Executive Summary

Dating is an integral part in the evolution from child to adult. Between the 1940s and 1980s, courtship evolved with the changing waves and fads of society. Our project focuses on how notions of femininity and masculinity were re-defined against the political and economic background of WWII, the Cold War, the Sexual Revolution, the Feminist Movement, and the conservative resurgence of The New Right.

According to Marshall Cavendish Reference, “courtship is the initial stage of testing and building a relationship.” Courtship was different depending on culture, economic status, and age. Overall, dating reflected broad themes of social life from 1940-1980. The desire for stability, reliance on experts, rejection of authority, growth of individualism, and return of conservatism were common threads sewn into the culture of dating.


Our first section, “Traditional Values,” examines the family values that dominated family life both before and after WWII. Before WWII, women were entirely dependent
on men. After the war, despite women’s growing autonomy after entering the workforce temporarily, the desire for stability all emphasized “going steady.” The popular family sitcom, “Leave it to Beaver,” epitomizes the conservative family values of the 1940s.

Our second section, “Going Somewhere,” explores how dating gradually evolved from an activity done under your parent’s roof to an escape from parental supervision. Economic prosperity after the war combined with the rise of urbanization and industrialization made leisure and “going out” a central part of dating culture. As well, the 1950s reliance on experts manifested itself in the study of sexual behavior. The controversial Kinsey Reports, which created a new branch of science called sexology, signaled the first scientifically-driven protests against traditional values and conformity.

Thirdly, in the section, “Counter Culture,” we analyzed the turbulent 1960s and the sexual revolution that unraveled. Most saliently, the media proved to be extremely influential in both reflecting and defining what was normal. Magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Playboy, newspaper advice columns such as Dear Abby, and television shows such as “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner,” played an enormous role in challenging traditional values, rejecting conformity, and embracing rebellion.

Our fourth section, “Female Power,” looks at the Second Wave Feminism including the judicial and legislative influences that re-defined gender roles. The Birth Control Pill and the Equal Rights Amendment were especially influential in changing notions of femininity, splitting feminism into two extremes. While some women were empowered to seek more independence, other women such as Phyllis Schlafly, wanted a return to the domestic housewife. The radicalization and chasm in feminism diversified the world of dating, which only heightened the influence of media texts on defining the norms.

Lastly, in “Grease is the Word,” the movie, “Grease,” provides a model of the cyclical nature of dating as couples grappled with the turbulence of the Counter Culture and Feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Made in 1978 about two lovers in the 1950s, the film works like a looking glass allowing for reflection and reinterpretation of American values and ideologies.

Overall, our research found striking parallels between broader political, social, and economic trends and the dating culture that evolved from it. Using the media as supporting evidence, we found that the media worked to maintain and re-enforce existing social norms, often teaching youth acceptable dating behavior on television, in movies, and in various publications. By examining the intended audience for these movies, clips, newspaper clips, and radio shows, we hope to reveal the impact of courtship and dating on family values, the definition of citizenship, and the woman’s role in society.

Evolution of Dating

(Image link provided in ‘”Documents” of the Week’)

Group Members: Anna Perina (Group Leader), Christie Boyden, Allison Marx, Daniel O’Neill, Theresa Pazanowski, Daniel Presley, Garrett Spencer, Emily Walsh, Taylor Bryant, and Sallie Seiy (Webmaster)