they become enthusiastic about
better stoves, or about courtyard drains or mosquito nets, or filters for drinking water,
the desire to have more money to spend for these is an incentive to change agricultural
practices in the hope of a higher income.”16

Alongside this economic development agenda, the domestic fulfillment of women became
a central component in American narratives of ideological cold war rivalry. In
internationally trumpeting the contentment of American housewives, the US was making
an implicit (and sometimes explicit) connection between women's gendered roles and the
success of the US economic, social, and cultural way of life. If the aim of civilized nations
was the protection of women from lives of toil, the kitchen debate posited that the US had
surpassed all other nations, and that this victory had been achieved, and could be
measured, through the superiority and easy availability of the technological
accoutrements of private domestic life.

Yet the use of the domestic comfort of women as a measure of American progress was not
without its dangers. US information campaigns suggested that the ease of American
housewives was, in part, secured by the willingness of the American husband to help out
with domestic chores. A Voice of America reporter told Chinese audiences approvingly
that, “Nobody thinks it beneath him to push a lawn mower, to paint a wall or to wash
(p. 527) dishes,” while a United States Information Agency (USIA) survey revealed that at

least 68 percent of American men helped their wives with the grocery shopping.17 This
domestic role of the American male risked courting suggestions of unmanliness, or worse,
effeminate traits. Within the US, anxiety about the impact of men's willingness to help out
around the house on their ability to pursue manly cold war aims was endemic—Arthur
Schlesinger Jr., for example, worried that the decline of the American male might be
blamed on his eagerness to take on feminine roles around the home, “performing a whole
series of what once were considered female duties.”18 In recent years scholars such as
Kyle Cuordileone, Robert Dean, and Robert Corber have uncovered the extent to which
anxiety over masculinity permeated American cold war culture and politics.19 In his
presidential debate with John F. Kennedy, Nixon found himself being called to account for
his interest in domestic technology. “Mr. Nixon might be very experienced in kitchen
debates,” Kennedy quipped, “So are a great many other married men I know.” Focus on
the domestic sphere, Kennedy argued, weakened, rather than strengthened, the
American position: “Does anyone think for one moment that Mr. Khruschev's
determination to ‘bury’ us was slowed down one iota by all these arguments and
debates?”20 Kennedy asserted that in order to win the real battles of the cold war,
American men should eschew domestic comfort and ease in favor of tough lives of
struggle and competition; “I would rather take my television black and white,” Kennedy
manfully offered, “and have the largest rockets in the world.”21

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

Anxiety about the relationship between men's role in the promotion of American
domesticity and their ability to steel themselves for the tough challenge of facing down
the Soviets should not just be seen as a cultural concern, but rather a significant factor in
the direction of the cold war. Diplomatic and strategic decision-making processes and
steely brinkmanship reflected the need to demonstrate masculine toughness and a
repudiation of feminine weakness. “For Kennedy and his national security managers,”
Dean argues, “self- conceptions of masculine toughness were inseparable from
calculations concerning for instance, the threat of communism in Latin America or the
strategic dangers of appeasement in Vietnam.”22 This need to demonstrate strength drew
not only from masculine rivalry with the leaders of the USSR, but also from the
correlation drawn between “soft” masculinity, political weakness, communist subversion,
and homosexuality during the early cold war. The “Lavender Scare” of the period, fueled
in part by the efforts of Senator McCarthy, posited a relationship between effeminacy and
homosexuality, and either diplomatic weakness or political subversion. Men who failed to
stand up to the Soviet Union were suspect, not only politically, but sexually, as anti-
communist hysteria went hand in hand with homophobic witch hunts.23 To be too closely
aligned to domesticity, for American men, risked identification with ‘soft’ masculinity,
homosexuality, and political weakness.

The more equitable distribution of household chores between men and women suggested
by USIA propaganda campaigns was, therefore, dangerous ground. The method of
relieving American women of their housekeeping burdens highlighted by the kitchen
debate was instead labor-saving consumer technology, made possible by the scientific
advances of the American state, afforded by the economic miracle of mass consumption
(p. 528) and judiciously selected and provided by the man of the house. This

understanding of the relationship between feminine domesticity, technological skill, and


mass consumption was not confined to the kitchen debate. In 1945 an advertisement for
gas-fueled kitchens in Life magazine articulated the relationship between domestic
technology, consumerism, and freedom. “More than just a Beautiful Kitchen!” the
advertisement gushed to American housewives, “You want a new type of kitchen. Where
everything is scientifically arranged to save time and steps . . . Your ‘New Freedom Gas
Kitchen.’”24

Katherine Howard, serving as the deputy director of the American section at the 1958
Brussels International exhibition, put the economic and technological miracle of the
American kitchen at the center of an ideological struggle, asserting, “[I]t is one of the
wonders of the world that Americans in every economic strata have kitchens with labor-
saving devices which free the American women from drudgery.”25 The idealized domestic
role of the American women was used to demonstrate the civilized desires of American
men to secure the comfort of their wives, the scientific expertise and technological skill of
American corporations, the ability of a non-centralized, mass-consumer economy to
produce a wide choice of products, and the affluence of American workers of all classes
who could afford to buy these products.

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In contrast, American information campaigns represented the inability of the Soviet


Union to either allow the expression of private consumer desires and choices or to fulfill
such desires through their centrally organized economy as predictive of the inevitable
failure of their way of life. In 1951 American sociologist David Riesman put forward a
satirical strategy for winning the cold war. The so-called “Nylon War,” or “Operation
Abundance,” aimed to demonstrate the superiority of capitalism through its ability to
fulfill the desires of its citizen-shoppers. Its premise was that “if allowed to sample the
riches of America, the Russian people would not long tolerate masters who gave them
tanks and spies instead of vacuum cleaners and beauty parlours.”26 Riesman predated the
kitchen debate by eight years in his positioning of housewives at the center of the cold
war struggle, arguing that “as Soviet housewives saw with their own eyes American
stoves, refrigerators, clothing and toys, the Kremlin . . . [would be] . . . forced to change its
line.” Historian Susan Reid concludes that the American housewife served an important
ideological function in the cold war, asserting, “[T]he happy housewife . . . did service in
the global politics of the cold war as an advertisement for the benefits of ‘people's
capitalism’. Her sister in the communist bloc, meanwhile, was constructed by Western
observers as a poor, dowdy, work-worn antithesis of the American housewife.”27

Recent scholarship on consumption in the Soviet Union in the cold war has shown the
degree to which communist states responded with determined efforts to improve the
domestic lives of their own women. Reid has traced the efforts of the Soviet Union to
respond to the consumer demands of its population, particularly women, by increasing
the production of consumer goods and domestic technology.28 However, while the Soviet
Union to some extent tacitly accepted the goal of easing the domestic toil of women, the
way it sought to achieve this was radically different from the US. With already over-
committed economic capacity and existing architectural limitations, the Soviet Union
could not promise its housewives the individual ranch-style kitchen (p. 529) displayed by
the Americans. Instead it sought to trumpet assistance to women through communal
provision of domestic services such as state-run child care. If the American housewife in
her kitchen embodied the American values of individual consumption, her Soviet
counterpart embodied communist values of collectivization, communal effort, and shared
ownership. In asserting a preference for the communal provision of household services,
Moscow argued that the individual domestic appliances of American women were nothing
less than the accoutrements of a gilded cage. One Soviet journalist explained,

The countless domestic conveniences of the Americans . . . anchor to [a] woman in


perpetuity her mission as “housewife” wife and cook. They make this role easier
for her, but the very process of alleviating individual housework, as it were,
eternalizes this way of life, turning it into a profession for the woman. But we love
innovations that actually emancipate women—new types of houses with public
kitchens with their canteens for everyone living in the house; with laundries
where the vast machines wash clothes not just for one family alone.29

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

The means by which the burdens on women should be lifted, therefore, reflected
opposing cold war ideologies and economic systems. Moreover, the Soviet Union went
beyond the competition over how best to ease the lives of women by asking what their
lives were being eased for. The domestic labor-saving devices and collective provision
promised by the Soviet Union were intended not just “to make easier the lives of our
housewives” but also to free them to spend time pursuing other, implicitly more
important, interests, such as work and political participation. The Soviets suggested that
it was the communist system that best served the interests of its female citizens by giving
women political, economic, and civic equality with men. The Kremlin argued that if the
status of women was indeed a barometer of the progress of a nation, then this status
should be understood by her place in politics, economics, and society, not her place in the
home. It interpreted the US vision of the domestic life of women as a demonstration of
the lack of equality available to women in the west as opposed to the fulfillment of
women's natural roles.

The arena in which the Soviet sponsorship of women's equality as a measure of their
status took place was the new forums of international governance, specifically those
established at the United Nations, such as the United Nations Economic and Social
Council (ECOSOC), the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), and the Commission
on Human Rights (CHR). With the establishment of these bodies, the use of women's
status as a measure of the progress and prestige of the nation-state became enshrined in
the institutions of internationalism, wherein the measure of women's status was no longer
a vague reference to women's protected status and lives of ease but hard statistical
evidence on economic and political equality. If Nixon felt confident that the US could win
the battle for women's status in the kitchen, the Soviets felt confident that they could win
the battle in the CSW, where hard facts and resolutions took the place of beguiling
pictures of washing machines and range stoves. Discussions of women's status in the
early years of ECOSOC, the CSW, and the CHR were dominated by rival claims to national
superiority. The New York Times reported on an ECOSOC resolution (p. 530) of August 7,
1948, which called on members to take measures to give women equal rights in
everything concerning “employment and remuneration thereof, leisure, social insurance
and professional training.” The paper reported that “Russian speakers conducted a
campaign to prove that women in the US and other western countries lived
underprivileged lives under the tutelage of men. By contrast . . . women in Russia live
independent lives, have equal rights with men and get special consideration in industry
when they are taking care of babies.” The article determined that the resolution itself was
meaningless in terms of prompting countries to take action but concluded, “It is quite
clear . . . that the Russians regard the subject as a highly useful propaganda subject with
which to ‘needle’ the US.”30

The status of women quickly became a cold war battleground at the United Nations. The
position of the Soviet Union on the issue constituted a challenge to US attempts to
measure the status of women by the protection of domesticity. Delegates to the UN from
the USSR and its satellites attacked the lack of political and economic equality
guaranteed to women in the USA, contrasting it with the political and economic equality
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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

enjoyed by women in communist states. At a debate in the CHR in 1952, Mr. Morozov
(USSR) asserted, “In the United States, despite what that country's representative
[Eleanor Roosevelt] has affirmed, inequality between men and women was not confined
to important posts alone. The United States Congress had refused ever since 1923 to
adopt a bill to ensure equality between men and women . . . [Statistics show] that in the
USSR many important posts, particularly judicial ones, were held by women who also
served as representatives of the people, held the highest decorations and had
distinguished themselves in agronomy, science, literature and the arts.”31

The CSW bore the brunt of Soviet criticism of women's roles under capitalism. At the
second session of the Commission, in 1948, the Kremlin's delegate, Nina Popova, quoted
from articles of the Soviet constitution that guaranteed its citizens equal treatment for
men and women. Popova argued that Soviet women, “could and did hold the highest
positions . . . [T]he economic position of women in other countries left much to be
desired . . . The position of women was a true measure of the democracy of any country
and . . . the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was an inspiring example to all democratic
countries.” Evdokia Uralova of Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic chimed in with her
support; “The question of political, economic and social rights of women was always a
true yardstick of democracy in any country.”32

These contributions reveal the eagerness of the Soviet Union to establish a framework for
measuring women's status that differed dramatically from that of the US. As with their
promotion of collective redress in order to elevate women's domestic burden, the USSR
sought to connect political and economic equality between the sexes with the collectivist
ethos of the communist state. At a CSW discussion in January 1948, Popova asserted that
“the approach to the problem of greater use of the franchise by women had been
successfully solved in her country where every effort had been made to ensure that the
economic situation of women and their cultural and social development was such as to
enable them to make full use of the franchise.” Popova asserted that the state provision of
child care was a key factor in ensuring that women were able to exercise their equality.
(p. 531) She explained that “nursing homes provided to take care of children [gave] . . . 

women the free time necessary to take part in public life.”33 The Soviet Union submitted
a resolution to the CSW in 1948 which recommended that “women [should be] granted
equal rights with men to employment and remuneration thereby, leisure, social insurance
and education. These rights must be guaranteed by the law of the land and also by the
State protection of the interests of mother and children, by state assistance for mothers
of large families and mothers living alone, by granting women paid maternity leave, and
by the development of a comprehensive network of maternity homes, day nurseries and
kindergartens.” The Byelorussian delegate supported the proposal and added that “in
Byelorussia the equality of women with men was safeguarded. Women were economically
equal with men. The State provided them with help for their children so that domestic
duties should not interfere with their exercise of political rights.”34

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

The USSR derided the doctrine of domesticity for women as an expression of women's
imprisonment and lowly status, an approach which was particularly noticeable in the
Soviet bride debates at the UN. In 1947 Moscow outlawed marriages between Soviet
citizens and foreigners, putting a series of impossible hurdles in the way of Soviet citizens
who sought to leave the USSR in order to join their spouses. While the US routinely
attacked the lack of freedom of movement in the communist world, these efforts to
“legislate affairs of the heart,” as one journalist termed it, became a cause célèbre in the
western world.35 In the face of constant pressure from the West, the Soviets argued that
their refusal to grant exit visas to Russian brides was not a reflection of their
imprisonment; on the contrary, they were saving their women from lives of domestic
drudgery in the West; UN delegate Alexei Pavlov claimed that the Soviet government was
protecting these women from a future as “kitchen slaves.”

These competing interpretations of the measurement of the status of women constituted


a new cold war battleground—one which the US was anxious not to lose. A meeting of the
State Department's subcommittee on Human Rights and the Status of Women in October
1948 acknowledged: “Each and every item on the Status of women . . . must be conceived
as part of a hard fought program which can be used by the eastern bloc for any audience
to point up possible weaknesses in other nations, attract support from disaffected
groups . . . [and] . . . influence people behind the Iron Curtain and those elsewhere likely to
respond to USSR leadership.”36 The US response in the UN was to prioritize the domestic
role of women over their formal political role. When United Nations News asked US
delegate to the CSW, Lorena Hahn, what subjects debated at the Commission most
interested her, she replied, “I think it is family relationships, those in the normal or happy
family.”37 Furthermore, the US asserted that the relatively low figures of women in public
office should be seen as a reflection of American women's freedom of choice and their
preference for a domestic role. In response to the accusation by the Polish delegate to the
Commission that in the United States “the granting of equal rights to women in public life
is still a question for the future,” the US Women's Bureau advised that “this is the result
of free choice on the part of most women, who evidently prefer the comfort and privacy of
their own homes to the grilling experiences of political campaigns and the responsibility
of major public office.”38

While defending the domestic role of the American women, the US also sought to
(p. 532)

discredit Soviet claims of women's equality under communist rule. In widely reported
comments to the New York Women's Press Club, Dorothy Kenyon, the first US delegate
the CSW, questioned Soviet claims for women's political equality, pointing out “that there
had never been a woman member of the Politburo and that there was now none either on
the central committee of the communist party.” The New York Times reported Kenyon's
assertions that “the Russians made much propaganda of the fact that twenty one percent
of the Supreme Soviet is made up of women.” Kenyon remarked that “this was of no
significance, as the body sits only a few days a year for unanimous approval of
government proposals.” Furthermore, she continued “[I]n newspaper pictures of Moscow

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

celebrations […] there are not even women used as window dressing. Paper participation
in government is too flimsy a foundation to advance the principles of democracy or of
women's rights.”39

Alongside these public pronouncements on the status of women, the US also funded
information campaigns to counteract what they saw as a Soviet propaganda offensive on
the issue of women's rights. Campaigns by the USIA described the contented lives of
American women, stressing their interest in family life and community work. Covertly, the
CIA siphoned funding to a women's group, the Committee of Correspondence, which used
its contacts with women's groups across the world to challenge Soviet propaganda, which
suggested that women's lives would be improved by communism.40

US/USSR rivalry dominated early cold war debates on the status of women in a manner
that frustrated campaigns for international women's rights. The work of the CSW was
hampered by cold war intransigence and the repetitive incantation of rival claims on
women's status. International women's associations, which had long served as advocates
for the advancement of women's rights, found their work complicated by the global
politics of the cold war, with national loyalties and diplomatic alliances complicating
international organization and activism. While the ideological positions of the US and the
USSR on the status of women limited discussion on the causes and cures of women's
discrimination, narrower cold war strategic alliances also had a notable impact on the
advance of international women's rights.

The 1975 Mexico City conference on women, which has been recognized by many
historians as ushering in a new era of women's international activism, was itself the
result of cold war rivalries. The proposal for a UN International Women's Year came from
the Women's International Democratic Foundation, a communist-dominated organization
whose consultative status at the CSW had been suspended between 1954 and 1967 as a
result of cold war wrangling. Once the plan for the IWY had received UN approval,
Warsaw Pact countries planned to mark the occasion with a women's conference in East
Berlin. In an effort to ensure that the cause of women's rights was not dominated by
communist nations, the US State Department gave its support to a UN sponsored
conference for women in Mexico City. The conference in Mexico City was designed to
develop plans to promote the equal rights of women. Although many participants
resented what they saw as the intrusion of politics into efforts toward the global
improvement of women's status, current affairs inevitably directed some of the
proceedings at (p. 533) Mexico City. The issue of the US sponsored overthrow of the
Allende government in Chile, for example, caused a mass walkout of delegates.41

While the cold war thus continued to influence women's international rights, the Mexico
City conference highlighted some of the significant ideological and institutional
challenges to the early cold war framing of international women's rights as a choice
between US and USSR visions of women's roles. By the mid-1960s, multiple challenges
had emerged to these binary positions, which represented the USSR as promoting
women's public role and the US defending her private role. Within the US itself in the

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

early 1960s, cracks were beginning to appear in the ubiquitous idealization of the
housewife. Betty Friedan's 1963 work The Feminine Mystique ruthlessly interrogated the
American promotion of the housewife role. Ironically echoing many of the criticisms that
Soviet journalists and politicians had made, Friedan argued that the American housewife
was less a contented role model and more a frustrated captive. Friedan's work was
hugely significant in sparking the second wave feminist movement in the US, which
would demand government support for American women's public roles as workers,
politicians, athletes, scientists, students, and more. Women who had been politically
active in the civil rights and New Left movements swelled the ranks of American
feminism still further. As women who had protested against these social injustices
became increasingly aware of the sexism both of mainstream society and of the very
protest movement in which they were participating, they took their experience and
insight into campaigns for women's equality and an end to discrimination on account of
sex.42

By the early 1960s groups within the United States were questioning the concentration
on women's domestic role and moving toward an acknowledgment of the role of
government in protecting the rights and equality of women. The time was ripe for such a
challenge. The launching of the Sputnik in October 1957 had sent shockwaves through
the US, convincing many that misguided pursuit of mass consumption and leisure on the
part of the American people had given the Soviets the opportunity to shoot ahead. For
some Americans the ability of the USSR to make such dramatic scientific breakthroughs
was testament not to the achievements of their men but to their willingness to utilize
female talent. The 1963 USSR's launching of the first woman astronaut, Valentina
Vladimirovna Tereshkova, appeared to offer further proof that the national successes of
the Soviet Union were the result of their willingness to develop the public potential of
both men and women.43

While one set of cold war demands, therefore, had promoted the need for American
women to pursue private roles as a housewife, a different set of demands required
support for her public role. Further pressure on the federal government came from the
American labor movement and the feminist movement, both of which had worked
throughout the 1950s for government support for American women as workers. The
Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the removal of statutory restrictions on the number of women
serving as officers in the military represented significant steps in the US government's
recognition of American women's public role.44 While the US government still overtly
promoted the importance of American women's role as a homemaker, (p. 534) legal and
institutional frameworks were gradually but inexorably shifting toward government
protection of woman's public, rather than her private, role.

While challenges were appearing within the US to the housewife model, in the
international arena a significant shift occurred in the approach to the cause and cure of
women's inequality. Since its establishment in 1946 the dominant focus of the UN
Commission on the Status of Women had been on legal and political methods for ensuring
women's rights. Its early work concentrated on securing women's rights through

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

declarations, conventions, and treaties such as the Convention on the Political Rights of
Women (1952), the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women (1957), and the
Convention on the Consent to Marriage (1962).45 This approach had facilitated the
imposition of cold war paradigms on the women's rights agenda by fostering an
understanding of women's rights as an expression of the relationship between the nation-
state and its women citizens. Within this framework debates over whether US or USSR
leadership offered the best chance to secure women's equality seemed appropriate
responses to the challenge of improving women's status.

By the mid-1960s, however, the influence of two emerging groups challenged this state-
centered approach. First, the emergence of both the non-aligned movement (NAM) and of
newly independent, post-colonial states meant that women from outside the east-west
coalitions of the cold war were able to bring a new understanding of women's rights to
international forums. The inclusion of non-aligned and post-colonial nations in formal
international organizations resulted in a dramatically different agenda on women's rights
than that which had prevailed during the early phase of the cold war. As Davaki Jain and
Shubha Chacko argue, “In contrast to the conceptualization of issues relating to women's
status as social or cultural phenomenon and that predominated in other bodies in the
early 1960s . . . [the NAM's] analysis of women in development was sharper and reflected
a more complex understanding of the interconnection between trends in women's role
and status in their societies and the nature and pattern of development processes.”46

Second, the growing influence of the international women's movement was instrumental
in challenging cold war paradigms on women's status. Expectations of cold war national
conformity undoubtedly had a stifling impact on the efforts of women's international
associations in the early cold war period, as women's groups struggled to organize and
unite across the iron curtain.47 As international NGOs grew in size, authority, and
expertise throughout the 1950s and 1960s, however, they played an increasingly
influential role in setting the global agenda.48 The emerging role of women's NGOs forced
the fracturing of the early cold war binary dynamic, wresting control of the direction of
international women's rights from state-led efforts, and encouraging a more grassroots
approach to identifying the cause of and solution to women's inequalities.

The growing importance of women's NGOS can be tracked through their participation in
the international conferences of women organized by the UN in the decade for women
1975–85. Six thousand women participated as NGO representatives at Mexico City in
1975, 7,000 in Copenhagen in 1980, and 14,000 at Nairobi in 1985. Bitter (p. 535)
differences of opinion were evident, as women from different regions disputed questions
of ideology and approach. The question of reproductive rights, for example, central to
women's liberation movements in Western Europe and North America, was seen as less
important to feminists from the global South than issues of economic exploitation.
Despite profound differences, however, women's groups were able to develop strong
international networks, which have taken a radically different approach to women's rights
than that which was contained within early cold war paradigms. Their advocacy served to

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

redirect the agenda on women's international rights to issues such as women's rights as
human rights, the impact of development policies on women's lives, reproductive rights,
and violence against women.49

The influence of these two groups resulted in a move away from cold war alliances and
strategies as the framework for women's international rights and toward an agenda more
in tune with UN trends. Debates over whether US or USSR leadership offered the best
chance to secure women's equality, through their espousal of different models of women's
roles, were replaced by far more complex approaches to women's rights. The declaration
of the United Nations that the 1960s would be the “decade of development” directed the
agenda of the CSW in new ways, making the old dichotomies of the early cold war period
seem outdated and overly dogmatic. New critiques of discrimination against women
focused, not on legal or political inequality, but on the impact of colonialism, poverty,
development policy, and cultural prejudices on women's status. In 1962, the General
Assembly firmly directed the CSW toward the development agenda, requesting that they
direct their attention to plans for a long-term strategy to address the advancement of
women in the developing world.

While work on legal regulation of women's rights continued apace, with the General
Assembly requesting in 1963 that the CSW begin work on what would become the
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW),
the development agenda was becoming increasingly central to the work of the UN.
Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has argued that the expansion of
the UN in the 1960s and 1970s to include newly independent nations had a profound
impact on the direction of women's rights, as “[t]he role of economic relations between
developed and developing nations, which directly and indirectly affected the lives of
women, increasingly overshadowed debates over women's legal equality.”50 The influence
of newly independent states, the burgeoning international feminist movement, and the
emerging agency of women of the global South ensured that the narrow paradigms of the
early cold war could no longer dominate discussions on international women's rights.

Nixon and Khrushchev's jovial invitation to “drink to the ladies” reflected a world in
which women's rights were understood as the gift of overwhelmingly male-led nation-
states. The confidence of the nation-state in its ability to both define the cause of
women's inequality, and to deliver the solution, was embodied in the swagger of Nixon
and Khrushchev during the kitchen debate. This confidence, however, was undermined as
new conceptual and structural frameworks on women's rights emerged in the 1970s. As
both newly independent states and increasingly confident women's international
associations (p. 536) challenged the narrow cold war approach to the global challenge of
women's rights, more complex understandings of the difficulty in securing the status of
women emerged. Emily Rosenberg has categorized this new approach as representing “a
tradition of transnational networks which emphasize both global issues and locally
specific concerns related to human welfare and women's empowerment.”51 Its emergence
has not rendered redundant the old approach which promotes and celebrates the role of
what are still overwhelmingly male-led nation-states in protecting women; Rosenberg has

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

drawn our attention to the powerful narratives of male rescue that accompanied the US-
led intervention into Afghanistan in 2001, for example. What we see in the challenge to
early cold war paradigms on women's rights, then, is not a transition from one approach
to another, but a bifurcation of approaches.

The nuanced and complex understanding of the relationship between discrimination


against women and issues such as globalization, cultural prejudices and expectations, and
family structure which emerged in the 1960s and 70s challenged the relationship
between women's rights and state power which had allowed women's rights to become a
cold war battlefield. In the future, while celebrations of the role of nation-states in the
protection of women could and did continue, such celebrations would be contested by
those who sought to promote the rights of women as a matter of global justice, not a
manifestation of national benevolence.

Select Bibliography
Belmonte, Laura. Selling the American Way: US Propaganda and the Cold War.
Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

Cuordileone, Kyle A. Manhood and American Popular Culture in the Cold War. New York:
Routledge, 2005.

de Haan, Francisca. “Continuing Cold War Paradigms in Western Historiography of


Transnational Women's Organisations: The Case of the Women's International Democratic
Federation (WIDF)”, Women's History Review 19/4 (September 2010): 547–73.

Laville, Helen. Cold War Women: The International Activities of American Women's
Organisations. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2002.

Marling, Karal Ann. As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday life in the 1950s.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York:
Basic Books, 1988.

Meyerwitz, Joanne, ed. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Post-War America 1945–
1960. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1994.

Oldenziel, Ruth and Karen Zachmann (eds). Cold War Kitchen: Americanization,
Technology and European Users. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

Rosenberg, Emily. “Foreign Affairs after World War II: Connecting Sexual and
International Politics,” Diplomatic History 18 (Winter 1994): 59–70.

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

Weigand, Kate. “The Red Menace: The Feminine Mystique, and Ohio Un-American
Activities Commission: Gender and Anti-communism in Ohio, 1951–54,” Journal of
Women's History 3 (Winter 1992): 70–94.

Notes:

(1.) Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday life in the 1950s
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 280.

(2.) See for example Antoinette Burton, ed., Gender, Sexuality and Colonial Modernities
(London: Routledge, 1999); Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and
Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (London: Routledge, 1995).

(3.) Emily S. Rosenberg, “Consuming Women: Images of Americanization in the American


Century,” Diplomatic History 23/3 (Summer 1999): 479–97, at 481.

(4.) Mary Anderson, “The Post-war Role of American women,” The American Economic
Review 34/1 (March 1944): 237–44.

(5.) Life, January 22, 1945, 63.

(6.) See Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New
York: Basic Books, 1988).

(7.) See May, Homeward Bound; Paul Boyer, By the Bomb's Early Light (Chapel Hill, NC:
University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Laura McEnaney, Civil Defense Begins at
Home: Militarization meets Everyday Life in the Fifties (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 2000).

(8.) Katherine Howard, “Address before the National Encampment of the Veterans of
Foreign Wars,” Milwaukee, August 5, 1953. Katherine Graham Howard papers,
Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Boston, box 1, folder 3.

(9.) Federal Civil Defense Administration Newsletter, 16, 1956, Jean Wood Fuller papers
1954–6, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Boston, file 1.

(10.) See May, Homeward Bound, 104–5.

(11.) May, Homeward Bound, 105.

(12.) Miriam G. Reumann, American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender and National Identity
in the Kinsey Reports (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006); Geoffrey Smith,
“National Security and Personal Isolation: Sex, Gender and Disease in the Cold War
United States,” International History Review 14/2 (May 1992): 307–37; Jane Sherron De
Hart, “Containment at Home: Gender, Sexuality and National Identity in Cold War
America,” in Peter J. Kuznick and James Gilbert, eds., Rethinking Cold War Culture

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

(Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001); Michael Rogin, “Kiss me Deadly:
Communism, Motherhood and Cold War Movies,” Representations 6 (Spring 1984): 1–36.

(13.) See Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in
Post-War America (New York: Vintage, 1998).

(14.) Cohen, A Consumer's Republic, 121.

(15.) Cohen, A Consumer's Republic, 148.

(16.) Cited in Kim Berry, “Lakshmi and the Scientific Housewife: A Transnational Account
of Indian Women's Development and Production of an Indian Modernity,” Economic and
Political Weekly 38/11 (March 2003): 1059.

(17.) Laura Belmonte, Selling the American Way: US Propaganda and the Cold War
(Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 149.

(18.) Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “The Crisis of American Masculinity” (1958), in The Politics of
Hope and The Bitter Heritage: American Liberalism in the 1960s (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 2008), 291.

(19.) See for example Kyle A. Cuordileone, Manhood and American Popular Culture in the
Cold War (New York: Routledge, 2005); Robert Corber, Homosexuality in Cold War
America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
1997), Robert Dean, Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign
Policy (Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001).

(20.) Robert Dean, “Masculinity as Ideology: John F. Kennedy and the Domestic Politics of
Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History 22/1 (Winter 1998): 29–62, at 45.

(21.) Dean, “Masculinity as Ideology,” 46.

(22.) Dean, “Masculinity as Ideology,” 30.

(23.) See David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and
Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

(24.) Life, February 12, 1945, Advertisement for Gas, 111.

(25.) Rosenberg, “Consuming Women,” 488.

(26.) David Riesman, “The Nylon War” (1951), in Abundance for What? And other Essays
(London: Chatto and Windus, 1964), 63.

(27.) Susan E. Reid, “‘Our Kitchen is Just as Good!’ Soviet Responses to the American
Kitchen,” in Ruth Oldenziel and Karen Zachmann, eds., Cold War Kitchen:
Americanization, Technology and European Users (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 83–
112, at 83.

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

(28.) Susan E. Reid, “Cold War Kitchen: Gender and the De-Stalinization of Consumer
Taste in the Soviet Union under Khruschev,” Slavic Review 61/2 (Summer 2002): 211–52.

(29.) Mariette Shaginian, cited by Reid, “‘Our Kitchen is just as Good,’” 104.

(30.) “UN Council Votes Equal Rights for Women,” New York Times, August 7, 1948.

(31.) UNESCO, Commission on Human Rights Meeting, New York, May 20, 1952 (E/CN.4/
SR.301). National Women's Party Papers 1913–1974 (Microfilming Corporation of
America, 1979), series VII, reel 146.

(32.) Commission on the Status of Women, second session, New York, January 7, 1948.
The National Women's Party Papers 1913–1974, (NWP papers hereafter), series VII, reel
145 Microfilming Corporation of America (1979, Sanford, North Carolina).

(33.) Resolution submitted by the delegation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,
January 1948. NWP papers, series VII, reel 145.

(34.) Commission on Status of Women, second session, New York, January 8, 1948. NWP
papers, series VII, reel 145.

(35.) Susan L. Carruthers, Cold War Captives: Imprisonment, Escape and Brainwashing
(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009), 43.

(36.) Meeting of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and Status of Women, October 4,
1948, Division of Special Services and Publications, General records, 1918–62, Records of
the Women's Bureau 1892–1972: Records of the International Division, (WB papers
hereafter), box 12 National Archive's and Records Administration (NARA), College Park,
MD).

(37.) “A Delegate from the Great Plains of the USA,” United Nations News for Women
Broadcasters, 1953, NWP papers, series VII, reel 145.

(38.) Office memo to Miss Miller from Sara Buchanan, September 29, 1949, Status of
Women: Replies to Points of Criticism raised by Polish and USSR representatives, WB
papers, box 3.

(39.) New York Times, December 16, 1948.

(40.) See Helen Laville, Cold War Women: The International Activities of American
Women's Organisations (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002).

(41.) See Jocelyn Olcott, “Globalizing Sisterhood: International Women's Year and the
Politics of Representation,” in Niall Ferguson, Charles S. Maier, Erez Manela, and Daniele
J Sargent, eds., The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective (Cambridge, MA:
Belknap Press, 2010), 281–93.

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Gender and Women's Rights in the Cold War

(42.) See Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil
Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Vintage Books, 1980).

(43.) See Petra Goedde, “World Cultures since 1945,” in Akira Iriye Global
Interdependence: The World Since 1945. Vol. 6 of  The History of the World (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

(44.) Cynthia Harrison, “A ‘New Frontier’ for Women: The Public Policy of the Kennedy
Administration,” Journal of American History 67/3 (December 1980): 630–46.

(45.) A notable exception to this approach was the early work of the Commission on the
issue of customs and traditions that harmed women, such as widow burning, genital
mutilation, and childhood marriage.

(46.) Davaki Jain and Shubha Chacko, “Walking Together: The Journey of the Non-Aligned
Movement and the Women's Movement,” Development in Practice 19/7 (2009): 895–905,
at 898.

(47.) Francisca de Haan, “Continuing Cold War Paradigms in Western Historiography of


Transnational Women's Organisations: The Case of the Women's International Democratic
Federation (WIDF),” Women's History Review 19:4 (September 2010): 547–73.

(48.) See Peter Willetts, “From Consultative Arrangements to Partnership: The Changing
Status of NGOs in Diplomacy at the United Nations,’ Global Governance 6 (April-June
2000): 191–212.

(49.) See for example Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists beyond Borders:
Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

(50.) Boutros Boutros-Ghali, “Introduction,” The United Nations and the Advancement of
Women, United Nations Blue Book Series, Vol. VI (New York: Department of Public
Information, United Nations, 1995), 26.

(51.) Emily Rosenberg, “Rescuing Women and Children,” The Journal of American History
89/2 (September 2002): 465.

Helen Laville

Helen Laville is a Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of


Birmingham, UK.

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