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When you think of the Cold War, you probably don't think first of Dior-clad moms with atomic hairstyles vacuuming their living rooms in heels. Or Elizabeth Arden-inspired women, with their red lipstick and stiletto nails, clicking their way down Third Avenue in a sweep of crinoline and gingham. Or sweater-set-wearing girls getting the ribbon in their hair just right before heading out the door. But in a war of ideologies — where it was consumerism versus communism, Us versus Them — women became soldiers and their compacts became bullets.
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.
And this is where compacts became ammunition. To show how communism was failing the Soviet Union, Russian women were cast as haggard, poor, exploited workers — a far cry from the Pucci-wearing housewives loading up their American dishwashers in stainless steel kitchens.
A June Cleaver wife was like a victory sign being thrown up, and newspapers helped lob the propaganda. Headline after headline broke a kind of dystopia from behind the Iron Curtain, where women’s looks were proof their country has disappointed them. They were described as tough, short, and hefty, with shoddy cosmetics and sad wardrobes. Captions painted them as “frizzle-haired” and “shiny-nosed,” with “useful pool-table legs” and figures that wouldn’t tempt a second peek. “They can mix and carry mortar and set ballast steel rails on the railroads. They are female but not, in our word, ‘feminine,’” wrote The Shreveport Times in 1959.
On the flip side, even if the States were bombed, their women would rise out of the rubble perfectly coiffed and ready to tend to their steaming homes. The federal Civil Defense Administration claimed that American homemakers could still cook and tend to their families “with bricks and rubble” after an atomic attack.
As for their Eastern European counterparts, it wasn’t that they were naturally unkempt; it was because of the inferior political system. Remember, American women were no strangers to difficult work — in World War II they stood in production lines and built rifles with their manicured hands. But while they worked, factories supplied lipsticks in changing rooms and booked makeup workshops for breaks to help them retain their femininity. To be a woman doing a man's job — and not keeping up her appearance — was a big tell that one’s party was failing her.
But over in the USSR, there was a whole other narrative. Russia stressed that it was a woman's world, where women were the ones running labs, directing research institutes, running steel factories, and taking podiums to both teach and run the country. Communism liberated them. Government newspapers advised men to take their wives to restaurants so that they could spend more time at work and less time at such "unproductive tasks" like staying home and cooking for their families. Women didn’t need the trappings of consumerism, like hair appointments and the latest lipstick colors, because they were independent wage earners — they didn’t need to hook husbands in to provide for them. Flashy fashions were seen as toys for the inactive woman, which became clear when, on a visit to New York City, Soviet ladies asked with amusement if Manhattan housewives washed their faces first or just put on lipstick before getting out of bed.
“The Soviet feminine ideal in films and television was of a strong woman who could please her man, raise the children, and oversee the construction of an apartment block,” Gregory Feifer, former NPR Moscow correspondent and author of Russians: The People Behind the Power, shares in an interview. “The lack of decent clothes, let alone beautiful ones, along with a constant shortage of makeup and many other consumer goods reinforced the image of women as regular proletarians. At the same time, sex and seduction were represented as Western vices in Russian propaganda, a reflection of decadent capitalist society.”
But while the Soviet state used its unmade women to show how liberated they were from the Stepford Wives across the Atlantic, America had its own propaganda to counter with. “A woman in Russia has a chance to be almost anything,” Look magazine agreed in 1954. “Except a woman.” They weren’t forced out of the home because their country believed in equality, the press assured its readers. It was because the wages were so low it was impossible for Soviet men to carry the household on their own. "Married women have to take jobs in the majority of cases because their husbands do not earn enough to support their families at the prevailing high prices, yet they concurrently have to bear the burdens of keeping house and raising children,” The New York Times reported in 1951. “This is a peculiar kind of ‘equality’ and ‘progress.’”
The press would go out of its way to find women that would prove their point, like Oksana Kasenkina, who leapt from a window of the Russian consulate in New York in order not to go back. A former Russian school teacher, she was supposedly being held captive in the building until a steamer could take her back to the USSR. Rather than being forced to return, she jumped to a possible death. After her heroic escape, the press urged her to explain why she took such extremes to avoid home. She shared that the only women that escaped the “life of backbreaking labor, hunger, and privation” were the “wives and sweethearts of the Communist aristocracy.” And because of all of this suffering, a Soviet woman “ages fast and dies prematurely.” In comparison, American women, with their powdered noses, were proof that their political system took care of its citizens in tangible, easy-to-measure ways.
Moscow liked to brag that they had women doctors and scientists, newspapers wrote, but visitors reported that streets were plowed of snow “by an army of women, many of them old.” They were constantly bent over double because of the Communist machine.
“In Sochi, women in overalls and babushkas shovel mortar on a construction site. On a Kremlin wall, women make the repairs. In the provinces, women drive the street cars. In every town, women with twig brooms sweep the streets, day and night,” the New York Times reported in 1958. "Of all the human sights in the Soviet Union, none makes a more lasting impression on a Westerner than the legions of stolid, dowdy, hard-working women."
But that didn’t mean Soviet women weren’t dying to break free. From stories about these women shopping for “Western look” shoes on the Berlin black market to paying a shocking amount of money for stockings, the press stressed that they wished they could resemble their Western sisters. “When Moscow women get the chance, they don't mind paying almost a week's wages for a pair of American nylons of the latest design,” Fort Lauderdale News reported in 1953. “There is a black market in the stockings, and well-informed persons in Moscow told me that a pair of black-heel and black-seam nylons could be bought there for around 150 rubles. That's the equivalent of $37.50 at the official rate.” Compare that to the $3.70 for a bundle of three that American women spent.
Russian women had the same instincts as women elsewhere, the news explained. They wanted powder compacts and the latest department-store dresses, prettier stockings and wardrobes that weren’t beige — anything to make themselves more beautiful. “So when Russian women have an opportunity to buy Western things they rush for the chance." Even the wives and companions of high Russian officials were rumored to cut out dresses from old American magazines and bring them secretly to tailor appointments, bribing dressmakers to craft them the out-of-date fashions so they could feel more beautiful. Because of this, American women were encouraged to look as glamorous and polished as possible. These red lipsticked ladies with their petticoat skirts and clicking heels were proof that America was winning the war.
But while the press highlighted how Russian women wanted to be more like Americans, American women were making strides to be more like their comrade counterparts. In 1953, a survey by the Labor Department showed that a whopping 19 million women made up the female workforce, with more than half of them married. And it wasn’t just newlywed wives who had yet to clear out their desks that made that statistic — “older women” between the ages of 35 and 45 were 40 percent of that bracket. "In the past 13 years, there's been almost a complete reversal in the proportion of single and married women holding jobs," the women's bureau said.
So in the end, there wasn’t really much difference between the June Cleavers of the West and the Grindls of the East. “There's not much difference between women no matter what language they speak — English or Russian,” Olga Curtis, a female journalist, penned for Asbury Park Press in 1960. "It's nice to report that women on Gorky street, Moscow, are very much like the women on State street in Chicago." Even if the lady comrades believed in and supported their regime to the fullest, that didn’t mean they still couldn’t want “prettier dresses and two lipsticks in every purse,” as Curtis put it. Just like in the States, they came in all shapes and sizes, worked to support their families, dabbled in different styles, and taught their daughters how to become women.
Women were women after all, no matter if they were in Omaha or Omsk.