The Fifties, freedom, and the future of the family

We need to imagine a post-Roe world that is something other than a return to a status quo ante.

An American family watching television together, c. 1958. (Image: Evert F. Baumgardner/Wikipedia)

The overturn of Roe v. Wade should be a cause of celebration for all Catholics and people of good will. Alas, Catholics remain divided along political lines of left and right, while Americans cannot even seem to agree on the meaning of good will.

The supposedly conservative majority that signed on to Dobbs broke with judicial conservatism by overturning a half century of legal rulings that had reaffirmed Roe. Though the Samuel Alito’s majority decision invoked some countervailing legal precedents, it also employed a characteristically liberal tactic of looking to higher principles (albeit, conservative principles) outside of the law to guide a decision about the law: namely, “history and tradition.”

Of course, for the past fifty years, both sides of the abortion wars have claimed to have history on their side: pro-lifers have invoked the Declaration of Independence’s “right to life,” while pro-abortionists have invoked the principle of equality so central to the American Founding. Catholics have no need of American history to guide them on how to think about the issue of abortion. In moving forward in a post-Roe world, we do, however, need to look at the historic meanings of equality and how these have applied to women in America.

Much of the pro-abortion response to Dobbs has been predictably hysterical—and historical. That is, pro-abortionists accuse the Supreme Court of “turning back the clock,” setting the stage for a reorganization of society along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale (a curious chronological argument, given that the story is set in the future). Dobbs forces no one to have children and does not make abortion illegal, but in allowing states to ban abortion, opponents accuse the Supreme Court of empowering states to deny women full citizenship. This argument is a little less hysterical, depending on how one defines citizenship. Again, citizenship has had different meanings over time.

The debate over African-American citizenship in the era of Civil War and Reconstruction provides one fruitful analogy. Toward the end of the Civil War, the North was mostly agreed upon the need to abolish slavery (the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865). Ending slavery did not necessarily make the freedmen citizens. The path to full citizenship required two more amendments: the Fourteenth (ratified in 1868), which guaranteed equal civil rights; and the Fifteenth (ratified in 1870) which granted male freedmen the right to vote. Though legally often considered the property of men, white women in the United States were never chattel slaves and had no need of emancipation in the narrow sense; still, nineteenth-century feminists chose to push for voting rights before civil rights, achieving victory with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Some quickly moved on to push for an Equal Rights Amendment starting in the early 1920s, but the initial movement of the early 1920s failed, as have later efforts in subsequent decades.

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, African Americans had full citizenship in theory, if not in fact. Women did not even have full citizenship in theory. This was particularly true in the case of employment. Employers were free to pay women less for doing the same work as men or to restrict them to lower-paying occupations; they were free to fire young single women once they married, based on the assumption that married women should be at home raising children. These practices reflected traditional assumptions about women’s subordination to men and the primacy of motherhood and domesticity in the life of women. Even feminist historians concede that most women accepted these distinctions and hierarchies at the time.

Still, a certain disconnect or cognitive dissonance began to develop. Women received mixed messages: they were told both that their place was in the private sphere of the home, yet also that they were citizens with a duty to participate in the public sphere through voting. This disconnect only intensified in the post-World War II years, when women were encouraged to participate in the great expansion of higher education—if only to provide an interesting companion to their college-educated husband!

This historical situation, rather than any direct rejection of family life, set the stage for the Second Wave Feminism associated with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). Friedan had attended Smith College, one of the “Seven Sisters,” the elite women’s colleges linked to the still all-male Ivy League colleges. No longer mere finishing schools issuing “Mrs” degrees, these schools increasingly offered a curriculum on par with the male Ivies, one that could qualify ambitious young women for the kind of professional employment generally restricted to men.

Friedan had such ambitions, but dropped out of a graduate program in psychology to get married and raise a family. She directed her creative energies into writing for women’s magazines that celebrated what she called “the feminine mystique”: the notion that women could find fulfillment in simply being wives and mothers. She never found the fulfillment she wrote about; her frustration led to a rebellion expressed in her famous book.

Friedan quickly progressed from author to activist. She founded the National Organization of Women (NOW) in 1966. The Feminine Mystique and the founding manifesto of NOW both called for women to have equal opportunity for employment outside of the home; neither mentioned abortion. Second Wave Feminism’s initial vision of female citizenship seemed to challenge 1950s ideals of family life only to the extent of advocating for a greater work-home balance for women.

Within a few years, contraception and abortion would be non-negotiable requirements for full citizenship.

What happened? It is tempting to blame radical feminists or simply the general radicalism of the 1960s. As I argued years ago in my World Made Safe for Differences, those trying to understand the great upheavals of that decade too often miss the roots of rebellion in the 1950s. Feminists demanded birth control and abortion in part to pursue traditionally male careers that were not particularly compatible with the burdens of child-bearing and child-rearing. They also demanded these to secure for themselves a male ideal of sexual freedom that had become curiously respectable in the supposedly conservative 1950s—an ideal embodied by no less a figure than the first Catholic President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.

Considering the political careers of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, sexual libertinism no longer seems to disqualify a person from pursing and attaining the presidency. Not so in 1960, the year of Kennedy’s election. Public figures were expected to show due respect for the sixth commandment, even if American popular culture had for quite some time shown tolerance for tantalizing audiences with fantasies of transgression. As Steven Watts has argued in his book JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier, Kennedy was the first public figure to bring these two worlds together—and did so at a time when the popular culture was quickly abandoning its nominal respect for traditional taboos. Watts understands Kennedy in the context of what I would call the “quiet sexual revolution” of the 1950s, one in which the main protagonists were middle-class white males rebelling against the demands of fatherhood, an increasingly bureaucratized work environment and a general culture of conformity. Deprived of the old challenges of settling the frontier, the beleaguered, emasculated American male would find liberation on a new frontier of sexual liberation.

The decade known for sentimental family television shows such as Father Knows Best also gave birth to a male rebellion against family life best captured by the emergence of Playboy, which began publication in 1953. Watts shows how the magazine’s founder, Hugh Hefner, an erstwhile Midwestern “organization man” himself, took pornography out of the dark shadows and linked it to a glamorous, sophisticated lifestyle that promised the American male plenty of sex without the responsibilities of family life. The dramatic growth in the magazine’s circulation—from 185,000 in 1954 to a million in 1959—suggests that Hefner’s message clearly struck a chord with the American male. By decade’s end, Hefner had crossed over into the media mainstream with his own television program, Playboy’s Penthouse. Though conforming to the requirements of network censors, the show served as an advertisement for the decidedly non-network pleasures that awaited viewers in Playboy magazine itself. In 1960, Hefner, a registered Republican, claimed that John F. Kennedy embodied all that he envisioned for the Playboy lifestyle.

Kennedy certainly lived the Playboy lifestyle in his private life, but could never explicitly offer this as a new vision for American manhood and expect to become president. Still, he seemed to endorse it indirectly, by association. Journalists were more than willing to provide a family un-friendly gloss on the swooning of women who attended Kennedy political rallies; most notoriously, Norman Mailer projected all of his own sexual aggressiveness on to Kennedy in an influential 1960 Esquire article, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket;” many other media pundits concurred with Mailer’s assessment. Kennedy himself seemed to endorse a carefree, predatory male sexuality by his very public association with Frank Sinatra and the infamous Las Vegas “Rat Pack”—an association so close that historians have come to call Sinatra’s gang the “Jack Pack.” Ian Fleming’s relentlessly womanizing James Bond character seemed to give a Cold War imprimatur to the Playboy lifestyle and Kennedy was quick to embrace the character as just the kind of hero the West needed to fight communism; he even arranged a private screening of the first Bond film, Dr. No, at the White House in 1962.

How an America completely at ease with the bedroom scenes of the early Bond films could be shocked by the “free love” of the late 1960s still remains unclear. Aside from the counter-culture’s rejection of Cold War politics and middle-class consumerism, the most distinctive feature of the so-called sexual revolution was women’s insistence that they be equal participants, not simply sex toys for predatory males but autonomous sexual actors themselves. Given the already highly sexualized culture in which Betty Friedan inaugurated Second Wave Feminism, it is not surprising that the demand for workplace equality quickly expanded to include bedroom equality. This larger context is essential to understanding how support for birth control and abortion entered the mainstream of American politics and culture.

American bishops should be praised for their stress on the need to care for women who find themselves in crisis pregnancies with no recourse to abortion and meager resources with which to support a child. Catholic pro-lifers have the responsibility to make good on the promise to “love them both.” This emphasis, while necessary, fails to address the deeper root causes of the rise of our pro-choice culture. The big push for legitimizing birth control and abortion came not from troubled teens or poor minorities, but rather from middle-class women seeking full equality with their middle-class male peers, along with the personal and professional independence that equality would bring.

As I have argued in my two previous articles (here and here), ideas such as “equality” and “independence,” so central to the American political tradition, have not served American family life particularly well. The Dobbs decision could provide an opportunity to develop an alternative language. The Catholic understanding of complimentary between the sexes has the potential to inspire new visions of mutual dependence; it must move beyond the social idea of the stay-at-home-Mom and the go-to-work Dad. We need to imagine a post-Roe world that is something other than a return to a status quo ante.

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About Dr. Christopher Shannon 24 Articles
Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014). His book American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World was published in June 2022 by Ignatius Press.


  1. When I worked for a Catholic school a couple decades ago a generous parent gifted each school employee with an illustrated Catechism originally published in 1954.
    In the section of the Catechism on marriage and family issues it states that one out of three pregnancies end in abortion.
    Ive wondered where they got that statistic from and if it reflected global or US data. But in any case it suggests that feticide has always been with us, even in the 1950s, just as other types of sin and assaults on human life. Thankfully at least after Roe each state can’t be forced to protect abortionists and their craft.

    • What used to be called “miscarriage” is called “spontaneous abortion” in medical terminology.

      2022 ICD-10-CM Diagnosis Code O03.9
      Complete or unspecified spontaneous abortion without complication

      You cannot look at a 70 year old document and impute contemporary, non-technical meanings into text written then.

      When moderns refer to abortion, they mean induced abortion. It is not plausible that in 1954 they mean induced abortions.

      • Thank you so much for sharing that Pitchfork Rebel but I just looked back to double check and my Catechism is clearly is talking about direct abortion. And it did say that it was estimated one in three pregnancies end in that in the USA. So that’s rather surprising.
        And I see now that the first copyright was 1949. My edition is reprinted from 1954.
        Yes, I do know the difference between spontaneous and direct or induced abortions. My Catechism book was describing the evil of direct abortions, not unforeseen miscarriages. Thank you for the reminder to go back and verify that.
        The book is titled:.My Catholic Faith, A Catechism In Pictures. I refer to it all the time and am very grateful to the parent who shared it with me years ago.

  2. Well done! But, only “bedrooms?”
    In village Nigeria the virginity of young girls is very highly valued, but too often ravaged by Islamic terrorist abductors. While in Western cities such dignity is consensually squandered with barely a thought above the belt. In the fields of Woodstock, in parked cars and in motel dives, as well as in bedrooms supplied by one or maybe both post-Christian parents.

    So, on second thought, and in our tech-savvy culture, surely there must be a technical “fix” to reset everything, something to be invented into the Constitution and then mainstreamed and funded by the Beltway culture in D.C.—by the rich “Uncle Sam” as a national symbol who long ago replaced the “Father” of our country.

    The U.S. Supreme Court has shined a light on our inter-generational betrayal. But, hey, within the Church, as possibly the last tottering bastion of Western or human civilization, why not just go with the tunnel vision of the German “synodal way”? Under the pseudo-scientific “paradigm shift,” who really needs any kind of binary mystique—-male or female?

    • Our parish was visited by 2 African priests this summer, one from Nigeria & the other from Uganda. I was especially impressed with the Nigerian priest’s homilies. He was really solid on Church teaching, especially on marriage & family issues. If Father was representative of all African clergy, African Catholics are in good hands.

      I learned talking to the other priest & from reading articles by missionaries in Africa that abstaining from sex outside of marriage is still expected of young African women & the shame an unwed mother brings to herself & her family is considerable. So even though virtue is highly valued-as it should be-shame creates an incentive to take the lives of inconvenient children. And shame probably was a factor behind feticides committed in pre-Roe America as well.
      Sometimes society gets part of the answer right & the other part wrong.

    • Young girls? What about the boys, and no this is not a snide.feminist remark. The whole.concept of purity only makes.sense when both male and female. The great tragedy is that it has in the past been weaponized, to keep women in order. There are many cultures who prize virginity, often for reasons less than honorable. This article makes many valid points. Speaking as the mother of young adult daughters, the filthy world created by Heffner and Kennedy etc, I can honestly understand why women want nothing to do with domestic life

      • I’m currently reading the book “The Boy Crisis” by Dr’s Farrell & Gray. Boys need to be sexually pure like girls but to problem is really complex. Dr. Shannon touches on the problem of Fathers loosing their direction back in the 50’s. Now boys and young men are failing in a big way (i.e. marked increase in mass shootings). I’m not sure what the policy prescription is. I think it’s going to require a huge turning to Catholicism but I don’t know how that is going to happen in this culture. I’m losing hope!

        • What’s not mentioned in this article was the economy during the 1950’s. Post war, one salary was able to sustain a family. The tax rate on corporations were higher than today, there were unions protecting employees with fair wages. Why are women working? One reason is because one salary can no longer sustain a family. If you are going to look back on social issues, follow the money……

          • It’s true that women are working because prices have gone up, but it’s also true that prices have gone up because both husbands and wives are working.

  3. Let’s also think and bring back the 40 times difference between the CEO pay and the wage of the lowest ranked employee of the 1950s from today’s 400 times.

  4. The takeaway: Hell has an equal opportunity housing policy. Republicans as well as Democrats are eligible, men as well as women, and Catholics as well as atheists It’s clear how easy it is to secure housing there…and the lease is a permanent one.

  5. Drawing upon my memories of reading the major women’s magazines and LIFE from the late 1940s on, I concur with Dr. Shannon. The Sexual Revolution didn’t just spring out of nowhere in the 1960s. Men were indeed to be admired for womanizing–as long as it seemed glamorous. Domestic life, especially in the new suburbs, was portrayed as never-ending drudgery for women and unwelcome constraint for men. Planned Parenthood was already entrenched among the educated elite. Christine Jorgenson’s “sex change” drew ample publicity without opprobrium. If someone is looking for a thesis or book topic, go do a close reading of 1950s popular media from a Catholic perspective. You might be surprised by what you find.

  6. Ms Cracker: that figure may refer to fetal loss by miscarriage mistakenly attributed to abortion.
    I’ve only studied Western societies but “honor cultures” that connect “honor” with female chastity can also have ugly side-effects, such as “honor killings”. Contraception was an issue in 14th C Italy and their herbal contraceptives were actually causing abortion. Early Modern France had an extremely low illegitimacy rate but the social penalties were also severe.Infanticide was a pressing issue–hence Church efforts to save abandoned babies and State efforts to punish the mothers. So by the 18th C, the French became Europe’s earliest adopters of systematic contraception, widely enough to leave traces in demographic statistics. Germanic regions were less strict, with more illegitimacy and bridal pregnancy. Do a little genealogy and you may be surprised by what you find. Golden Ages of Morality can be rather relative.

    • Hello Sandra. Thank you for your comments. Yes, I’m puzzled about the one in three pregnancies ending in abortion estimate too.I see that Bishop Morrow who compiled “My Catholic Faith” was a bishop in Krishnagar, India so perhaps he was actually referring to that location and not the US? Or maybe he just got feticide figures confused with spontaneous abortion statistics. It’s on page 341 of the book, if you have a copy perhaps you can figure it out. I’m really dubious that one in 3 pregnancies ended in abortion in 1949 or 1954 but ive never looked it up.
      Yes, chastity and virtue are valuable but a good reputation should not come at the cost of an innocent life. I read that when the Erie Canal was dredged in the late 1800s a number of infants’ remains were discovered. It was just feticide after the fact.
      Goodness, yes genealogy is very surprising. And so are DNA tests. It’s just been one surprise after another. Lots of interesting history too. I don’t see much suggestion of contraception use in my own family tree. There are families of 10-15 children and one Irish ancestor may have come from a family of over 20 children.

      • We have that book and I think you could be right that when Bishop Morrow wrote “in this country” he meant India. I saw a documentary about 10 years ago about abortion numbers/practices around the world. One section on India showed how since apparently boys are prized over girls, many, many girls are lost to abortion/infanticide this way.

        Also – Bernard Nathanson used to speak of how they greatly exaggerated the prevalence of back alley abortions in order to promote legalization. I wouldn’t be surprised if this type of exaggeration was happening earlier through Margaret Sanger et al; perhaps Bishop Morrow was taken in by those lies.

  7. Bravo. A very well presented and balanced critique of a much politicized contemporary phenomen, which is so close and personal that it becomes nearly impossible to consider objectively. As good as the analysis is however, there is still no answer as to a way foreward. Perhaps, as Christians , it is time to stop trying to change the world and focus on living in the world as pilgrims and strangers. We must follow our Lord with meekness and humility not demanding or expecting anything from anyone.I am truly at a loss to find any account in the New Testament of Christ calling for social change in the very evil and unjust Roman Empire in which he found himself. He did however rail against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders for several chapters in the Gospel of John. Just a few thoughts to consider.

    • There’s plenty of policy prescriptions. Reminds me of Aesop’s fable of “The Belling of the Cat” Somehow we went from Elvis to Cardi B; The Donna Reed Show to Schitt’s Creek. I’m beginning to believe that finding the way forward is just folly. All I can say is strive to be holy and put it in God’s hands; as you said.

  8. Mrs Cracker: I do suspect the good bishop was confusing induced and spontaneous abortions (miscarriages). Abortion was, however, readily available in 19th C America. (Look up Madam Restel and her “famous French pill” in old New York.) Early campaigns for women’s rights also fought against abortion.

    As for Ireland, after the Famine, social practices (delayed marriage, high levels of celibacy, strong disapproval of illegitimacy) kept birth rates low but these habits didn’t persist in the Diaspora. Similarly, French Canadians had much larger families than their tightly self-controlled cousins back in France. But once societies lose their “taste” for children, birth rates plummet, whether licit or illicit methods of family limitation are used. In my own ancestry, high birthrates ended before WWI and have not resumed.

    • Thank you Sandra. That could well be the explanation :that Bishop Morrow got his data a little muddled.
      Do you think perhaps the availability of land in North America might be part of the explanation why families had more children than back in the old countries? If that was the case? Ive heard that may be why couples could marry at younger ages in America.

  9. What most people who didn’t live in the 50’s, as I did, don’t get is that it was the last decade in which ordinary people had respect for tradition.
    Sure, there were many problemsome tendencies and advocacies, but if you staid with Pope Pius XII and Ike you could be pretty sure you were OK. That’s the kind of assurance people are looking for nowadays.

  10. Dr. Shannon writes: “The big push for legitimizing birth control and abortion came not from troubled teens or poor minorities, but rather from middle-class women seeking full equality with their middle-class male peers, along with the personal and professional independence that equality would bring…The Catholic understanding of complimentary between the sexes has the potential to inspire new visions of mutual dependence; it must move beyond the social idea of the stay-at-home-Mom and the go-to-work Dad.” I am eager for a more detailed description of this revised vision of mutual dependence. Marriage entails sacrifice and certain losses of freedom; if you accept that sexual differences are what the Creator intended, they will not be the same for men and women. A child-centric view of marriage encourages at least one parent to stay at home; women have unique physical and emotional bonds to their children beginning in pregnancy. These cannot be overlooked in whatever arrangement Dr. Shannon suggests we need in order to move forward in a post-Roe world.

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