History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: Cold War

Gender and Sexuality click here for audio

Feminismphotograph of Simone de Beauvoir

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

--Simone de Beauvoir, 1953

Simone de Beauvoir created modern feminist theory.

Her life is interesting. She was a teenager during the freedom of the 1920s, and was frequently at odds with her beourgois parents regarding appropriate fashion and independence. Since they had no dowry for her, her family sent her to university at Sorbonne. There she became a teacher, novelist, and activist. She also began a life-long affair with existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, but they were not exclusive and didn't want to marry. She led a sexually free life, her middle-class money allowing her to obtain both birth control and abortion although they were illegal in France.

In her book The Second Sex, she noted Western culture as male-dominant and oppressive to women, who are born free but made to see themselves as secondary in society. She criticized the reassertion of traditional values that followed Woirld War II. In showing how traditional science, history, and social sciences relegated women to a role as "the other" in society, she lay the groundwork for scholarly studies demonstrating the exclusion of women from the products of intellectual endeavor: literature, history, art, etc. Today there are plenty of reflections of what she began; for example, the current movement to include women in medical drug studies.

Homosexuality submerged

The post-war era saw the simultaneous Soldiers gathered around munitionevolution of the gay community and the anti-gay movement. World War II had caused changes in sexual contacts: the combat military was mostly male, the home front workers mostly female. Same-sex contact was thus increased, and provided an environment for exploring sexual identity and developing close friendships.

But the Cold War era environment was highly restrictive, emphasizing a reassertion of traditional gender roles and behaviour. Women were supposed to be in the home, men in the public workplaces. Homosexuals were attacked, especially in the U.S., where they were purged from the armed forces, banned from federal jobs, harrassed by police if they lived openly, and subjected to state laws against sexual deviancy. Those who rebelled against the norms of the day, such as Beat Generation writers, even if they weren't gay, became heroes for turning traditional values upside down. cover of The Ladder: a Lesbian Review, with Statue of LibertyThese cultural rebels against the suburban "Leave it to Beaver" mentality of the 1950s created an option that would set the pattern for the social rebellion of the 60s.

But during the 1950s, there were basically two options for gays. You could "come out", going public with your sex life, frequenting known gay bars and dressing in the clothes expected in that particular gay area. Doing this would pave the way for the future by bringing forth injustice and discrimination. Groups formed like the Daughters of Bilitis (1955) and The Mattachine Society (1951) to help gays create communities. The other option, taken by most, was to publicly deny your homosexuality, keeping friendships but ignoring or denying any sexual context. Because this was the most frequent response, post-war homosexuality is hard to study, as it became submerged in literature and public culture. It wasn't until the Stonewall event of 1968 occurred that open communities became popular.


To Literature ->

Top