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Faehmel offers insight into women's internal struggles with equality.

June Cleaver is the quintessential 1950s woman. She is the happy housewife who is content to do nothing but cook, clean and care for her husband and children. And she does all of that in a stylish dress, pearls and high-heeled pumps with perfectly coiffed hair and tasteful makeup. Often when we think of women in the 1950s, that is what we picture, and that is what society expected from them at the time.

But in 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, which explored the idea that many women were unhappy in the role of housewife.

Fifty years later, Babette Faehmel has both expanded upon and challenged Friedan's ideas in College Women in the Nuclear Age: Cultural Literacy and Female Identity, 1940-1960 (Rutgers University Press, 2012), which uses journal entries and letters written by college women at liberal arts colleges to explore the ideas of autonomy and professional ambition versus societal norms and the desire to marry. Written in an academic yet engaging tone, her exploration into these aspects of women's lives offers a valuable insight that has not previously been discussed.

Friedan argues that women were "dupable consumers" who were pressured into marriage, and without feeling like they had a choice, found themselves unhappy in those circumstances. Faehmel, on the other hand, attempts to show that, while many of these women began their college studies with ambitions for fulfilling careers in writing or academia, they eventually made up their own minds to live the domestic life instead.

"Through their own choices, college women of this period thus still seem to confirm feminist historian Eileen Kendall's 1976 argument that as 'chief casualties of the feminine mystique; they followed 'with appalling docility' the period's most conservative prescriptions;' Faehmel says in the introduction.

The biggest problem with that is that she never proves that point. Though we can't be completely sure of what's going on in the heads of these women because we don't have the complete picture, through the quotes Faehmel chose to use, the impression is given that these women did arrive at that decision themselves. But later, Faehmel herself disproves that theory by following up with those women and discovering that most of them divorced their husbands and followed succesful career paths instead. So unless they all just changed their minds, it is likely that they all still held onto those original feelings of ambition, but gave in to society's pressures instead.

To make her point, Faehmel uses the diary entries and letters of 32 White, heterosexual, middle-class women attending college during the Cold War era. Though the same demographic group was used by both authors, this perspective differs from Friedan's approach of interviewing women long after they'd graduated and settled into the housewife role. By that time, their mindsets had changed since their college years, as mindsets are wont to do. As such, the recollections of their feelings during those years may have been clouded and skewed by a changed attitude. In an attempt to get a dearer picture, Faehmel used the personal accounts of the women experiencing those feelings, recorded at the time the feelings were being experienced.

Since her sources are largely diary entries, it is safe to assume that the feelings recorded are the true feelings of the authors. The opinions are not recalled from memory nor skewed in order to please an audience. The use of these accounts also makes for a more interesting read. Academic and dry at times, the accounts from these women make it more intimate and intriguing.

On the other hand, the entire book is built around 10 journals and about 20 letters, a sampling that is far too small to be conclusive. To be fair, she used everything that she could find, but it still does not paint the entire picture for us. Aside from the small sampling, the demographic of the women belongs to one group, again, not giving us the whole picture.

I also would have liked to see some more of the students' words as I was reading. Faehmel did weave in some quotes from the diaries and letters and attempted to dissect and explain them in context, but those that were used were sparse and short, and at times, seemed to be used to reach to a conclusion that just wasn't there. For example, Faehmel used an excerpt from a woman's diary in which the student expresses that she is proud of herself for having cared for her brother after he'd had too much to drink because it was a selfless act, and she could see how women could find joy in being mothers. On this, Faehmel writes, "The desire for literary fame and individualistic fulfillment that had characterized the earlier daydream is clearly absent from this entry." Of course it is, since it is not related to that specific event. Throughout the book, she provided plenty of quality quotes that directly supported her points; it was not necessary to try to stretch the additional quotes to try to make them support her points.

All in all, Faehmel did an excellent job of illustrating women's conflicting feelings about individuality and marriage during that time period, though she didn't end up making the point she was trying to make. Dry at times, but mostly interesting and engaging, the content of this book provides a different perspective that allows for more voices to join the conversation on the road to equality for women.
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Title Annotation:diverse bookshelf; 'College Women in the Nuclear Age: Cultural Literacy and Female Identity, 1940-1960'
Author:Fantus, Cherise
Publication:Diverse Issues in Higher Education
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 14, 2013
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