Thursday, October 22, 2009


The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present

By Gail Collins

NY Times - Gail Collins's "When Everything Changed" points out what the women on "Mad Men" know: that period in our history was less enjoyable for the ladies. Ms. Collins, who edited the editorial page of The New York Times (the first woman to have held that position) from 2001 to 2007 and who now writes an Op-Ed column for the paper, begins her informative survey with a panoramic look at how women lived in 1960 - recent history, we might think, until we note how many practices then in fashion seem, by current standards, positively medieval.

Female passengers were banned from United Airlines' "executive flights" from New York to Chicago, and in some states women were barred from jury duty lest time spent in the courtroom "encourage lax performance of their domestic duties." "Hell, yes, we have a quota," admitted a medical school dean. "We do keep women out, when we can."

The practice of paying women less for doing the same jobs as men was not only accepted but routine; a wife's credit card was issued in her husband's name; and women had trouble securing bank loans to buy a house or even a car. The National Press Club was off limits to women until 1971. No one much questioned these regulations and customs - the dress codes requiring women to wear skirts instead of pants, the firing of airline stewardesses who gained too much weight - nor was there vocal opposition to the sort of prohibitions that we decry when they appear in dispatches from some benighted emirate or sheikdom.

Sam Smith, Multitudes - [Harvard dean F Skiddy Von Stade's] attitude toward social change - as recalled in the Harvard Crimson in 1974 : "When I see the bright, well-educated, but relatively dull housewives who attended the Seven Sisters, I honestly shudder at the thought of changing the balance of males versus females at Harvard. Quite simply, I do not see highly educated women making startling strides in contributing to our society in the foreseeable future. They are not, in my opinion, going to stop getting married and/or having children. They will fail in their present role as women if they do."

Von Stade had plenty of support for such views. Professor John Finley, classics scholar and master of Eliot House, said about the same time that "I'm not quite sure people want to have crystalline laughter falling like waterfalls down each entry way of the house at all hours. I should think it would be a little disturbing if you were taking advanced organic chemistry.". . .

Thirty years after she graduated in 1962, New York politician Elizabeth Holtzman would say, "Nobody protested. We didn't know yet what was unfair. I felt privileged to be getting a Harvard education." A New York Times article the year of her graduation said that "Radcliffe girls," like those from other women's colleges, "don't DO much of anything beyond marrying and raising children." The article was written by a Harvard man. And in another NY Times piece, Peggy Schmertzler of the Radcliffe class of 1953 recalled, "I remember the deans' telling us an educated person made the best mother. . . She could sing French songs to her children."

On the other hand, many of the Cliffies held their own. One of the stories told was of the professor chiding a woman student for knitting in class. "Knitting," he said, "is a repressed form of masturbation." Replied the student, "When I knit, I knit. When I masturbate, I masturbate."

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