Flipping through some television garbage trying to induce sleep, I came upon an old western starring Kirk Douglas, Dorothy Malone and Rock Hudson. Once upon a time the above names would trigger common points of reference. A collective vocabulary signifying the Fifties, chrome tailfins, standard issue gray flannel suits, hats, and stifled alternative views. No longer. Common points of reference today are unrecognizable, at least for yours truly, still stuck on black and white movies, good manners, and correct dress.
At one point, a young, beautiful girl tells a middle aged Kirk Douglas that she loves him. He dismisses it, telling her she’s just a girl who will one day find a young man who’s right for her. “I’m not a girl,” she cries, “I’m a woman who will wash your clothes and cook for you, and take care of you…” Just as well that only a kiss is exchanged because Kirk turns out to be her father, conveniently shot dead by Rock at the end of the movie. Phew, that was a close one. The beautiful youngster was Carol Linley, whom I once lunched with at Mark’s Club back in 1979. But that’s not the point of my story. It’s what she told Kirk in order to get him to change his mind about her: I’ll wash your clothes and so on. Oh for those good old days. Which brings me to how very different things were for all of us, but mainly for women, back in the Fifties. Mind you, I’m not Virginia Nicholson, the lady who wrote a book about the lost world of womanhood during the Fifties. Her excerpts in a daily newspaper hinted that the last thing a man wanted was a clever woman. In my long life I’ve read and heard a hell of a lot of rubbish, but this takes the cake.
Personally I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever met or heard of who wanted a dumb broad for a wife. It’s Hollywood that made it up, the role of the dumb blonde, starring Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Mamie van Doren. And it’s the pop scene that followed, with groupies hurling themselves on some pretty ugly men that perpetuated the myth. Nicholson writes that a survey of the aspirations of women in 1956 was mostly to get married. Well, yes, marriage back then was not only for same sex couples, hence a lot of women looked forward to having a family without synthetic babies. (Sorry Elton.) I finished boarding school in June 1955 and entered university that September. Throughout the mid-Fifties all I did was visit women’s schools chatting up girls. Sweetbriar, Rollins, Bennett, Smith, Wellesley. Most of the girls were studying history, English, liberal arts in general. I don’t think I ever met one that was reading deportment, cookery, laundry skills or embroidery. In the good old U.S. of A, of course. Did they study such skills at Oxford? I doubt it very much.
So what the hell is Virginia Nicholson talking about? Sure, there was domestic drudgery, but for those who couldn’t afford to hire help, which was the majority. The man brought home the bacon, the little woman took care of the house and the children. What’s wrong with that? Career first, motherhood second is a myth, but not too much of one. Girls go out, get a job, meet the right boy, and have children. What’s the big deal? Since World War II, anyway. The Fifties were my favourite decade. I went out with beautiful women, there were constant thump-thumps in the heart, I was on the tennis tour and travelled non stop seeing the world, was never tired or hung over no matter how much I partied, and I partied non-stop, and I thought I knew who the good guys were, and it was the Yankees. The bad guys were the Russkies. Now I’m not so sure.
But back to women and the Fifties. According to Betty Friedan, a very smart but awfully ugly woman, her sex back then was acting out the expected role of a wife, mother and homemaker. They responded to questions with forced, chirpy reports of contentment, according to Friedan. She claimed there was a fundamental sense of uneasiness, frustration, and a vague unhappiness that most women had trouble articulating. Society, according to Betty, had imposed a role on women they basically resented. “The feminine mystique has succeeded in burying millions of women alive,” she wrote.
Friedan became an overnight sensation during the Sixties, when she published her book. The women she interviewed reminded me a lot of highly decorated soldiers who are interviewed and prompted by reporters. “So you instantly realized that your platoon was about to be overrun, so you threw yourself up front….” says the hack. “Yeah, if you say so,” answers the soldier. Men fight for their unit and react automatically to danger. Their lives and the lives of their buddies do not pass before their minds and in Technicolor to boot, just before they act. Ditto for women being interviewed by other very intelligent women about lost opportunities.
The Fifties were great. The young were split between those wearing suits, ties and had short hair. The girls had full skirts, high heels, and perms. The others were “greasers,” with long duck-tailed hair, blue-suede shoes, and a go screw yourself attitude. I belonged to the former group, but kinda liked the lack of respect of the greasers. And the girls that went out with greasers, secretly liked us squares, as long as we weren’t real squares, but pretended to be. It’s still the same old story.
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