Sociologist examines fatherhood from World War II through the '50s
By Jeremy Craig
World War II had earth-shaking effects on the fabric of American society, and the culture and practice of fatherhood was no exception. Now, a Georgia State sociologist has dug through history to explore how the role of fathers was shaped by the war and its aftermath.
Ralph LaRossa, professor of sociology, offers this view of fatherhood in “Of War and Men: World War II in the Lives of Fathers and Their Families” (University of Chicago Press, 2011). In it, he examines the role of fathers in their children's lives from the start of the war and on until the presidential election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.
In exploring the portrayal of fathers during World War II and thereafter — usually as distant and patriarchal — he discovered a more complex reality.
“Very often, when scholars talk about the 1950s, they'll just assume that fathers were not involved,” LaRossa notes. “Not uncommonly, they will rely on data from the late 1950s, which was a uniquely traditional moment in American history.”
LaRossa says that if the myriad effects of the war — including the aftereffects of combat and the fears associated with the Cold War — and of entire postwar era are taken into consideration, it shows that yesterday's dads were more involved than conventional wisdom would have us believe.
The book explores fatherhood in the wake of certain events that some historians of fatherhood have ignored, such as the internment of Japanese fathers during the war, the Civil Rights Movement and the politics of the era.
The portrayal of John F. Kennedy as a father may have played a role in his election, for example.
Kennedy's campaign plane bore his daughter Caroline's name, and he got the endorsement of Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose guide to raising children was a go-to book for mid-century parents.
“Among middle-aged women, JFK and Nixon were pretty equal in votes. But among young women voters, many of whom were mothers of small children, Kennedy beat Nixon by 10 percent,” LaRossa says.
Fatherhood also played another role toward the end of the campaign, through the intervention of John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, in securing the release of Martin Luther King Jr. from jail. King's father, Martin Luther King Sr., was so moved by what the Kennedys had done that he promised to help to deliver African-American votes for Kennedy.
“So you have the act of a grateful father making a difference in a very close election,” LaRossa says.