Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Good Old Days

I decided to listen to Fresh Air on KALW this morning, because Terry Gross was interviewing Stephanie Coontz, who just published a reconsideration of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.  The show is worth a listen.

I haven't thought about the Fifties for quite a while, but that was the world I grew up in.  The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963.  I was seventeen, a senior in high school, when it came out.  As Coontz admitted herself, I've never read the book (she now has, of course).  But I know the world that produced it.  Girls going to college now probably can't even imagine a world in which a young woman in college was expected to emerge with her "Mrs." degree - any academic achievements for her were entirely secondary.

I should probably just encourage you to read both of these books (Friedan, and Coontz' Strange Stirrings), but I want to share some of my memories.  I still remember the pain when nobody ever phoned me except to get help with the homework - I graduated number 7 in a class of 750, the kiss of death for a young woman.  My sister, a C student, had flocks of friends and was always on the phone.  (There's a whole story behind her grades, since her IQ actually tests higher than mine; but this is my turn.)  Worse, I was articulate and literate - I read constantly and used "big words."  "The boys" didn't like girls who used "big words" and certainly not girls who argued with them.

I still remember the family gatherings; every time the aunts came over, they wanted to know when I was going to get married.  I used to hear, "oh, isn't it a good thing you're getting a college degree, since you haven't got a husband yet."  Now, one of these aunts married a man who beat her; another one married a man she once stood off with a kitchen knife.  So maybe they weren't the best source of advice.  But I didn't learn the truth about those marriages for decades.  So everybody was happy when Karen married an Air Force sergeant she met in a bar in Cupertino.  Of course, he had a high school diploma to my Masters in Library Science; and there were one or two other incompatibilities.  It lasted about 5 years.  I've often wondered where my life would have gone if I hadn't felt the constant pressure to get married.
Post-World War II, the U.S. was a man's world.  Women existed to keep house, raise children, and make men comfortable.  Women Did Not Work.  (They did, of course; I'm talking about the ideal.)  Rosie the Riveter had left the factory and was baking cookies.  Betty Friedan's book went through female society like a bolt of lightning because, for the first time, she asked publicly, "Is this all there is?"  Every college student, every young person, thinks they're going to change the world.  In the Fifties, young women were only allowed to think they would marry a man who was going to change the world.  What this produced, of course, was a generation of women who expected the man to do everything except cook and clean; and when their men died, or left them for a trophy wife, they didn't even know where the bank account was.

For the young woman unfortunate enough not to catch a man, there were few jobs available; and for all too many of them the ad read, "must be extremely pretty."  I remember, in my senior year in college, suddenly realizing that I was going to have to get a job.  I had very few options.  With my undergrad degree in English, nursing was out.  I looked at teaching, considered the classrooms I'd been in, and couldn't bear the idea.  I didn't know what a secretary was, then (given how secretaries were treated, probably just as well).  Fortunately, my mother worked in a library, and she suggested I go to grad school and get my M.L.S., so I did.  But - those were my options.  I now think I would have made a good journalist; and I know I would have made a good scientist, but "girl reporter" was something in the comics, and girls didn't major in science and math.  I later spent 19 years as a computer engineer, writing software and maintaining systems; this wasn't even a possibility when I graduated in 1968.  The field was there; but I didn't know it.  You can only take the roads you know exist.

Today's world, God knows, isn't perfect.  But at least it mostly accepts women as full human beings, with the same hopes and aspirations as men.  In the Fifties, that wasn't so.  And that was the problem.  Watch reruns of "Ozzie and Harriet," and put yourself in Harriet's shoes.  Wouldn't you ask, "Is this all there is?"


  1. Mom got married in 1946; she had a degree in Am. Lit. from Berkeley. Dad was a US Navy Civil Engineer. She was on the "mommy track" until about 1960. At that point we moved to LA and she enrolled at UCLA to get her MLS. By the time Dad got back from Antarctica where he'd wintered over she had the degree and we got transferred to DC. She worked from that point forward at American U and at Fairfax County Public Library. There was never any question that she was going to use that MLS. She ended up as Head Librarian for Bishop Museum in Honolulu for 17 years before retirement.

  2. Oh, Karen - I come from the exact same time of women getting their MRS. degrees in college. Believe it or not, being a woman majoring in ART, I was considered a second class citizen in my studio courses. The highest praise I received from my life drawing instructor was, "you draw like a man." I never wanted to teach but that seemed to be the only viable source of income for a female art major, even one with talent. My first job was in a small design shop in Chicago, I being the only one who had a college degree and the only woman other than the "secretary." When I'd been there almost 2 years, doing the same work as one of the other designers and asked for a raise, I was told, "He has a wife and two kids to support. Sorry." I quit and went into the Peace Corps. Only after I spent 2 years teaching art in Africa did I realize the pleasure I found in turning on others' creative minds. But I never took the 'normal' path of being a school art teacher. I always found grants to teach in some 'social institution' or to come in as a working artist to do special workshops. It took me over 15 years after getting my MFA in Studio Art and Art Education to get my MRS. Yes, it certainly is a different world for young women today, thankfully.

  3. Wow. Well, you've come a long way, baby.

    I think feminine liberation is terrific. I've always like strong women, and not because I think of myself as a weak man. Nothing sexier than intelligence and strength.

    But I still hold the doors and defer politely. Is this old-fashioned? If women can fight and be killed right alongside the men, is sexual difference just a convenience? Or does it signify something deeper?

    My guess is we're not yet out of the woods. A lot of fine-tuning left to do. Can we still mate and raise children without becoming hybrids? Sharing household chores is fine, but will she trim the oak tree? Do I get to shop for natty suits, without seeming swishy?

    We've got a long ways to go, baby.

  4. I never understood why feminine liberation had to equal lack of courtesy. I open doors and defer politely myself, if I see a man with his hands full. And while I (sort of) understand the argument that women can do anything men can do, including being killed in battle, I fail to understand why the push is not to keep ANYBODY from being killed in battle. But that's just me. I recently read a reference to a study that claimed to see a higher casualty rate in front-line combat units that did include women; the inference drawn was that the male soldiers were trying to protect the women. I have no idea what the study protocols were.

    About household chores: surely these are a matter for negotiation? Who knows, maybe she likes to climb trees. And if you want a natty suit, buy it - as far as I know, gay men may be well dressed (well, some of them), but being well dressed doesn't automatically flag you as gay. Just as an example, look at Sean Connery, whom NOBODY would consider "swishy."

  5. But I never meant to imply that we didn't still have a long ways to go...