The other afternoon I was sitting with my therapist colleague and friend, Patricia, talking about how much sexism was around in the early 60s. I make a point of this being the early 1960s, between 1960 and 1965, before the counterculture peeked over the horizon, before the hippies, the sexual revolution, the Civil Rights, and the Women’s Movements.
These were the early days when Hugh Hefner was priding himself on being a sexual revolutionary when all he was doing was spreading the well-worn tenets of the patriarchy. Women should be “helpers” or “handmaidens.” They should be seen, seen with little or no clothing, but not heard.
This led us to think about some of the messages women had been given in the preceding decades. One that I remembered was a Singer Sewing Machine Company’s text from one of their manuals circa 1949, which follows:
Never approach sewing with a sigh or lackadaisical attitude. Good results are difficult when indifference predominates. Never try to sew with the sink full of dishes or bed unmade. When there are urgent housekeeping chores, do these first so that your mind is free to enjoy your sewing.
When you sew, make yourself as attractive as possible. Go through a beauty ritual of orderliness. Have on a clean dress. Be sure your hands are clean, finger nails smooth — a nail file and pumice will help. Always avoid hangnails. Keep a little bag full of French chalk near your sewing machine where you can pick it up and dust your fingers at intervals. This not only absorbs the moisture on your fingers, but helps to keep your work clean. Have your hair in order, powder and lipstick put on with care. Looking attractive is a very important part of sewing, because if you are making something for yourself, you will try it on at intervals in front of your mirror, and you can hope for better results when you look your best. If you are constantly fearful that a visitor will drop in or your husband will come home and you will not look neatly put together, you will not enjoy your sewing as you should.
The emphasis was certainly on looks first with duty to housekeeping running a close second.
How could women of that day not think of themselves more as objects obligated to please others with their orderliness and pleasing looks? What kind of self-image was it possible for most girls of that time to develop, and what level of wholeness were women encouraged to aspire to?
This discussion with Patricia triggered a personal memory for me. In 1965, I spent an evening in the living room of the Playboy Mansion in Chicago, listening to the men there do all the talking. I had been granted entrance to the fabled mansion because my friend that night knew the person who answered the doorbell at the Mansion and because we were both pretty, young, and female. We were ushered into the living room which was filled with Playboy Bunnies, silently and prettily draped over the furniture. Not one of them spoke the entire evening. Only my friend and I ventured to enter the conversation, and it was clear our contributions were not welcomed, only a little indulged. The men there were Hugh Hefner (in pajamas and silk ascot), edgy comedian Mort Sahl, Vick Lownes, III, the head of the Playboy operation in Europe, and Shel Silverstein, the wonderfully witty author and cartoonist. You could say that there was some better than average brain power present in that room. But you would be talking about only the men. The women were only meant to be decorative. Even at my young age of 21, I could figure that out.
Back to the present: My friend, Patricia and I were talking about how women were treated then, and Patricia started humming a song. We both attempted to remember the lyrics, adding a phrase or two. Finally we had enough to do a Google search to get the title and from there we were able to play this oldie, Wives and Lovers, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung by Jack Jones.
If you want to give your inner feminist an awesome headache, play it for yourself (or you could just read the lyrics which follow here).
Wives and Lovers
Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your make-up, soon he will open the door.
Don’t think because there’s a ring on your finger, you needn’t try anymore.
For wives should always be lovers, too. Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you. I’m warning you….
Don’t send him off with your hair still in curlers, you may not see him again. Day after day there are girls at the office and men will always be men.
For wives should always be lovers, too. Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you. He’s almost here…
Hey, little girl, better wear something pretty, something you’d wear to go to the city. Dim all the lights, pour the wine, start the music, time to get ready for love.
It’s really hard to believe that I could have willingly listened to that song, enjoyed it, and probably took its advice. (It was at about that same time I was setting my alarm at least a half an hour earlier than needed in order to have my make-up on before my boyfriend woke up.) It seems safe to say that some brainwashing had occurred.
In recounting these examples of the “bad old days” it is almost laughable that women have had this as part of their experience, but I was left not with a chuckle, but with an uncomfortable realization that some of those beliefs were still rattling around in my own brain, lessening my sense of personal value. If you are of a certain age, you might want to see if they are rattling around for you, too.
I sent this blog to my friend, Patricia, for her opinion. Following is her return email:
I loved this blog! “Women should be seen—seen with little or no clothing—“ Priceless! As my closest friend, I have to tell you that, like a good little woman, I “always avoid hangnails.” However, my hair is not always “in order”!
I especially loved your anecdote about being at the P. Mansion—a cross-section of history if there ever was one—and how women there were only expected to silently and decoratively drape themselves on and around the living room furniture (you should have known right then, that the fact you dared to speak up would mark you as someone who would eventually question the entire setting and arrangement!)
Burt Bacharach can be somewhat forgiven for his lyrics to Wives and Lovers, considering the era, but I believe his words as more than twaddle; the messages that “men will always be men” and look pretty or “I’m warning you” are pernicious. How many of us grew up with those words and others like them sitting in the recesses of our unconscious?
In all seriousness, I think you and I have lived with many mixed messages throughout our lives. I do hope I look decent (w/make-up applied) when someone unexpectedly comes over; is this a holdover from my own history of indoctrination (from around the time I was a teen)? However, It strikes me, too, that I am the woman in my group of siblings and friends who seems least equipped psychologically or practically to run a traditional household or to lead a conventional life (outside of having a not unusual career path for a woman).
Your blog demonstrates how far we’ve come in one lifetime—and how far we have yet to go (particularly with income parity)! If I had the time, I would rewrite the lyrics to this song, just to shake my fist (and defiant booty) at this white male privilege brainwashing. Great representation, Sandra! You still got it!