In the Cold War, Makeup Was a Weapon

The Cold War was a game of one-upmanship in the areas of nuclear armament and in technology, such as the space race. But it also unfolded in other areas, including bragging rights on which country treated its women better. The United States appeared to have an edge there in the 1950s and '60s, with a prosperity that allowed families to thrive on one income.

When the freedom to spend separated Americans from Soviets, consuming — everything from ranch homes to the newest TV sets — became patriotic. But there was a special emphasis on how those purchases especially helped women: With all the new vacuum cleaners and washing machines available, that freed up more time for homemakers, allowing Mrs. Housewife to slick on her lipstick, smooth her bubble cut, and serve her casserole dinner with a smile.

That idea became clear in the “Kitchen Debate," a televised conversation where President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev stood in a model home’s kitchen display, a setup meant to resemble the suburbs, goading each other's shortcomings. Microwaves and electric ovens became metaphors for ideologies, and pointing at the shiny, white linoleum, Nixon said, "In America, we like to make things easier for women. What we want to do, is make life more easy for our housewives." While the Russians might have been ahead with rockets and Sputnik, Nixon said, America would come out on top because of domesticity.

The Soviets countered with feminism. The idea was offered that women in the USSR had more freedom to become rocket scientists and factory bosses. That was true. But while American women grew lonely keeping homes in the suburbs, Soviet women were longing for lipstick and relief from long hours of road construction. Read about the tug-of-war over the image of women at Racked. 

(Image credit: Flickr user clotho98)


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