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A Bicycle Party. American Home Magazine, February 1897.

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What Women Did for Their Country in the War with Spain; San Francisco Call, 29 January 1899, p.19.

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You can help—American Red Cross; W. T. Benda. 1918.

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Smith College students in tennis outfits and holding racquets on the steps of Washburn House, c1889.

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20th Century technological innovation transformed the private sphere for women. Machinery aided in the daily household tasks. Yet, historian Ruth Cowan argued that “housewives with conveniences were spending just as much time on household duties as were housewives without them.”[1] The quandary of mechanizing the domestic sphere meant that rather than “Blue Monday” laundry day being reserved for single day,  the washing machine allowed a women to expand this into a daily task.

[1] Ruth Schwartz Cowan, “The ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the Twentieth Century” in Technology and Culture 17 (1976) 489.

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Kitty Cramer was the first Kodak Girl, a company marketing plan which first developed in 1893 that catered to the female market. The simplistic camera design gave its users a sense of modernity and fashion. These ads displayed a lady-of-leisure to encourage this pastime.

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Simplicity, 1951.

This sewing pattern publication provided step-by-step guides to manufacturing clothing. Simplicity started in 1931. It was an instrumental aspect to homemakers during the Great Depression who relied on fashionable, mimic-able designs that would save their family money. 

1951 Pattern

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Vietnam War: A Shift in Women’s Roles

Image: Dorothy Marder’s photography of Women Strike for Peace

The Vietnam War challenged traditional gendered roles with the destruction of the family unit due to removal of male figureheads who were prisoners of war. The United States framed Vietnam as the destroyers of an institution by holding these captured men.[1] Natasha Zaretsky argued that “whatever the physical wounds the United States military had inflicted on Vietnam, the psychological wounds inflicted by the Vietnamese on the United States were ultimately more dire.”[2] Families were torn apart and the state asserted that this was an “epidemic of male absenteeism with dire consequences for family and nation alike.”[3] The lack of men in traditional positions at home forced women into the workplace. Females became the viable source of authority for the family. Wives engaged in anti-war activism and earned prominent roles in society.[4] The source of empowerment and independence caused marital problems when men returned from war. Dissent arose from the war-related problems and couples filed for divorce in exponential numbers.[5] Children suffered from unstable family situations and questioned authority. The lack of male leadership led to frustrated and rebellious young adults.[6] This emerging generation experienced a severe shift in gender roles. Since the traditional male authority position transferred to the mothers, they redefined the meaning of an authentic family unit.


[1] Natasha Zaretsky, No Direction Home (Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press, 2007), 27.

[2] Ibid., 31.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Ibid., 46.

[5] Ibid., 47.

[6] Ibid., 53.

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