Iron Waspy Ladies: What Annette Funicello, Lilly Pulitzer, and Margaret Thatcher Tell Us about the Cold War

iron waspy ladies

For me, what makes the Cold War an interesting time is not necessarily the existential conflict itself, though we all seem to agree by now that it really was not so existential as we were led to believe. Proxy wars and diplomatic brinkmanship are important to understand and exciting to contemplate, but the role that mass culture plays in shaping the world is what most interests me. It is through culture that our worlds are ordered and made meaningful. In an illustrative example of the old “celebrities die in threes” mythology, three women who show us the changing nature of the Cold War died within days of each other earlier this month. The deaths of Annette Funicello, Lilly Pulitzer, and Margaret Thatcher show us how we understood the Cold War culturally in different periods.

All three women and the culture in which they existed and helped to shape allows us to locate certain threads that lead us from the Cold War to the post-Cold War world. Funicello was hand-picked by Walt Disney to be one of the faces of Disney on their flagship Mickey Mouse Club show. She later made colorful teen films set on the beach before retiring from acting to raise a family at a young age. Lilly Pulitzer created a fashionable and colorful image of the preppy set from a base of absolute privilege. Thatcher led the charge in Britain against trade unions and presided over the downshift into hard neo-liberalism. In many ways the idealized world these women envisioned, acted out or lived in still shapes our world today and help us to better understand the world that they lived in.

Annette Funicello arrived on American TVs sporting mouse ears in the “Mickey Mouse Club” at the age of 13.  She is an example of 1950s cultural positivity, which obscured the nature of large entertainment conglomerates like Disney, who strove to create loyal consumers of their brands by producing entertaining mass culture. After the war, many young adults wanted to settle down and embrace a new, affluent domesticity that was promised to all (so long as you were white and willing to conform).[1] What became the so-called traditional family—married young, a working husband, a housewife, two kids, maybe a dog, in suburbia—spread throughout the United States as the norm. Postwar legislation aimed to broaden the Middle Class by allowing more men to go to college and obtain home loans for the postwar building boom, facilitating this embrace of domesticity. A Cold War era détente between management and labor (with the specter of the Wobblies or radical labor connected to Uncle Joe haunting negotiations) meant that corporations went out of their way to make sure blue collar workers were well compensated and loyal. Blue collar work rose in respectability and joined white collar jobs in the middle class, if at the lower strata of the middle class.

All the while at least some American resources in the immediate postwar period sought to embrace a wider cross-section of the American public. One public service announcement from 1947 warned about the dangers of stigmatizing ethnic groups, papering over America’s segregated and often violent racial reality that consciously put African-Americans on the bottom of the social ladder.[2] Despite ignoring the problem of race in American society, the new culture of prosperity expanded to embrace more Americans and allowed the economy to shift into what Lizabeth Cohen called a “consumer republic.” She notes that this republic included more ethnic groups, but not African-Americans, even those in the middle class.[3]

Newly invented cultural norms emerged during the Cold War. Mass produced popular culture began to reinforce this new vision of “traditional” when possible. This includes the rise of the teenager. As Jon Savage argues in his book Teenage, the 1950s saw the culmination of the ultimate consumer.[4] Although Savage focuses on more newly autonomous teenagers, the inculcation of young people as consumers began early. Suburban children rode bikes, played baseball, and watched programming aimed specifically at them. A much sharper divide between the adult and young worlds appeared. In the evenings, families would sit in living rooms, eating TV dinners, watching family-friendly programming. For kids in the 1950s, Disney became a cultural touchstone as much as the Beatles or Elvis. Although the Disney corporation often worked with the U.S. Government on various propaganda projects, their programming and films aimed at an American audience took on an apolitical tone, at least overtly. But patterns of consumption are, of course, shot through with political meaning, even as they positioned as apolitical.[5] The Mickey Mouse Club and other Disney programming taught civic virtue, love of family, and patriotism to American children. Training young citizens was not the singular goal of Disney—they sought to make good and loyal consumers out of young people, beginning early.

More importantly, they wanted to keep these consumers for life, and the same sometimes went for their workers too. Funicello retired from acting to raise a family as a young adult. Her life dovetailed with domestic patterns in the 50s and 60s—something that might not have just been a decision by Funicello. After decades out of the public eye, she and her screen partner Frankie Avalon starred in a new beach-themed film in the 80s and headlined a tour playing their classic 60s beach tunes. Interestingly enough, it was Disney that announced Funicello’s passing this week.[6] The Disney corporation created in their films, TV shows and parks a lovely Cold War consumer artifice, aimed at creating a kind of cultural consensus that papered over social difference and broaden the notion of middle class. Although white, Funicello was not a WASP. Funicello came from an Italian-American family and was most likely Catholic. But Walt Disney insisted she keep her obviously “ethnic” name, signaling a new inclusiveness in American life. In some ways, the Mickey Mouse Club and the films Funicello made as part of the Disney brand proved just as much propaganda as say The Three Caballeros during the War. Making sure the homefront was united during the Cold War became one function of cultural producers like Disney.

Avatars of New Deal culture

Avatars of New Deal culture

Lilly Pulitzer embodied one of the highest pinnacles for women in American society—a wealthy socialite. The daughter of a wealthy couple thanks in part to Standard Oil, she married into the equally well-heeled Pulitzer family in the early 1950s. Her iconic clothing line evolved from a whim—her fruit stand business left her clothes stained and more colorful, garish colors hid the spills. The line took off in the late 60s and cemented their reputation as the colorful clothing of the leisure class when former classmate Jackie Kennedy wore them on a vacation. The popularity of the line among the well-heeled gained her the moniker the “Queen of Prep.” [7] In the obits recounting her life, Pulitzer has been held up as an example of female entrepreneurship, but of course she arrived on the clothing scene from a position of complete privilege. Not many people have a first lady as a former classmate, after all.

In the early 60s doubts that would soon emerge around Vietnam, the Cold War, and American power were not clear. However, Pulitzer’s clothes reveal still simmering class distinctions which supposedly were anachronistic in modern American society at that time. This would soon break wide open, just as she gained popularity. She was a member of the elite class, making clothes for women in her class. Today, few “lillies” price for less than $100. Despite the simplicity of the dresses and garishness of the styles, these were made for a certain class and according to Laura Jacobs reflected “puritan ethics of balance and value.”[8] Aspiring to be elite moved many people, but American elites still lived in a world apart from the everyday people. Just deciding to create a clothing line was and is not an everyday occurrence (although Etsy make this more common today). But the high profile of these dresses in the 60s reveals how the Cold War consensus never really existed in the first place. Women like Pulitzer came from a rich family yet endlessly rebelled against that privileged status only really made possible because of her status. Jacobs notes in her 2003 Vanity Fair profile of the designer that her privilege made her striving for a simpler life possible. And the founding of the clothing line was not as simple as her making a shift dress to hide juice stains—seamstresses and hand-screened prints figured into the story as well. The tension between Pulitzer’s privilege and imaginary unified American culture are palpable in Jacobs’s admiring article—it celebrates the creativity of the wealthy while ignoring real inequality of the time in which she created her business.[9] The New York Times notes that the line was not as “democratic” as the Jacobs profile makes out. But a notion of a unified culture on the surface mattered in the 60s. The “preppy” nature of her clothes and the social circles in which she operated were just not accessible to everyone, even all middle class Americans.

At least some upwardly mobile young people, raised in the heart of suburbia began to question this consensus as rich and upper middle class white women clothed themselves in Pulitzer’s creations in the 60s and 70s. Although some Americans came around to the idea of racial equality by the time major Civil Rights legislation was signed in the mid-60s, black militancy scared some middle class whites off late in the decade. By the late 60s, some of the wheels were coming off the early Cold War CIA projects.[10] Questions emerged about the viability of the Cold War in general. As society in the 70s seemed to crack up, neo-liberals stepped in to push an even more openly aggressive Cold War stance that would last until the end of the Cold War itself.

If Funicello illustrates consensus and Pulitizer and her frocks the underlying class divisions within the consensus, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher represents the shattering of any sort of Cold War consensus. Neo-liberals smelled blood in the 1970s and moved in the for the kill. She made no bones about her neo-liberal agenda in Britain, at the same time Reagan backed similar policies in America. Thatcher, dubbed the “iron lady” by a Soviet diplomat, was the first female Prime Minister of Britain, an avowed conservative, and remains a deeply a controversial figure today.[11] The Conservative Party elected her head of the party in 1975, on the heels of Edward Heath’s perceived political weaknesses after losing the 1974 miner’s strike and his chance at re-election. The Britain that Thatcher inherited at the end of the 70s was an uncertain country, no longer an empire and a junior partner to the United States. During the years of decolonization and economic change, various kinds of civil unrest shook the country, from race riots to labor strikes. Immigrants were arriving from former colonies, wages stagnated, especially for younger workers, and the trade unions went from powerful voice of the people to political outsiders.  Much like Reagan not long after, Thatcher took advantage of the uncertainty in the economy and British social life to make some bold reforms. When she consolidated power, Thatcher placed the blame for the problems in British society squarely on the socialist-leaning policies of the postwar governments and championed hardline reforms in favor of a lighter tax burdens and privatization of key industries. Collective bargaining was out and the bootstrap was in. Hayek and Friedman ruled the day in Maggie’s England. Democratic and economic freedom, these economic theorist argued, proceeded hand in hand.

One wonders what these theorists would make of China today—capitalist and yet still authoritarian. The only real freedom meant “economic” freedom and that meant free markets, with little or not government regulation. Collective action to raise wages and ensure benefits should not be tolerated, or at the very least curbed. Even international issues, such as Apartheid in South Africa, could be dealt with through the market. Thatcher refused to intervene in South African affairs, no matter what the government there did. Inspired by the same economic theorists and by Thatcher herself, Ronald Reagan used the uncertainty in the United States economy and foreign policy to forge a similar path in the first eight years of the 80s. Both took a hardline on the Soviet Union. The two became solid partners, opposing communism and neo-liberalizing their respective economies. Their reforms influenced how the EU and global economy would look once the iron curtain fell for good.

It is notable that Thatcher made these reforms as a woman. The feminist ideal that women should join the political sphere and seek out power was taken up by conservatives, just as much by liberals—even if the two sides view “women’s rights” in different ways. That being said, she more often attributed her success to her own hard work, not to any strides made by women collectively. Through her economic reforms and tough posture, Thatcher became a folk hero of the right and target for the left.[12] Not a producer of culture herself, a quick glance at many Doctor Who story arcs of the 1980s show how her political career became a touchstone for the production of culture. Daleks and Cybermen still fought the Doctor in the 80s, but many women with ill intent joined in the cause of destroying the Doctor. Although many discussed the story arc from 1988, “The Happiness Patrol,” as one aimed at taking down Thatcher”s government, many other episodes had women villains fighting Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (Doctors number 6 and 7).[13] Punks likewise raged against Thatcher in the 1980s, with hate of the iron lady aiding the globalization of punk Aram Sinnreich argued recently on Marketplace.[14] We might question the assumption that punks and rock musicians are always leftists, but it is clear that she inspired many to create art in order to oppose her policies.

Who’s on first?

Despite her controversial end and the left’s derision of her, Thatcher’s reforms stuck, shaping the political landscape well after the Cold War ended. The shift to ultra-free markets she championed were taken up by the Labour government of Tony Blair in the 1990s, much as free markets became official policy with the Democrats. President Bill Clinton reformed Welfare and pushed through NAFTA, not either Bush. Since then, neo-liberal economic reforms have become a fully entrenched in political life, pulling all things to the right. Many of Barack Obama’s supporters hoped for more progressive measures, including Single Payer Healthcare, only to be stuck with a piecemeal reform. More importantly, Thatcher represented the final splintering of the late Cold War era and the apparent triumph of neo-liberalism.

The Cold War spanned nearly half a century—not a long time in the grand scheme of things. Three generations experienced it, my grandparents, my parents, and finally my generation, the often forgotten Generation X (or the last Cold War generation). It’s a jarring thought that many of the undergrads I now teach have no direct experience of the events that make up the Cold War—it is as much a foreign country to them as the Civil War or the Great Depression. Our memories and the memories of our elders tell us our own point of view, but as historians, we must take our cues from textual sources—documents, culture, and the public lives of individuals. The three women who died this week tell us something of the world we’ve left behind, through television shows and movies, fashion and fiscal policy. Not everything, of course, but enough to bring to our attention just how twisting complexities of the Cold War.


[1]    Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, New York: Basic Books, 2008, I.

[2]    The film can be viewed at “Don’t Be a Sucker,” Prelinger Archive, 1947, http://archive.org/details/DontBeaS1947, (accessed April 13, 2013).

[3]    Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, New York: Vintage Books, 2004, 5-7.

[4]    Jon Savage, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, New York: Viking Press, 2007.

[5]    On the intersection between consumption and politics see works such as Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic, and Uta Poiger, Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

[6]    Alan Duke, “Mickey Mouse Club Original Annette Funicello Dies,” CNN.com, April 9, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/08/showbiz/annette-funicello-obit/index.html, (accessed April 11, 2013).

[7]    Caitlin Petreycik, “’Queen of Prep’ Lilly Pulitzer Dies at 81,” Style Bistro, April 8, 2013, http://www.stylebistro.com/Fashion+News/articles/t0tL9MgFmjP/Queen+Prep+Lilly+Pulitzer+Dies+81, (accessed April 14, 2013).

[8]    Eric Wilson, “Lilly Pulitzer, Socialite Turned Designer, Dies at 81,” New York Times, April 7, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/08/fashion/lilly-pulitzer-socialite-turned-designer-dies-at-81.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1, (accessed  April 7, 2013). The article by Jacobs quoted in the NYT obit illustrates just how much Pulitzer’s clothes became a symbol of an elite world, Laura Jacobs, “Palm Beach’s Barefoot Princess,” Vanity Fair, July 2003, http://www.vanityfair.com/style/features/2003/07/lilly-pulitzer-200307, (accessed April 13, 2013).

[9]    Jacobs, “Palm Beach’s Barefoot Princess.”

[10]  Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[11]  The general details of her life for this mostly come from: Joseph Gregory, “Margaret Thatcher, ‘Iron Lady’, Who Set Britain on a New Course, Dies at 87,” New York Times, April 8, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/09/world/europe/former-prime-minister-margaret-thatcher-of-britain-has-died.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2, (accessed, April 8, 2013).

[12]  See for example Russell Brand, “Russell Brand on Margaret Thatcher, ‘I Always Felt Sorry for Her Children,” The Guardian, April 9, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/apr/09/russell-brand-margaret-thatcher?CMP=twt_gu (accessed April 11, 2013). The Anarchist Collective Chumbawumba got back together just to issue an EP on the event of her death, Matthew Perpetua, “Chumbawumba Celebrates the Death of Margaret Thatcher,” Buzzfeed, April 10, 2013, http://www.buzzfeed.com/perpetua/chumbawamba-weigh-in-on-the-death-of-margaret-thatcher, (accessed April 11, 2013).

[13]  The Rani was another recurring “Time Lady” during this time.  For video with script editor Andrew Cartmel’s discussion of the Happiness Patrol”, see Jayson Peterson, “Margaret Thatcher the Sci-Fi Villianess? Meet the Iron Lady’s Tart Doctor Who Doppleganger,” Nerdvana, April 11, 2013, http://blogs.evtrib.com/nerdvana/sci-fi-fantasy/margaret-thatcher-doctor-who/92162/, (accessed April 12, 2013). The article also mentions other “evil” PMs, but both men, in the new Doctor Who series and spin-off Torchwood: Children of Earth.

[14]  Stacey Vanek Smith, “Margaret Thatcher’s Foes Turned Anger Into Big Business, and a Soundtrack for the 80s,” Marketplace World, April 8, 2013, http://www.marketplace.org/topics/world/thatcher-foes-turned-anger-big-business-and-soundtrack-80s, (accessed April 13, 2013).

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