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Author Bio: Ruth Rosen is professor of history at the University of California at Davis. She writes regularly for Dissent and The Women's Review of Books.
Dawn of Discontent
"Until I was twenty-eight," wrote the poet Anne Sexton, "I had a kind of buried self who didn't know she could do anything but make white sauce and diaper babies. I didn't know I had any creative depths. I was a victim of the American Dream, the bourgeois, middle-class dream. All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children. I thought the nightmares, the visions, the demons would go away if there was enough love to put them down. I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can't build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out. The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight. I had a psychotic breakdown and tried to kill myself."
Anne Sexton was a deeply troubled artist, but many housewives shared her depression and her demons. More than a few women secretly experienced the fifties as a private nightmare, something observant daughters of the time noted with alarm. Sensing the bitterness and disappointment of so many adult women, these daughters came of age eagerly mapping escapes from what they regarded as the claustrophobic constraints of the fifties. "As we grew older," one woman explained, "we saw our mothers—our role models, the women we were to become—thwarted in their efforts toward self-realization and expression. A deep and bitter lesson, this one—and one we couldn't take lightly. It reverberated through the core of our beings, and we resolved not to let it happen to us; we resolved to bedifferent."
WOMEN AT HOME
In 1963, a housewife and former labor union journalist named Betty Friedan published the results of interviews she had conducted with other women who had been educated at Smith College. In the privacy of their suburban homes, these housewives had revealed the depths of their despair to her. Blessed with good providers, nice homes, and healthy children, they puzzled over their unhappiness. Not knowing that other women shared their troubles, they experienced them as personal and blamed themselves for their misery. Friedan called this inchoate unhappiness "the problem that has no name."
To quell their conflicts, some of the interviewees gulped tranquilizers, cooked gourmet meals, or scrutinized their children as though they were rare insects. In search of stimulation, some housewives had sought out sexual affairs or volunteered their time to churches, schools, and charitable organizations. Some women stuffed their houses with shiny new laborsaving devices. Yet, despite these material comforts, something still seemed to be missing. Many of these educated women, Friedan discovered, had nurtured dreams that were never realized, but also never forgotten. The postwar conviction that women should limit their lives exclusively to home and hearth had tied them to the family, closed other opportunities, and crushed many spirits. Friedan dubbed this powerful belief system "the feminine mystique," and her book The Feminine Mystique became an instant best-seller.
In many ways, Betty Friedan's background made her an ideal person to expose such domestic unhappiness to the American public. Born and reared in Peoria, Illinois, Betty Goldstein graduated from Smith College in 1942, already well versed in left-wing ideals of social justice and economic equality. After college, she joined the swirling intellectual and political world of leftist politics, worked as a journalist, and in 1947 married Carl Friedan. When she became pregnant with her second child, she was fired by her employer—not an unusual experience for working women at the time.
She and her husband then settled into a suburban life in which she experienced firsthand the isolation of a housewife. But even as she raised three children, she continued to write for mainstream women's magazines. To ease her own burdens as a mother and a writer, she hired a housekeeper, but when other housewives described the isolation and narrowness of their lives, she clearly understood their frustration. She also had the political savvy to see the significance of their complaints and the skills with which to describe them movingly on paper. Readers of her book, in turn, imagined her as a sister housewife, trapped in the gilded cage of a suburban home, restless and impatient to lead a life of her own.
In fact, Friedan already had a life of her own, one far more politicized than that of the average housewife or magazine writer. As a longtime activist on the antifascist Left and in union struggles, and as an experienced labor journalist for the UE News, the newsletter of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, Friedan had early targeted the plight of women workers. In 1952, she wrote a manual titled UE Fights for Women Workers, which described how one of the most Communist-influenced unions of the postwar era had fought against the discrimination of women workers.
Although she continued to write about women's problems throughout the fifties, Friedan never thought of herself as a feminist. "By the time I got to college," she explained, "the first century of struggle for women's rights had been blotted out of the national memory and the national consciousness." True enough. But to women in and around "the popular front" of the 1930s (the loose political alliance among Communist, Progressive, and labor groups against Fascism), the very word "feminist" conjured up images of spoiled bourgeois ladies who voted Republican. Women of the Left instead debated "the Woman Question" or the plight of female workers, but certainly not the problems of middle-class housewives.
When Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, she chose to omit her radical past from her account of her life. Early drafts of the manuscript reveal a far more daring vision, including a proposal for national legislation to create a "GI Bill" to promote women's education. But in a country that had only recently passed through the violently anti-Communist convulsion known as "McCarthyism," Friedan feared her ideas would be discredited if she focused on the problems of working women or advocated government intervention in the affairs of women. So she settled on a safer strategy, that of addressing middle-class white housewives as a sister suburbanite.
Gerda Lerner, a longtime activist and future historian of women, worried about this decision: "I have just finished reading your splendid book and want to tell you how excited and delighted I am with it.... You have done for women ... what Rachel Carson [author of the pioneering ecological exposé Silent Spring, 1962] did for the birds and trees." But she also criticized Friedan's exclusion of black, poor, and working women, anticipating what would become a widespread criticism of The Feminine Mystique, as well as of the contemporary women's movement. But Friedan made a choice to be heard, not to be "Red-baited," and in America, that meant addressing the middle class. So she concentrated on the power of the feminine mystique, creating a concept through which she then accused the entire society and culture—the media, science, psychiatry, education, and social sciences—of a mass conspiracy to limit the lives of women.
Not surprisingly, Friedan's accusations incited widespread hostility. "Many were violently outraged," she later wrote, "at the charge that American women have been seduced back into the doll's house, living through their husbands and children instead of finding individual identity in the modern world. I was cursed, pitied, told to get psychiatric help, to go jump in the lake and accused of being `more of a threat to the United States than the Russians.'" But many American magazines and journals also reviewed The Feminine Mystique positively. Excerpted in several women's magazines, read by three million people, debated in the Boston Globe, the book reached a huge population of American women and men."
Using the language of personal growth, Friedan challenged women to live an examined and purposeful life. With the publication of The Feminine Mystique, each housewife, at last, knew she was not alone. "We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: `I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.'" With phrases as simple as that, Friedan opened a Pandora's box and out tumbled the unnamed complaints that would mobilize one potential constituency of the modern women's movement.
For some housewives, Friedan's revelations came not a minute too soon. Letters arrived by the hundreds, as housewives poured out their confusion, despair, self-contempt, or determination to change. Readers came from backgrounds that bore little resemblance to the college-educated housewives whose complaints filled the book. Written by hand, sometimes in crayon or pencil, some letters were barely literate, and not the products of college graduates, but these women, too, knew that something was seriously wrong with their lives. They blessed Friedan, asked her for advice, described their despair, and begged for advice about how to change their lives. "Help!" pleaded one woman. "I have read your views on woman's emancipation and thoroughly agree with you on all accounts—but—how does one go about it?" Some women painfully revealed their sense of hopelessness, the arrogance of psychiatrists they had consulted, the indifference of their husbands. Still others wrote of the changes they were in the process of making: the return to school; the search for a new job; even simple symbolic acts like the purchase of a toy stethoscope for a baby daughter.
From Florida, a mother of four wrote Friedan, "I have been trying for years to tell my husband of my need to do something to find myself—to have a purpose. All I've ever achieved was to end up feeling guilty about wanting to be more than a housewife and mother." A housewife from Massachusetts questioned the very meaning of her existence: "I have for the past ten years now been asking myself: `Is this all there is to life?' I am a housewife and mother of five children. I have had a very poor education. I am 38 years old, and if this is all there is for me to look forward to, I don't want to go on." A Wyoming woman wrote that "few books have had such an impact." Wondering how to pull her life together at age thirty-seven, she confided to Friedan,
My secret scream as I stir the oatmeal, iron the blue jeans, and sell pop at the Little League baseball games is "Stop the World, I want to get on Before it's too late!" I love my family dearly and wouldn't trade them, or my life with them, for anything. But as they go out each day to meet, and get involved in this great big wonderful world, I yearn to tag along!
A female politician wrote that her career had blessedly kept her from feeling "trapped." An unhappy housewife who described her daily obsession with changing her life wrote, "I owe you a debt of eternal gratitude." Like many readers, she had passed her copy of the book on to friends. From one radicalized housewife arrived these encouraging words: "If you ever need partisans for your revolution or endorsements for your product, you can count on this `saved' housewife for undying support."
For all its insights, The Feminine Mystique was not without shortcomings. Well-acquainted with social and economic analysis, Friedan nevertheless focused on the psychological search for a new identity outside the home. She ignored the different obstacles faced by working-class and minority women, championed careers as though women could easily find well-paid, meaningful work in a sex-segregated labor force, and failed to question the presumption that women bore responsibility for all domestic work. In short, her book, which emphasized the claustrophobic character of domesticity, was a call for self-realization, not a statement of feminist public policy. Still, she had broken the silence and had begun unmasking the reality of women's lives.
COLD WAR CONTAINMENT
The fifties was an age of cognitive dissonance: millions of people believed in ideals that poorly described their own experience. The decade quarantined dissent and oozed conformity. On the pages of Life magazine, on the new television screens, Americans—the white and well-fed variety—radiated wholesomeness, cleanliness, fecundity, and fidelity. Liberated by shiny new appliances, apron-clad mothers played with their boisterous broods. Rosy-cheeked fathers jauntily swung their briefcases as they strolled off to work. On Sunday afternoons, families on television and in magazines gathered around their barbecues and celebrated their good fortune. It was as though someone had banished poverty, prejudice, and pain from public culture.
But just beneath the surface, many real Americans, unlike their media counterparts, experienced anxiety and confusion. While the media painted a roseate portrait of suburban motherhood and the happy nuclear family, growing numbers of women actually entered the labor force, lesbians and gays cracked open the closet door as they created underground organizations, leftist activists brought a progressive agenda into mainstream organizations, domestic discontent simmered, urban poverty and racial segregation increased as whites began their flight to the suburbs, and the young quietly began crossing over an unbridgeable generational divide.
Far from being a shelter from the storm of American life, the family proved to be the storm itself. Despite lip service to age-old verities, values had indeed shifted. The men and women who married in the late forties and fifties entered a changing culture as if they were sailors at sea in uncharted waters. Reared in the Depression, most had grown up in a culture that valued duty, thrift, long-term commitment, and an old-fashioned work ethic. But they married and bore children in a culture of abundance that prized planned obsolescence and disposability, glamorized leisure, and promised individual happiness through the purchase of products. Ironically, the very consumer culture that celebrated "togetherness" also addressed husbands, wives, and children as individuals with promises of personal freedom and autonomy.
Though divorce was still rare, Americans began getting a bad case of the marital jitters. Ladies' Home Journal regularly published a column titled "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" Marital counseling became more popular in the late 1950s as couples tried to avoid the even worse stigma of divorce. Schools offered special programs on "marriage and the family." The 1957 founding of Parents without Partners, an organization dedicated to providing emotional and social comfort for newly divorced parents, signaled the growing problem of familial disintegration.
The setting for such family life, was, of course, the newly built suburbs that altered the social landscape, leaving the poor, minorities, singles, the childless, lesbians and gay men, and bohemian culture behind in the cities. The suburban population doubled in one decade from thirty-six million to seventy-two million people. By the end of the fifties, one-fourth of all Americans had found a small, sunny oasis of open space in the suburbs. Ironically, at the peak of anti-Communist fervor, few Americans seemed to realize that what made this exodus possible were public subsidies for higher education for veterans, low-interest home loans for GIs, the private automobile, and interstate highways, all paid for by the federal government in the name of containing Communism.
If a storm was brewing unexpectedly within the sacred confines of the family, there was another storm out there in the world that directly endangered home and hearth. The Cold War pitted the United States against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, capitalism against Communism, one nuclear-armed superpower against the other. It was a "war" that could not be fought directly for fear of causing global nuclear extinction. To contain Communism and to win the "hearts and minds" of Third World and unaligned nations, the U.S. government threw a circle of strategic bases around the globe. The two superpowers settled into a policy of deterrence, which, if it worked forever, would prevent Mutually Assured Destruction, dubbed, appropriately enough, MAD. Then, instead of annihilating each other, the two countries embarked upon a series of "proxy" wars, some of which threatened to turn the Cold War into a scorching conflagration.
On the home front, demonic images of the Soviet Union unleashed a moral panic, a "great fear" that penetrated all aspects of American culture and society. Like the Devil, Communism seemed to lurk everywhere, capable of inhabiting the soul of any individual. Vigilance, the government insisted, was essential. The search for Communists in American life became an obsession. Loyalty oaths, indictments, and blacklists crippled thousands of lives. Fear of internal sabotage and subversion crushed dissent. In 1950, Joseph McCarthy rose to power on a tsunami of anti-Communist hysteria, proclaiming Communists to be in every nook and cranny of American life, and at the very highest reaches of the American government. He fell only when his futile attacks against the United States Army—broadcast to millions of Americans in their living rooms—exposed his hateful persecution of innocent people. But to true believers, political treason, like religious heresy, endangered the nation's moral covenant with God. In the name of that covenant, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted of espionage, were executed in 1953.
The red-baiting witch hunts that Joseph McCarthy came to symbolize and that took his name—McCarthyism—coincided with what might be characterized as a national emotional breakdown. The Cold War recruited everyone and all resources into the national battle against the Soviet Union. Like a colonial jeremiad, a 1950s civil defense pamphlet warned, "Our nation is in a grim struggle for national survival and the preservation of the world." Americans mobilized the military, the civilian population, the economy, education, and even children for what seemed like an interminable war. My Weekly Reader, a scholastic news magazine, unleashed a barrage of anti-Communist propaganda at elementary-school students in order to produce another generation of Cold Warriors. The Boy Scouts, worried about American men's growing "softness," pledged to toughen boys' physical and psychological strength to fight Communism. Universities shifted their attention to the kind of basic research and defense projects required to counter Soviet expansionism. The military sent families to join soldiers at strategic bases, as ambassadors for a superior way of life.
Anti-Communism also helped contain the storm brewing within the home. American women could be mobilized without a single woman leaving her suburban home for work. The belief that American superiority rested on its booming consumer culture and rigidly defined gender roles became strangely intertwined with Cold War politics. In 1959, at an American National Exhibition in Moscow, Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschchev engaged in a bizarre "kitchen debate." As historian Elaine May has noted, "The two leaders did not discuss missiles, bombs, or even modes of government. Rather, they argued over the relative merits of American and Soviet washing machines, televisions, and electric ranges."
As they toured model American homes, Nixon boasted of the laborsaving devices that gave American women time to cultivate their charms as wives and to care for their children. "What we want is to make easier the life of our housewives," said Nixon. Khrushchev testily retorted that the Soviet Union had little use for full-time housewives. Its women workers were busy building an industrial society. Tracking this bizarre debate, the American press compared the "bedraggled drudges" of the Soviet Union, who lost their looks at an early age and neglected their children, with the well-groomed American housewives whose leisure allowed them to care for themselves, as well as their families.
The advertising industry quickly geared up to instruct new homemakers in the ways they could help fight Communism. In 1954, a McCall's magazine editorial coined the ideal of "togetherness," a concept designed to slow the centrifugal forces that were already spinning members of the family in different directions. Speaking before the Wilmington City Federation of Women's Clubs, a director of Du Pont reminded his female audience that they were no longer just housewives. "You are `Managers of Destiny,'" he told them, "perfectly positioned to fight socialism."
This is where you women can be of tremendous help—by everlastingly teaching and preaching the values of individualism and of personal freedom, and by keeping alive a burning faith in our philosophy of incentive and free choice.... Socialists have tried to relieve the individual of all responsibility.... Only women, with their "independence," can fight for individual liberty.
Simply put, the nation needed women to fuel the growing consumer economy. Anita Colby, an author and consultant, lectured businessmen on how to decipher the mysterious ways of the female consumer:
She, too, gets restless ... but unlike you, she can't head for a bar alone at night to spend a few hours of relaxation. No, restricted to home and children, she takes it out in a new color of hair—or calls in a decorator to do over the house—and may even surprise you when you come home one day with a ripped-up lawn bearing all the ear-marks of a swimming-pool in embryo! At the very least, she'll buy herself a new hat. This is bad, you think? Well, all you cosmetic manufacturers, makers of textiles, furniture, housewares, plumbing appliances, and millinery experts think about your annual sales-figures!! Honestly now, where would you be without the little woman's rebellion?
It didn't take much to convince postwar men and women that the United States, and not the Soviet Union, offered the good life. Between 1945 and 1960, the gross national product leaped 250 percent. In 1955, with only 6 percent of the world's population, the United States produced half the world's goods. By 1960, 60 percent of Americans belonged to the middle class, and owned their own homes; 75 percent of farmers owned their own lands. The discretionary income of the middle class doubled: 87 percent owned televisions, 75 percent owned washing machines, and ten million citizens owned shares in American companies.
The growing middle class had to ignore a great deal as they celebrated their material success. Racial segregation and discrimination still ruled the South. As the middle class expanded, the rich grew richer, while the poor slid further into grinding poverty. The nation's wealth, moreover, rested, as one observer noted, "on Hydrogen bombs, B-52 bombers, a nuclear navy, guided missiles ... the potential Armageddon ... death supporting life." The American Dream—a wife, children, ownership of a home, a car, and "the good things in life"—had finally come within reach of a critical mass of men.
After the political demise of Joseph McCarthy in 1954, Americans caught their breath and began to settle down to enjoy the domestic affluence they had purchased—or so they thought—through such extremities of vigilance. But McCarthyism had seeped deep into the culture, like toxic waste that poisons the earth long after officials declare a hazardous accident is over. Dissent—supposedly the touchstone of a democratic society—became linked in the popular mind with Communist sympathizers. Anti-Communism also cast a shadow of self-censorship across the intellectual landscape, destroying a credible non-Communist Left, squelching intellectual and political opposition, and forcing a political consensus that glossed over America's simmering racial, gender, economic, ecological, and social problems.
In such an atmosphere, even marriage and childbearing became politicized. A majority of Americans judged men or women who did not marry as "sick," thinking them either immoral, selfish, or neurotic. As "difference" became synonymous with "deviant," people began to regard such men or women with suspicion, their refusal to mate hinting at some "antisocial" secret like homosexual or Communist tendencies. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover even encouraged women to marry early and have children to fight "the twin enemies of freedom—crime and Communism."
Young couples married and bore children with an enthusiasm that confounded demographers' predictions of a falling birthrate. Fueled by a pent-up desire for family life after the Depression and war, they married earlier, slowed the rising divorce rate, and reversed a century's decline in the fertility rate by producing the biggest baby boom in history (from 1946 to 1964). At its peak in 1957, American women gave birth to over four million babies a year. A parade of baby carriages and bulging profiles transformed the landscape of America's parks, leaving one stunned foreign observer to note that "every other young housewife I see is pregnant."
The feminine mystique also had a profound influence on popular culture. An unmarried woman was an embarrassment. Hollywood scripts of the time required career women to acknowledge marriage as the source of all happiness. In the 1955 film The Tender Trap, Debbie Reynolds successfully auditions for her first big acting job. Dismissing congratulations from her agent, Frank Sinatra, she dutifully repeats the catechism of those years: "Marriage is the most important thing in the world. A woman isn't really a woman until she's been married and had children." Later, the poet Adrienne Rich would express the pressure that so many actual women felt at the time.
As soon as I was visibly and clearly pregnant I felt, for the first time in my adolescent and adult life, not-guilty. The atmosphere of approval in which I was bathed—even by strangers on the street, it seemed—was like an aura I carried with me, in which doubts, fears, misgivings, met with absolute denial. This is what women have always done.
Fashion played an important role in constructing and constricting the new feminine and maternal image of the postwar era. The simple, broad-shouldered, man-tailored clothing of the war years gave way to Christian Dior's "New Look," a style that exaggerated feminine curves and a womanly silhouette. Lacquered bouffant hairdos and starkly outlined eyes and mouths advertised an exaggerated if untouchable female sexuality. "Fifties clothes were like armor," the writer Brett Harvey recalled:
Our clothes expressed all the contradictions of our roles. Our ridiculously starched skirts and hobbling sheaths were a caricature of femininity. Our cinched waist and aggressively pointed breasts advertised our availability at the same time they warned of our impregnability.
"Experts" rushed to reposition homemaking as a profession. Life magazine praised the "increasing emphasis on the nurturing and homemaking values among women who might have at one time pursued a career." Standards of cleanliness steadily climbed as industry redefined laborsaving devices as necessities rather than luxuries. Advertisements mercilessly attacked women's insecurities as mothers, wives, and housekeepers. To protect their children, mothers had to scour and sanitize their homes. A professional homemaker sewed her own clothes, preserved her own fruits and vegetables, developed the arts of an experienced chef, and decorated her home with the skills of an interior designer. Add in the nearly eight hours a week that many suburban housewives spent in a car chauffeuring about their brood and doing errands, and it becomes clear why suburban housewives spent more time consumed by housework, broadly defined, than had their grandmothers.
The professionalization of the housewife turned the act of consumption into a patriotic act and kept American industry humming. Industrial psychologists advised manufacturers on how to make a housewife feel professional: "When a housewife uses one product for washing clothes, a second for dishes, a third for walls, a fourth for floors, a fifth for venetian blinds, rather than an all-purpose cleaner, she feels less like an unskilled laborer and more like an engineer." Later, one disgruntled fifties woman quipped, "The Good Housekeeping seal of approval was the brand of the slave."
More important than her homemaking skills or her appearance was a woman's role as a mother. Dr. Benjamin Spock, the author of the 1946 best-seller The Common Sense Book of Baby Care, the child-raising bible of that era, insisted that babies needed constant attention. Without a mother at home, children languished or, worse, became juvenile delinquents. A good mother always greeted her children after school with affection and nourishment. "More important than any meal," remembered one daughter of the fifties, "the after-school milk and cookies were akin to Eucharistic substance, symbolic of nurture and love."
Spock, a paragon of child permissiveness, strongly encouraged mothers to stay at home with their children. "If a mother realizes clearly how vital this kind of care is to a small child," he explained, "it may make it easier for her to decide that the extra money she might earn, or the satisfaction she might receive from an outside job, is not so important after all." When child care became too overwhelming, the distraught mother was advised to "go to a movie, or to the beauty parlor, or to get a new dress or hat." But mothers, it turned out, could also do too much. Four years before Spock, Philip Wylie's bestselling book Generation of Vipers set the tone for blaming mothers for everything that seemed wrong in the postwar era. Economic disaster, religious apathy, and the nervous breakdowns of soldiers during and after battle were all attributable to mothers' overly protective domination of their sons, which he dubbed "Momism." America's mothers now had to walk the fine line between neglect and smothering overprotection. If they worked outside their homes, they risked creating a generation of juvenile delinquents. If they stayed home and smothered their children, they risked producing a generation of denatured, sissified young men.
THE BIG LIFE
After her children were asleep and her housework was done, it was hardly time for a woman to fall into bed, exhauster or depressed. A housewife still needed to exchange her apron for an outfit that would rekindle her husband's sexual interest in her. The expanding consumer culture depended heavily on women's repeated purchases of beauty products. But the formula didn't always work. Behind closed doors, many marriages seemed deeply troubled, and at the heart of those troubles was the nature of female sexuality.
The war years had witnessed increased teenage prostitution, greater sexual activity among both heterosexuals and homosexuals, and escalating marital infidelity. After the war, Americans tried to "contain" such disorderly sexual behavior. But it turned out that sexual expectations had, in fact, changed. Panicked social critics encouraged early marriage, hoping it might put a brake on youthful sexual experimentation. And sometimes it did, but when it couldn't, sexual hypocrisy became a way of life. Society still expected men to have experience and women to have none. The same culture that increasingly exploited sex to promote products still insisted on the appearance of virginal innocence in its girls and women.
After the war, dating turned into a highly elaborate form of courtship in which male aggression and female passivity were carefully prescribed and encoded. "In the fifties," one woman remembered, "the only thing worse than sleeping with a man was to telephone him." Every step in male commitment permitted freer sexual activity, as kissing escalated into necking, necking slid into petting, and heavy petting stopped only a technical step before "going all the way." "We started dating," recalled one woman, "and we kept on dating until we got married my junior year. In between we did the whole bit. First, he gave me his class ring, then the lavaliere—the necklace with the letters of his fraternity. Next came the fraternity pin, until, da-dum, the engagement ring." Although a bevy of experts and teen magazines strongly advocated "saving oneself for marriage," one woman later admitted, "Everybody was doing it. But it was the Big Lie that nobody was."
Couples expected an "eroticized marriage" and looked for advice from experts. Eustace Chesser, the author of the widely read Love Without Fear (1947), kept in print in paperback through the fifties, popularized the idea that marital bliss required mutual orgasm. The most widely read marriage manual of the decade, Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, written by the Dutch physician Th. H. Van de Velde in 1930 and reprinted thirty-two times between 1941 and 1957, went a step further, declaring, "Every considerable erotic stimulation of their wives that does not terminate in orgasm, on the women's part, represents an injury, and repeated injuries of this kind lead to permanent—or very obstinate—damage to both body and soul."
The growing popularity of the simultaneous orgasm, however doctrinaire, also presumed that women should experience orgasmic fulfillment. Yet, that was not what women's magazines reported. They brooded about American women's frigidity—the decade's term for everything from sexual boredom to nonorgasmic sex. The medical and psychiatric community, heavily influenced by Freudian doctrine, blamed women for refusing to accept their true feminine identity. They insisted that two kinds of orgasms existed, vaginal and clitoral, but that only one was of value. For them, a clitoral orgasm was, by definition, the immature response of a neurotic and frigid woman who willfully refused to surrender to her feminine destiny. Achieved by male penetration, the vaginal orgasm demonstrated a woman's true affirmation of her feminine maturity.
No one knows how many women spent those years doubting their femininity because they had never experienced the much-touted vaginal orgasm. No doubt there were many. In one study of white middle-class couples, one-third of women claimed they had never achieved orgasm. Some of these women perhaps mistook emotional emptiness for sexual dissatisfaction. Betty Friedan grew bewildered when housewives gave her "an explicitly sexual answer to a question that was not sexual at all." Could it be, she wondered, that they viewed sex as a substitute for a "forfeited self"?
It was difficult to know. "Frigidity" probably had many causes, including guilt. Over 80 percent of the women Alfred Kinsey interviewed for his study of female sexuality expressed moral objections to premarital sex, but half of them nevertheless violated their own values. One divorced woman later explained the source of her sexual problems:
My experience being with my to-be husband succeeded in conditioning me to utter subservience to his satisfaction and he never thought mine could be other than automatic upon his (else I was "frigid" or wrong somehow). And he is and was a psychoanalyst! I remain as I was—unfulfilled.
After marriage, some wives who had engaged in premarital sex wondered if their husbands still "respected" them.
I feel this gradual introduction to the sex experience has advantages over being plunged into it suddenly on the wedding night. However, it carried with it for me a high sense of guilt, which still bothers me after all these years. I am forever grateful that we did finally marry because I probably wouldn't have felt free to marry anyone else. This feeling of guilt may be why I am unable to respond sexually as I wish I could.
Ignorance of anatomy and sexuality was also widespread. One woman, who had saved herself for marriage, wondered "whether or not the lack of sexual experience before marriage marred our early days of marriage ... but I believe a better understanding of woman's nature on the part of [my husband] ... could have helped considerably. After seventeen years, this understanding is still lacking." Another woman revealed that she "didn't know anything about orgasms":
The first time ... we were in his room in his dorm. It was fast—he came in and he came out. It was a sharp, poignant pleasure that had no resolution. It stayed like that, it never got any better. He would come in and then pull out and come into a handkerchief. I was always left hanging. I used to come back to my dorm and lie down on the floor and howl and pound the floor. But I didn't really know why I was frustrated. I felt so lonely.
The truth is, it was difficult to switch from virginal bride to sexy wife. As Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs have argued, women—not men—made the sexual revolution. Between the fifties and the eighties, men's sexual behavior changed very little. They still enjoyed premarital sexual experiences in their youth, married, and afterward perhaps strayed with other women. But during the same period, as Ehrenreich has pointed out, women moved "from a pattern of virginity before marriage and monogamy thereafter to a pattern that much more resembles men's."
Even before the sixties, a sexual revolution simmered, but it had not yet boiled over. Women received confusing messages from a culture in transition. Society still divided the female population into "good" and "bad" women. The spreading use of birth control—diaphragms and condoms—helped rupture the historic tie between sex and procreation, but they were for planning babies, not for pleasure. Despite the expectation of an "eroticized" marriage, many people still felt shy about discussing sexual matters in public or, for that matter, in private. Advice manuals emphasized the desirability of female orgasm but assumed the woman would remain passive and stressed the man's effort. Marriage manuals encouraged men to satisfy their wives but faulted women for being "frigid." A Freudian-saturated culture promoted the crackpot notion that women achieved sexual satisfaction exclusively through vaginal penetration. Private behavior contrasted sharply with public pronouncements of marital fidelity and sexual innocence. Some women felt guilty if they had sex before marriage and guiltier still if they had too few orgasms afterward. Sexual advice had changed, but traditional attitudes had not. The fact is, women really weren't sure what they were supposed to feel. Some women, not surprisingly, felt nothing at all. The result: too many women "faked it" and too few men noticed.
Many men, too, felt suffocated by the self-conscious "togetherness" demanded of the suburban family. By the mid-fifties, a few Beats and playboys began to search for escape routes from the traditional obligation to support families. But most men didn't flee. As one husband explained, "You stayed with the decisions you made in your early twenties. You stuck with your job. You stuck with your wife. You stuck with everything." And if life became too hard, men used liquor or other women to cope with their dissatisfaction.
The manly courage so powerfully portrayed in the Westerns, detective stories, or war films of the era mocked the actual lives men led as suburban husbands. Growing numbers of them worked in industries and corporations that stripped them of autonomy, dictated the terms of their work, and rewarded conformity and teamwork more than personal initiative. Despite the popularity of a tough-fisted masculinity in the popular media, American men were also becoming more liberal and more open-minded. In 1959, a poll revealed that more men than women said they would vote for a woman president. And just as men were losing authority at work, growing numbers of mothers and wives were expanding theirs by joining men in the labor force.
|Preface: The Longest Revolution||xi|
|PART ONE: REFUGEES FROM THE FIFTIES|
|Chapter 1 Dawn of Discontent||3|
|Chapter 2 Female Generation Gap||37|
|PART TWO: REBIRTH OF FEMINISM|
|Chapter 3 Limits of Liberalism||63|
|Chapter 4 Leaving the Left||94|
|PART THREE: THROUGH THE EYES OF WOMEN|
|Chapter 5 Hidden Injuries of Sex||143|
|Chapter 6 Passion and Politics||196|
|Chapter 7 The Politics of Paranoia||227|
|PART FOUR: NO END IN SIGHT|
|Chapter 8 The Proliferation of Feminism||263|
|Chapter 9 Sisterhood to Superwoman||295|
|Epilogue: Beyond Backlash||331|
|Interviews Not Cited in Notes||399|
|Bibliography for Further Reading and Research||403|
Posted May 13, 2003
A fascinating collection of facts (not there really is such a thing as a fact, if we take this book seriously...but I'm being curmudgeonly) that gets Rosen et al's agenda into the open. If it's true that western culture is a superstructure of male dominion, then all we have to do is rid ourselves of that superstructure...and then endure the extermination of the 5+ billion extra people the superstructure makes possible for the world to carry in a post-agricultural world. Simple, no?
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Posted July 4, 2001
As a genuine member of the baby boom (born 1948), I lived through the times and events Ruth Rosen describes in her enthralling and enlightening 'The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America.' But I was one who fell through the cracks of the social movements of the 1960s and 70s. I had been too thoroughly saturated with the traditional upbringing of the 1950s. Except for brief flirtations with rebellion, I slipped unscathed through the 60s and settled into peaceful conventionality in the 70s. I survived as a dutiful and conservative wife and mother through the 80s, but by the mid-90s, repression no longer sufficed. I flowered into full-blown, and sometimes militant, feminism. So why did I even need a book like Rosen's? Because if I had found myself, I had not found my past. Like an adopted child searching for her biological mother, I began exploring my own past, not as an individual, but as a member of a society and a product of a culture. More than anything, I wanted to know how in the world I ever escaped being an activist all those years ago, and how I survived in not-so- blissful ignorance nearly thirty years of the feminine mystique. Other books had chronicled the events and collected the documents of the Second Wave of feminist activism, and I had read several personal memoirs by activists whose names had become familiar. But in 'The World Split Open,' Ruth Rosen, history professor at the University of California at Davis and frequent contributor to The San Francisco Chronicle, explored the events, the personalities, the social and cultural contexts, the causes and effects, the whys and the wherefores. In a nutshell, she put everything in a nutshell. In her preface, she calls the modern women's movement 'The Longest Revolution,' and there is no question that the changes effected by the movement constituted a true revolution for men as well as women. And while she gives full credit to the foremothers of 'women's liberation,' Rosen carefully notes that the movement of the latter part of the twentieth century had a clear beginning quiet separate from the First Wave's emphasis on getting the vote. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the movement was in full flower, women began to question virtually everything, from accepted perspectives on history and economics to sex and relationships. They wrote and spoke, protested and organized, and most of all they raised the consciousness of other women. Using documentation from contemporary sources as well as numerous interviews with the participants, Rosen provides a clear, concise, yet comprehensive analysis of the major issues the movement addressed, as well as how the movement impacted the activists and vice-versa, from speak-outs on rape and abortion, to paranoia over FBI infiltrators. She also turns a sometimes critical eye on the shortcomings and failings of both the movement and many of its participants, but recognizes how much they had to overcome and how little they started with. If there is any shortcoming in the book, it lies in the lack of more recent developments, both in the political climate and the movement itself. Although Rosen addresses some elements of the conservative backlash that struck the women's movement in the late 1980s and through the 90s, especially the monumental rise of the religious right, she does leave a yawning gap between the movement's heyday of the 70s and 80s and the beginning of the twenty-first century, when feminism reached out from the United States and truly embraced the women of the world. On the other hand, that may be material for yet another book. For most important in 'The World Split Open,' Rosen repeatedly reminds the reader, especially one like me who has joined the parade that nearly passed her by, that 'The Longest Revolution' has only begun. 'As each generation shares its secrets, women learn to see the world through their own eyes, and discover, much to their surprise, that they are not thWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.