Was the Greatest Generation Bad for Women?
A Consumer's Republic
Was the Greatest Generation Bad for Women?
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 18 2003 11:44 AM

A Consumer's Republic


Dear Jim,

You closed yesterday by asking if these citizen consumers really wanted price controls. It sounds like they did, and more. It sounds, in fact, like many of the firstwave of citizen consumers—the ones who most zealously sought out roles as bloc-committee snitches for the Office of Price Administration—were Communists. Cohen is happy to credit them with "spontaneous consumer organization," yet she accuses of red-baiting Martin Dies, Frederick J. Schlink of Consumers' Research, and other right-wingers who would blame citizen consumers for the same thing.


As I say, I think "citizen" here is, often as not, just an umbrella term for "left wing," and "consumer" is used broadly enough to cover those who consume real estate, public education, and bank loans. So Cohen's vague rubric allows her the freedom to cherry-pick the political conflicts of the Suburban Half-Century that interest her most. There is one episode that I found more enlightening than the others, even groundbreaking: Cohen's skeptical treatment of the GI Bill.

When I read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1962) a couple of years ago, I was struck by its conservatism. Friedan did not lament the perennial subordination of women so much as she deplored the ground they had lost in the two decades since she graduated from Smith. Had the trajectory of women's rights preceding World War II prevailed, she implied, the perennial questions would have taken care of themselves. What happened to stop women's advancement in its tracks? This is a shoe that, in The Feminine Mystique, never drops.

Friedan refers to her subject as "the problem that has no name." But really, it is the problem that dare not speak its name. The problem is veterans' kudos, which those who served in World War II were able to parlay into concrete institutional advantages. These, in turn, not only halted the train of women's rights but set it running full speed in reverse. Friedan is not alone in her circumspection; an unwillingness to interrupt the past few years' rah-rah-ing over the "Greatest Generation" may be the reason there is still no authoritative history of the GI Bill. Cohen, however, is willing to place some of the blame for women's regression squarely on the GI Bill (and related legislation). True, her case is hyperbolic: She cites a University of Chicago study to claim that, "by and large, those who entered colleges or universities were young men who would have gone on to higher education anyway." And Cohen should be faulted for indulging an unscholarly political correctness: She faults the GI Bill for homophobia, on the grounds that it denied benefits to the dishonorably discharged, including gays—as if a gay-friendly alternative were imaginable in the America of the late 1940s.

But the evidence Cohen musters for the deterioration of women's educational position as a result of the war is good. She shows that the percentage of Seattle women aged 18 to 24 enrolled in school dropped from 20 percent in 1940 to 14 percent in 1947. (Two non-war years, so the excuse that they were merely "holding" traditionally male spots won't wash.) After having discussed Cohen's tendency to lard on evidence, I should say that this is one place where more is needed. Such evidence is readily available in The Feminine Mystique—for instance, the datum that "the proportion of women attending college in comparison with men dropped from 47 percent in 1920 to 35 percent in 1958." But Friedan didn't have the boldness to attack this sacred cow. Cohen does. She doesn't prove that the GI Bill was a mistake; but she does show that its gains were offset by side effects and hidden costs.

That leaves me little space to discuss Cohen's defense of the various MountLaurel decisions passed by the New Jersey Supreme Court over the past three decades. These were meant to end the de facto racial segregation that had resulted from the state's decidedly pastoral zoning laws, and they have had destabilizing side effects. Rich suburbs were originally required to build tracts of low-income housing to remedy the disparate impact of lot-size requirements. Eventually, these towns and townships were able to meet their requirements by sending large sums of money to poorer communities. These transfers have been viewed as protection money and send suburbanites into a blind rage. When covering state political campaigns in New Jersey, I've noticed that Republican candidates attack the MountLaurel decisions on the stump from one end of the state to the other, while Democrats mumble evasions of the mend-it-don't-end-it variety and hope the problem will go away. So I welcomed—while not exactly buying—the detailed and compelling case Cohen makes for the MountLaurel decisions in these pages. It's the first time I've ever heard them defended.


Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. His book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West will be published in the United States in July.

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