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A woman's life prior to women's lib?
March 28, 2010 11:28 AM   Subscribe

How was a woman's life prior to the feminist movement? Books? Articles? Documentaries? Personal stories? I want to know everything about a woman's life prior to the feminist movement: sex, food, drugs, smoking, parents, siblings, school, boobs, lesbians...everything. Nitty gritty.

I am a self-proclaimed feminist. I was born into a world that has reaped the work done by feminists. Although much remains to be done, I want know how life was before the feminist movement. I am attempting to deepen my knowledge of feminism and would like to be referred or told of some stories from that time. And, if possible, references or stories of women of color and different nationalities, in the U.S. prior to the feminist movement.
posted by lifeonholidae to Society & Culture (44 answers total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
 
Which feminist movement? 1960s-70s era, suffrage, or what?

As a data point, my mother had to show a bank officer proof of her divorce before she was allowed to take out a loan without having her husband co-sign. This was 1974ish.
posted by rtha at 11:44 AM on March 28, 2010


Anecdotally: My mother was divorced from her first husband (my dad was her second husband) in the early 1960s. She was refused credit at Sears because of her marital status. We boycotted Sears at my house until I was college-aged over that credit refusal.

My mother is turning 75 this year. My advice to you is to speak to women in her age group and ask them what it was like. They'll have a lot to tell you about how things have changed. My mother's stories about men's/society's expectations shock me, and I know that as a woman in my early 40s, I can tell stories about sexism in the workplace that shock college-aged women.
posted by immlass at 11:56 AM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, so far as stories go... There's The Awaking along with The Yellow Wallpaper. And, while this might not be as much of a classic, I also think the movie, The Duchess, is pretty good in this regard. The recent movie, Changeling, may also give you some insight. Their Eyes Were Watching God is specifically about an African-American woman's life. You should also look into the life and writings of Mary Wollstonecraft. If nothing else, the following is telling: Wollstonecraft wrote an essay entitled, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and a parody of this was then produced entitled, A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. The idea was, saying women deserve rights was equivalent of saying brute animals deserved rights. (Nowadays, yes, there's the whole animal-rights movement. But it was intended to be a reductio ad absurdum.)

I also got a lot out of reading the last section of Rousseau's Emile. The book in total is about the education of a boy, Emile. The last section concerns itself in how a proper bride for Emile should be raised. It's an eye-opener about how even someone as forward-thinking as Rousseau understood a woman's place to be.

You can also really learn a lot just by asking the older women in your own life. For instance, my mother was required to wear skirts, even in the dead of winter, to school until she was a senior in high school. She excelled at math. Yet, one year, to be permitted to take the more advanced class in the next year, each student had to both pass a test and get their current teacher's signature: my mom passed the test just fine but, on the day when the teacher was giving signatures, he said, "Okay, all you boys come up here and I'll sign the form for you. But for the women in the class, don't bother, I won't sign. Women just don't need to know this." She was able to pester him until he finally gave her the signature, and she went on to major in math. Her first job was as a computer programmer, and when she just started her job, she was expected to get coffee for all the others.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:59 AM on March 28, 2010 [8 favorites]


Here's Wikipedia's list of feminist literature; it covers 1405-2006 and includes The Second Sex (1949), The Feminine Mystique (1963), Sexual Politics (1970), Ain't I a Woman? (1981), Backlash (1991), and many more.
posted by sallybrown at 12:08 PM on March 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Nthing ask your mom, grandmother, any women you know who's substantially older than you. or even somewhat older, but from a different part of the country, or who went to private/church school (not required to conform to Title IX).

Even if these women consider themselves not feminist or antifeminist, they will nonetheless tell you tales that will curl your hair. And as they tell the stories, their sense of grievance will be evident and shocking, to you and to them.

Be prepared for some weird feelings to emerge, as people who live and act against their own self-interest examine some of the defining events of their lives.
posted by toodleydoodley at 12:09 PM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you haven't read The Feminine Mystique, do so. It's Betty Friedan's report on what it was like to be a woman in the 1940's and 1950's, and on what women actually felt about their lives.

Also, it was this book that pretty much kicked off the 1960's-1970's wave of the feminist movement; Friedan's book let a lot of women see that "hey, wait, I'm not the only one that thinks being a stay-at-home mom is boring."*

* Mind you: I am not saying that EVERY woman SHOULD think being a stay-at-home mom is boring. What I was taught, as a child, is that it is about being able to choose for my own self what I wanted to do, rather than someone telling me girls were supposed to want one or another thing. Lots of people honestly do want to make a home for their family; and more power to them. It was only when women were being told that they were SUPPOSED to want this, simply because they were women, that women ran into discontent.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:13 PM on March 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


My mom, who is 61 now, was denied credit by Sears after her divorce in the '80s. We boycotted them, too.

Good suggestions from Ms.Saint. I would also recommend "The Story of an Hour" and The Bell Jar.
posted by SamanthaK at 12:17 PM on March 28, 2010


Oh, I actually gave a short paraphrase of the Emile piece on Mefi before: here. In case you don't feel like reading an outdated book on education just because someone on the internet suggested it.
posted by Ms. Saint at 12:25 PM on March 28, 2010


Devices and Desires discusses not only the production of contraceptives in America, but also talks about the great lengths women went to in order to obtain contraception, and their willingness to use products that uncomfortable or even harmful.

From the book's description on Goodreads: Andrea Tone breaks new ground by showing what it was really like to produce, buy, and use contraceptives during a century of profound social and technological change.
posted by runningwithscissors at 12:27 PM on March 28, 2010


Watch When Abortion Was Illegal (in 3 parts on youtube) or read about the Jane Underground. (There's also a documentary about the Jane network, but it doesn't seem to be online; you might be able to find it at a library, though.)
posted by scody at 12:37 PM on March 28, 2010


I agree it would be helpful to have some context for what time period we're starting at. Do you mind sharing your age?
posted by serazin at 12:55 PM on March 28, 2010


For recommendations, Angela Davis' Women, Race and Class remains one of my favorite books about feminism and the history of womens movements.
posted by serazin at 12:58 PM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I remember a friend of my mother's around 1970, living in Ottawa Canada, who had 3 young children but was divorced from their father, and rather poor. The kids stayed for a 'vacation' with us over a few days when she became pregnant, and took the bus by herself down to NYC to get an abortion.

There are various ways of conceptualizing 'before feminism'. Feminism was not something that arrived on a set date for all.
posted by kch at 1:03 PM on March 28, 2010


Zami covers a lot of the ground you're looking for, at least wrt firsthand accounts from the late twentieth century. (That wikipedia entry is crap, sorry. It's a great book, I assure you.)
posted by clavicle at 1:09 PM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lillian Faderman has a number of very readable books about thehistory of lesbians in different time periods.
posted by matildaben at 1:20 PM on March 28, 2010


My mother's teeth literally rotted out of her head because her father refused to "waste" money on a woman. He and the family dentist both agreed that best option - economically speaking with reference to her future husband - was to have all of her teeth pulled and get dentures in, which would be cheaper for her husband to maintain. No, I am not making this shit up.
Her father was English but this happened in Canada where she grew up in the ~50s.
posted by Billegible at 1:20 PM on March 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


There are almost too many sources for this to be a useful question (I mean, we're really talking about 99+% of human history!) but off the top of my head, some great, very accessible fiction sources:

Mad Men is about this as much as anything else. It has gotten some knocks from women who worked in the advertising business in the early 60s for being too grim about the state of women there (apparently there were some female ad execs). However, my mom, who entered the workforce during that time period (in a different male-dominated field) and later became a second-wave feminist, couldn't even watch Mad Men at first because it brought back so many memories that made her angry. So I think in general it's pretty accurate.

(And more about my mother: she always did extremely well in school - skipped kindergarten, top of her class - and wanted to go to college to study math or science. Her parents, who were usually pretty progressive, wanted her to stay at home go to the teacher's college down the road! Luckily she got a scholarship.)

I'm always recommending the books of Marge Piercy here, because she writes such great, vivid, well-researched historical fiction. Some books that might be of particular interest to you are Braided Lives, about two women in college in the late 50s, just before the civil rights and feminist movements (this book is also excellent for its portrayal of how dangerous sex was for women before widespread birth control or Roe v. Wade); Gone to Soldiers, which follows 10 people, mostly civilians and mostly women, through WWII, showing, among other things, how women really took charge during the war and then were told to step aside afterwards; and Sex Wars, about the women of the sufferage movement in the 19th century.

Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, is a great book about generations of Chinese and Chinese-American women.

And then of course there are the novels of Jane Austen, which tell you a lot about the economic prospects of unmarried women in Victorian England.


On preview: Zami is indeed an excellent book.
posted by lunasol at 1:33 PM on March 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Gail Collins has a really informative book dealing with this exact subject, called When Everything Changed. I read it recently and highly recommend it. It gives lots of personal anecdotes from women who lived through the Women's Lib movement, and a pretty comprehensive history of the various legislation that dealt with these issues (some that passed, lots that didn't). It also includes a substantial discussion of the overlap (and sometimes opposing issues) of the Civil Rights movement with Women's Lib, and stories from women who were involved with both. As someone who has grown up post Title IX and with all of the benefits of the Women's Lib movement, it was a real eye-opener to see how different things were even for my mother's generation.
posted by Jemstar at 2:23 PM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Watching Mad Men gave me a great jumping off point for talking with my grandmother about the 50s and 60s. It was quite enlightening. I strongly suggest seeking out women 70+ and asking them. Really amazing stories.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:31 PM on March 28, 2010


Reading any book on marriage (Committed, The History Of The Wife, The Meaning of Wife, Marriage Shock, etc.) will go into great detail about what life used to be like. Life revolved around snagging a man, PERIOD, and you were worthless without one socially, legally, everything.

I also hear watching Mad Men is great for this sort of thing, though my feminist heart has a freaking seizure of horror every time that show is mentioned and I can't bear to.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:39 PM on March 28, 2010


You might enjoy reading the diaries of women throughout history:

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries, and Oral Histories

This wikipedia page on oral history offers many links to the collected oral histories of veterans, slaves, Japanese-Americans, African Americans, refugees...

The American Experience documentaries on PBS have a lot of good stuff. Topics include Miss America, the birth control pill, female pilots in WWII, and the memoirs of an eighteenth century midwife.

If you are looking specifically for the 1940s-1960s time period:

The Girls Who Went Away tells the stories of teenage girls who got pregnant and gave up babies for adoption before Roe v. Wade.

I would also try searching for vintage books actually published in the 1950s and '60s, such as home economics textbooks, etiquette books, homemaking books, "so you're becoming a woman" pamphlets for girls...it gives you a good idea of the attitudes in place during a given decade.

And yes, Mad Men is fantastic.
posted by castlebravo at 3:08 PM on March 28, 2010


I find that reading forgotten popular or minor novels of the past (rather than novels that have survived as classics or explicitly feminist novels that appeal to modern sensibilities) give me a feel, often inadvertently, for what women's lives were like during that period.

Charlotte M. Yonge's Victorian novel The Daisy Chain, immensely popular in its day, is a good example; daughter Ethel (whom no one thinks of educating outside the home) covertly studies her brother's Latin and Greek, yet her intelligence is totally disregarded by her family, who instead refuse to leave the house with her while she's wearing glasses and interrupt her idealistic diatribes on social inequality to scold her for dirtying her dress. This is mentioned by the by; although the author is a woman, it is not a feminist book. Rhoda Broughton's A Waif's Progress is another good example -- the heroine is permanently socially condemned, by those around her as well as by the author, for having been exposed too young to too much information about the seamier side of life.
posted by stuck on an island at 3:41 PM on March 28, 2010


When I was in high school, in the first half of the 70s, I went to the guidance counselor - a woman - and asked her to give me information on careers. Her reply? "You don't have to worry about that. You can be a mother."
posted by tizzie at 4:10 PM on March 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Women's Room is a novel that's worth reading if you're interested in women's lives in the 50s and 60s.
posted by Daily Alice at 4:31 PM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder how much of this is due to the lack of a feminist movement versus just accidentally encountering a bunch of assholes?

(Or misinterpretations- my fully married parents were denied credit because they didn't make enough money. Back in the good old days, especially the stag-flationary era, credit was fairly hard to come by. Their first house had something like an 18% rate.)
posted by gjc at 5:04 PM on March 28, 2010


When my mother was born, American women did not have the right to vote.

My mother had to drop out of high school and go to work because employers could legally pay women less than they paid men. (Therefore there was no work to be had for my mother's father, and his teenaged daughter had to quit school to bring in some money....)

Things have changed. Not enough, but there has been progress, and it's been due to feminism.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 5:06 PM on March 28, 2010


The Girls in the Balcony by Nan Robertson is incredible about how women reporters were treated.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 5:06 PM on March 28, 2010


Susan Brownmiller's Femininity was an eye-opener for me when I read it 25 years ago.
posted by newmoistness at 5:14 PM on March 28, 2010


Chiming back in to add a personal anecdote. When I was born, the conversation between the doctor and my father (who had been in the waiting room, not the delivery room, natch) apparently went like this:

Doctor: Mr. Cody, I'm terribly sorry to have to be the one to tell you this.
Dad: (panicked) My wife? Is my wife OK?
Doctor: Of course. She's fine.
Dad: (continuing to panic) My baby? Is my baby OK?
Doctor: Oh, the baby's fine. It's just that it's another girl. I'm so sorry. You'll have to keep trying.

This was 1969.
posted by scody at 5:34 PM on March 28, 2010


The Women's History of the World by Rosalind Miles is a great, very readable overview.
posted by honey-barbara at 5:44 PM on March 28, 2010


I wonder how much of this is due to the lack of a feminist movement versus just accidentally encountering a bunch of assholes?

(Or misinterpretations- my fully married parents were denied credit because they didn't make enough money. Back in the good old days, especially the stag-flationary era, credit was fairly hard to come by. Their first house had something like an 18% rate.)



FWIW, in the late fifties, before my parents were married, my mom was working as a nurse and was denied credit specifically because she was single. The policy at the department store where she was applying for a charge card was that unmarried women were ineligible for credit. At that time, it was so unusual for a woman to have her own income that the policy across the board was to assume that women in general had to rely on their husbands for money.

I don't know that it was so much assholery as it was the widely-held assumption that women would not have money of their own because for so long, so few of their opportunities involved paid work. The feminist movement helped promote the idea that women's choices were not limited to working in the home.

Not that there weren't plenty of assholes around in the good old days.
posted by corey flood at 7:04 PM on March 28, 2010


Seconding The Feminine Mystique, and perhaps you could let it guide you into a consideration of the postwar American suburb, which is a particularly interesting view into pre-60s/70s feminist movement life. I think that a look into the life Americans (or American marketers) idealized immediately after WWII is sort of important--it didn't necessarily apply to the literal life experiences of minorities or low-income women, but it became the thing that was shown in advertising, entertainment, etc. to all women before and during the feminist movement of the 70s as the ideal family life.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:27 PM on March 28, 2010


I'm in my late fifties, and in high school was the only girl in my AP Trig class. It's the only class I ever flunked. There was a point where the concepts just didn't gel in my head - so I asked a question. The teacher answered it, using exactly the same words he'd used when I didn't get it. A bit later, I asked another question about the same concept. His words: "What's the matter with you, are you stupid?! I just explained that!!"
I never went back to that class. There was often a sensibility that 'girls in math/science' were just taking up valuable room that a boy could use (and presumably go on to go to college and make more money).
Just being able to wear pants anywhere you want is unbelievable freedom. There was a time when 'dressed up' always meant just that (for women) - a dress. And hose, and a slip, and a bra, and shoes/bag (preferably matching), and lipstick etc.
My mother (born in 1917) worked her entire adult life (from 18-62); sometimes two jobs - always as a 'secretary'; but really a coordinator and Jr. Executive - but never paid that way.
She felt she couldn't/shouldn't rock the boat as a single parent, but had she been born in another era, I think she could have been an exec.
Divorced women were second-hand goods; and being the child of divorced parents was odd, to say the least. I was the only one I knew whose parents were divorced. We lived with my grandparents, and I'd go to Father-Daughter stuff with my grandpa. No one shunned me in an obvious way, but it was always very hard to explain.
So yes - talk to any older women you know. Ask them questions about their lives - and be prepared to listen.
And thanks for asking.
posted by dbmcd at 7:41 PM on March 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Up until sometime in the 1970's, there was no single "Help Wanted" ad section in the paper. Instead there were two sections, "Help Wanted - Men" and "Help Wanted - Women".

Of course, the only jobs women were considered qualified for were the traditional pink-collar type: secretary, nurse, school teacher, hair dresser, etc.

Oh, and "Gal Friday" was a common job title. It was quite common for women in the work place to be referred to as "gal" or "girl".
posted by marsha56 at 9:00 PM on March 28, 2010


For a look at the early 1900s - 1920s, Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth is the autobiography of a young lady whose life is wrenched in a completely different direction by World War I. The first few chapters describe her sheltered life in the north of England before the war, which might be of most interest to you (I found it tedious and suffocating, rather like Jane Austen's world, which also makes me want to slit my wrists with a crumpet fork). The book is best known for her account of wartime nursing, including a stint at the front lines. Gripping stuff, but plenty of thoughtful commentary from an early feminist on the role of women in a radically changing world. warning: keep plenty of kleenex handy
posted by Quietgal at 9:09 PM on March 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Nthing The Feminine Mystique. World-changing and really interesting. Not to mention well-written.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:31 PM on March 28, 2010


During the Great Depression (or possibly as late as during WWII), my great grandfather was told by the bank that they would only give him a loan if he took his two daughters out of college because college for girls was a waste of money. They told him they would never require he take his son out of college, but for girls it was a frivolous expense.
posted by whoaali at 11:14 PM on March 28, 2010


Little house on the Prairie is a fairly accurate retelling of rural life in the 1870's onwards, published in 1932, written from the point of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Some major themes of the novels include the lethal threats of disease (malaria, scarlet fever etc), the gender roles played out by Ma and Pa, and even the jobs available to women of the time (textiles, teaching).

You can also see the economic development occurring, as the Ingals move from homesteading, to life in a town (with a farm to work in), to buying a sewing machine for family, to her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, a notable journalist, writer, and political thinker. Rose's own history is probably of relevance to you as well, the trajectory of which I am only learning as a result of this AskMe.
posted by pwnguin at 12:49 AM on March 29, 2010


Here's a good summary of the history of women in computing. What I found especially interesting about it was that women were an integral part of the early history of computers, and were originally considered to be better suited for it than men. From the article: "The rationale for selecting female programmers was partly due to the scarcity of qualified male labor during the war, but another significant factor was the expectation that women would be uniquely suited to this position, which demanded great “patience, persistence, and a capacity for detail” – qualities that many employers attributed to the feminine sex" and "Computing was unique, however, in the sense that the fledgling profession was still in its infancy and had no strong pre-war gender socialization. This fact must have helped the women in that the returning men lacked programming expertise, and clearly had no expectation of “returning” to a programming job. The lack of structure in the industry was also a boon to women programmers who wanted to continue working even after they became pregnant and had children. " This was really surprising to me, since it is pretty much the opposite of the way it is today: female programmers are now much rarer, and the belief that women are unsuited to become programmers is fairly common.

Another perspective on life before women's lib comes through sports. I recently watched a couple of documentaries on the marathon (Spirit of the Marathon, Run For Your Life), and they both spent some time on the difficulties women had in being allowed to participate. Apparently running 26.2 miles was deemed to be too taxing and too..."unwomanly"... for women when the marathon started to catch on as a sport, so they were discouraged or even outright banned from participating. You can find an account here of how one of the first women basically had to sneak into the Boston marathon and then fight off the organizer when he tried, literally, to yank her off the course as she ran.

Women in hockey didn't have it so easy, either. Here's a short article by Joe Pelletier about how far women's hockey has come in the past few decades. To make his point, he reprints a jaw-droppingly sexist editorial by Scott Young from 1965 that rails against the participation of women in hockey. It's upsetting but also informative, in the sense that you realize this was considered a perfectly acceptable thing to write in 1965.

Finally, a couple of data points about attitudes in other countries: I was born in the 1980s, but my grandmother (born in the late 1930s, grew up in Taiwan, married at 18) flat out told me that there wasn't any point in me getting an education--getting married and having babies was the only thing I, as a woman, was supposed to do. She wasn't the only woman of her generation from Taiwan to express this view to me, either. Their kids (my parents, born in the 50s) are a lot more progressive, though. Also, my great-grandmother had her feet bound, although that practice was mostly gone by my grandmother's generation.
posted by millions of peaches at 3:02 AM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh my lord. You guys are wonderful. I've read some of the book recommendations. I loved the perspective of women in the technology field. I will be talking to some older women about their lives. And I totally didn't know that women were denied credit for being single....WHAT!??

Thank you so much. I'm gonna keep this question open for a week longer and see if there are more answers. Hopefully, I can compile this stuff into a blog and show the women and girls of this era that we've come a long way.

I really appreciate it!
posted by lifeonholidae at 8:04 AM on March 30, 2010


Please don't call it "women's lib". That was a derogatory and mocking phrase that was used to ridicule feminism in the early 70s.

Let's see. First off:

I wonder how much of this is due to the lack of a feminist movement versus just accidentally encountering a bunch of assholes? (Or misinterpretations- my fully married parents were denied credit because they didn't make enough money

No. Nothing to do with "accidentally encountering a bunch of assholes". This stuff was law, not just individuals acting on prejudices. It's enlightening to check the slow but sure reform of labour laws-- see the lawsuits brought by flight attendants, for example, who could legally be fired when they reached a certain age, got pregnant, or gained weight-- to get some benchmarks of progress.

Also see the state of psychiatry in the 1940s and 1950s. I used to hang out in an artist-run gallery back in the 80s where a copy of a psychiatric manual from the mid-50s was lying around, and which was often read for the lulz value. The standard, Freudian take on female sexuality was that only "vaginal orgasms" were the "right" ones to have; "clitoral" orgasms were evidence of immature sexuality (because they related to childish masturbation rather than proper, adult, heterosexual penetrative intercourse). "Failure" to achieve orgasm was the women's problem, and nothing to do with the man involved; the woman was "frigid", instead. The word "clitoris" itself was taboo and couldn't be uttered on television, or even referred to; there was this cultural silence around female pleasure.

Ridicule of women was commonplace and heard everywhere; in Disney cartoons about "women drivers", in mother-in-law jokes, in "take my wife, please" jokes; remember that scene in Mad Men where there's a party at the Draper house and that one man, in front of his wife, makes a joke about "your wife and your lawyer are drowning, what do you do? Decide where to go for lunch". That was a commonplace. Women were not taken seriously, and if you can't imagine how corrosive that might be, you haven't experienced it.

I took electronics as an elective in Grade Nine. I was the first girl in the school to do so-- the year before (1972) the Home Ec classes and the Shop classes were respectively compulsory for girls and boys (and no girls in Shop or boys in Home Ec, it goes without saying). In 1973 they allowed girls to register in the "boy's" classes. The first day the teacher walked in, saw me sitting alone at my desk (none of the guys would talk to me, let alone sit by me) and said "What the hell are you doing here?" Small things, but they build up. The low, low expectations that weeded girls out of math and science. The investments that families would make in boy's education and work experience while the girls were left to shift for themselves. The so called "sexual revolution" which was really about making women sexually accessible-- you're on the Pill, how can you say no? (I'm not being sarcastic.) The absolute lack, when I was a girl, of positive or heroic female characters on television or in the movies. Everywhere you looked there was instead, reflected back at you, an image of "woman" as a fool, as trivial, as hyper-emotional, as unintellectual. I can't stand the original Star Trek to this day because of these sort of tropes.

I've probably ranted enough. I could go on and on, but I'll leave it there.
posted by jokeefe at 5:57 PM on March 31, 2010 [6 favorites]


Oh yeah, just a quick horror story from 1979: I knew two girls from Quebec-- we met while travelling in the Middle East-- who were studying Geography in Montreal. They had a professor who tried to insist on having them write their exams on pink paper, so that he could tell which were theirs (the papers were only identified by student number). They had to bring this to the University administration in a formal complaint before they were allowed to write their exam on ordinary paper just like the other students. Again, this was in the late 70s.

In the early 80s, in response to the general assumption that women in general couldn't play musical instruments very well, the CBC did a test where they played a number of recordings of various pieces of music without specifying the gender of the player. They had people write in with their conclusions about whether a man or a woman was playing, because there was a loud chorus of voices that insisted that a women's playing could be identified (because of its lack of depth or something). I'm not saying that any of this was logical; it's obviously not. It was just generally "known" that women didn't possess the intellectual depth to be great thinkers or great writers (and the fact that there were a few only somehow strengthened the case-- again, not logical, but a nearly immovable prejudice). And, especially, it was a truth generally acknowledged that there had never been a single great woman artist. This was trotted out often in an attempt to demonstrate female inferiority. Those battles of the early 70s were absolutely corrosive.
posted by jokeefe at 6:08 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


^^ Sorry, I should have written "Geology" above.
posted by jokeefe at 6:09 PM on March 31, 2010


I'm 59 and three quarters. (I was born in 1950). Let's see:
We were very concerned about unwanted pregnancies. VERY.

In junior high school we wore girdles and if we didn't our mothers told us we were "jiggling" and it was obscene (well, some of our mothers).

Definitely you could not wear pants to school. (I started wearing pants to classes in college (1967) but we had to wear skirts to dinner. Some of us wore skirts OVER our pants for the dinner hour!)

If we were straight, some of us (like me, ugh) made fun of lesbians. There was a LOT of making fun of lesbians and that whole idea. It was thought of as about the worst thing, that you were "really" a lesbian. I guess some people still make fun of being gay in that way.

We were told that, even if we wanted careers, we'd better take typing "just in case."
(turns out they were right, I guess (as I type this VERY quickly and accurately))

I'm white and middle class American so I can't speak for the other stuff you're asking about. But I'm seconding The Women's Room. VERY popular book in the 1970's. I was living with a man then and, as I read that book, i refused to speak to him.
posted by DMelanogaster at 7:06 PM on July 18, 2010


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