The Fifties, A Women’s Oral History
This is a fascinating account of women’s lives in the forties, fifties and a little in the sixties. Brett Harvey spoke with numerous women, and picked out common themes in their stories. She talks (or rather, quotes other women talking) about sex, abortion, college and grad school, the professions, the suburbs, lesbianism, radical politics. I couldn’t put it down; I love this kind of stuff. Although many of the women whose stories she draws from are white and middle class, not all are. Immediately after I finished this, I was on the phone with my mom, asking “what made you go to college when all your friends were getting married?” — something I’d never thought to ask her before.
One of my favorite stories in the book is Bridget Moran’s. She entered the University of Texas in 1947, to major in mathematics, but after a year dropped out to marry. “I got married in order to have a sex life. I thought that was why everyone got married.” She worked and had kids for over a decade, then started taking more math classes. “No one else I knew was doing anything like this, none of the women…This professor stopped my spouse in the hallway one day and said, `Mr. Moran, I think your wife may be better at mathematics than you are.'” But Bridget got pregnant again, and dropped out. It wasn’t until 1975 — 28 years after she began — that she finally got her degree — in computer programming.
Another interesting story is that of Ruth Friedman. In 1941 she was working as a dental assistant by day and taking classes at City College in New York at night, when she discovered communism. “After one semester I was asked to become the president of the American Student Union and the next thing I knew I was out there making street-corner speeches.” She got involved with union organizing, with Jewish organizations, with the American Labor Party. “We were sure we were going to see socialism in our lifetime.” But by 1952, Ruth and her husband had two kids; he worked, she stayed home — but I remember going out in the mornings with my daughter in the carriage, taking David up to nursery school and pushing the carriage around collecting money and signatures for the Rosenbergs.” She had gone from passionate activist (working “one hundred hours a week”) to stay-at-home mother. “It wasn’t until some time around the late fifties that I began to feel unhappy being at home alone with the kids and seeing that Ben was advancing himself intellectually and in every way. He was out there and I was in here.”
It’s not the individual stories in this book that really made me think — and think hard — about my mother’s generation; it is all the stories taken together. Woman after woman saying that somewhere around the middle of her college career, she abandoned her desire for a degree and got married; woman after woman talking about how happy all her suburban neighbors seemed, in contrast to her own dissatisfaction. A few more quotes: “I had this friend, Johnny…we were the only two blacks to declare business majors. We took the same courses so we studied together and I was doing what a lot of girls did in those days: two sets of homework — mine and his. The thing is, he was getting A’s and B’s and I was getting C’s and D’s” — Joyce Purvis. “I knew he expected me to stop him — especially since I was this `nice’ girl from the `right’ part of town….But I was pretty sure if push came to shove, Vince would pull back. Well, one night it got out of hand and I just let myself go and all of a sudden I realized he wasn’t going to stop and at the same moment he was in. Well, he pulled out right away, I mean we kind of wrenched away from each other. Then we proceeded to have this terrible fight. I was furious at him for betraying me — I remember I was crying and saying, `I can’t believe it — you were going to do it!’ And he was slamming his hand against the steering wheel and saying, `You let me! Why didn’t you stop me?’ Of course, when I think back on it now, we were both in a state of total frustration and we were probably furious at each other for stopping.”
Photo (Fifties style mother and daughter)
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jul 1994
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