A Consumer's Republic

How the GI Bill and the FHA Solidified the Traditional Family
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 18 2003 6:31 PM

A Consumer's Republic

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Dear Chris,

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You're right that Cohen's analysis of the GI Bill is one of the best parts of the book. By now, we're pretty familiar with the idea that the postwar years saw a re-domestication of American women. They were turned away en masse from the jobs they'd held during World War II (many of which, to be fair, had originally belonged to veterans who deserved them back). Female college enrollment, as Friedan pointed out, plummeted. And getting married—and having kids—as early as possible became par for the course. (In 1956, the average girl got married at 20.)

Often, this story gets told simply as a cultural shift—as a kind of return to normalcy after the chaos of the war. (After the Ardennes Forest and Iwo Jima, the only thing veterans wanted, the argument goes, was that white picket fence.) The quest for stability undoubtedly had something to do with what happened. But Cohen puts meat on that story, showing how the concrete reality of the GI Bill, the Federal Home Administration (which provided low-cost mortgages), and the tax system made it very difficult for women to thrive as anything other than part of a couple in which the man was the primary breadwinner.

We mostly associate the GI Bill with education, and as you suggest, its impact in that respect was immense. But it's clear that the entire economic system was, to put it bluntly, tilted in favor of men after World War II. Because of the FHA and the Veterans Administration, it was easier for men (at least those men who were veterans) to get mortgages and easier for them to start small businesses. New Jersey even passed a law that provided veterans with low-cost loans to buy furniture and appliances. Meanwhile, the introduction of the joint tax return (which, at the time, wasn't a marriage penalty but actually a marriage benefit) made it economically rational to have families with only one breadwinner.

Cohen also convincingly shows how lenders of all kinds discriminated against women as a matter of course. Single women had a harder time getting credit cards than single men did. (If you were a divorced, separated, or widowed woman, your prospects were even worse.) A married woman could not have a credit card account in her own name. (It was held by her husband.) Most bizarrely, until the 1970s, if a couple in which the woman worked applied for a VA loan, they had to produce a "baby letter" from a doctor, testifying that the couple was either sterile, using birth control, or committed to having an abortion in the event the woman got pregnant.

Of course, there were reasons for lenders to be warier of women's earnings prospects and credit ratings than they were of men's. But reading Cohen, I couldn't help feeling that there was a vicious circle at work, in which making it harder for single women to succeed made it harder for single women to succeed. The changes over the last 30 years in gender relations haven't been simply attitudinal. They've also been financial and institutional.

In that sense, Cohen's discussion of the GI Bill and everything surrounding it represents what I like best about A Consumer's Republic, namely the way she shows how all these things we take for granted were, at least in part, the product of specific political and economic choices. The consequences of those choices may not always have been intended (though Cohen does have this amazing quote from the legislative counsel of the IRS, who said the joint-income return would mean that women could now turn away from business and "to the pursuit of homemaking"). But that didn't lessen their impact. If suburbia was a place where Ward and June Cleaver thrived, it's because it was designed with them in mind, in some sense.

This doesn't mean that, in the absence of the GI Bill and the FHA, the traditional family would have become an endangered species. But I think it does mean that it's a mistake to look at the way middle-class Americans lived in the 1950s as somehow natural or apolitical. All our choices are shaped, consciously or not, by the world we live in. And Cohen makes a powerful case that, in the immediate postwar years, the economics and institutions of the Consumers' Republic suggested that there was only one acceptable place for women: the home.

I'd also like to talk about race and suburbia, but I'm out of space, so maybe tomorrow. I do have two questions for you, one specific and one more general. The specific question has to do with conservative politics and Cohen's discussion of the GI Bill. A staple of one strand of modern conservatism has been a healthy dose of family-values rhetoric, which is generally accompanied by the assertion that traditional gender roles reflect deep and natural differences between men and women. Cohen's analysis doesn't preclude an acceptance of those differences, but I think we both agree that she shows how the GI Bill, etc., stacked the deck against any alternative to traditional gender roles. Does this have any implications for modern conservatism?

The second has to do with Cohen's quasi-lament, near the book's end, that Americans now think of their relationship to government as similar to the relationship between a customer and a store. Thinking of government services as something you consume, she suggests, is bad for civic virtue and solidarity. What did you make of this?

Best,
Jim

James Surowiecki writes the financial column at The New Yorker.