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50 Years After Friedan, A Fresh Look into “Nuclear Age” (Women) Scholars

Review: College Women in the Nuclear Age: Cultural Literacy and Female Identity, 1940-1960 by Babette Faehmel (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013)

Babette Faehmel, College Women in the Nuclear Age (Rutgers, 2013)

In search of a good read, I stumbled upon Babette Faehmel’s new publication College Women in the Nuclear Age: Cultural Literacy and Female Identity, 1940-1960 and was thrilled to discover a text that took on an issue in America’s history that I feel has been overlooked in recent years: the lives of collegiate women during World War II and Cold War. Possibly due to current popular obsession with retro culture (think of HBO’s Mad Men or clothing stores like Mod Cloth) this compelling study eases its way into both pleasure-reading and academic conversation. It is equally a quick, enjoyable read and thought-provoking inquiry that takes its place among women’s studies classics by Barbara Solomon, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz and Linda Eisenmann.

Faehmel’s revisionist framework relies on Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, published exactly fifty years ago in 1963, but acknowledges that she is not the first to do so. Faehmel seeks to bring forth new sources that counter the simplistic “mystique” thesis, proving the oft-criticized search for domestic happiness “was not because they had uncritically fallen for a ‘mystique’ of finding fulfillment in a narrowly defined sex role. Rather, they actively participated in the definition of their gender role… for their own complex and strategic reasons.”[1] Faehmel capitalizes on the pre-Facebook/email world and boasts droves of letters and diaries at her disposal. She pulls from similar sources as Friedan, focusing on upper-middle class white protestant women. The primary reason for this, she claims, is that elite institutions have better archive holdings and ethnic minority women did not place such a high importance on keeping diaries or letters. I question the viability of this assertion and wonder if all outlets were utilized. Many small, non-elite women’s colleges might provide needed representation of other groups.

Her explanation of the return to domesticity after WWII is intriguing. During WWII, large numbers of women attended higher education and  “women served as the transmitters of values and culture to their families, [thus] wartime commentators turned to female students as the brokers of the ideas of democracy.”[2] Faehmel argues that while “Rosie’s” worked in factories and G.I. Jane’s served in the military, both (possibly) understood their roles were temporary. College women did not consider their situation transitory. After the war, a renegotiation was required for these women who desired a career but did not want to go against standards of social cohesion so important after the war.  She acknowledges the undercurrents of feminism before 1970 by women in labor and in the civil rights movement, but admits, “Female undergraduates grappled with definitions of femininity and examined the relative importance of cultural and biological factors in shaping gender role expectations.”[3] What it meant to be a woman with a college degree in the 1950s is much more complex than Friedan made it to be.

Faehmel’s argument for greater agency held by collegiate women during the interwar years is convincing. She gathers plenty of examples that support her claim and acknowledges the limits she faced in research (possibly too narrow). However, the early emphasis on Friedan’s research falls short later in the book. The reader is led to believe that the Feminine Mystique is an important aspect to Faehmel’s research, but the 1963 text is rarely mentioned past the introduction. It is possible that the author did not want to rely too much on Friedan’s research and sought to provide a firm foundation for her new research, but then this is a limitation of the introduction.

In the end, College Women in the Nuclear Age is a delightful book. Faehmel’s prose is engaging and her sources are captivating. She makes a solid argument for a renewed look into the lives of college women in the 1940s and 1950s as agents of their own future, even if it is one of marriage and motherhood. Feminists and women’s historians should consider Faehmel’s findings as a support for later social changes of the Women’s Movement.


[1] Babette Faehmel, College Women in the Nuclear Age, 2.

[2] Ibid., 21.

[3] Ibid., 165.

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