A couple of book reviews I read a while ago made me realise how it’s the little human details that can bring alive big, over-familiar events. In these cases sexism and racism. (No, read on, it’s less worthy than that sounds!)
This New York Review of Books review by Cathleen Schine of When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins, had some scenes which stunned me, as a man who’s grown up in an age when men and women have been more equal than previously.
Discussing the post Second World War decades:
Even with the economic boom that made staying home possible, the jobs available to women were limited in both kind and potential. And at least as housewives they were in charge. … Automatic washers and driers, frozen dinners, A Campbell Cookbook: Cooking with Soup, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, steam irons, wash-and-wear, and, of course, Jell-O: for women who just a generation before might not have had running water, all these time-saving products ought to have saved time.
“Yet,” Collins notes, “the housewives did not seem to be working any less…. A methodical study by the sociologist Joann Vanek that used pretty much all the data available concluded that in the 1960s, the full-time homemaker spent fifty-five hours a week on her domestic chores,” which is a little more than was spent in the 1920s by all those women feeding each shirt into a clothes wringer.
… “In the 1950s the average household laundry soared from thirty-nine pounds to sixty-five pounds a week.” Women “took up gourmet cooking or interior decorating.” Collins interviews one woman who made her own diapers, another who vacuumed the entire house every day. It was a world of proto–Martha Stewart perfection and consumption encouraged by advertisers and the magazines they supported.
Which is all fascinating from a “technology makes our lives better” point of view. But the examples of period sexism really kick in on the next line:
Even the hallowed halls of Harvard paid tribute to the happy housewife: “The (male) president of all-female Radcliffe celebrated the beginning of every school year by telling freshmen that their college education would ‘prepare them to be splendid wives and mothers and their reward might be to marry Harvard men.’”
Some examples are of period po-faced-ness:
In 1984 … the honorific “Ms.” was considered by the late William Safire in The New York Times. “To our ear,” he wrote in his “On Language” column, “it still sounds too contrived for newswriting.” To other ears at the Times as well apparently. In the same year, Collins says, the Times reported in a story about Gloria Steinem’s fiftieth birthday party that the dinner’s proceeds “will go to the Ms. Foundation … which publishes Ms. Magazine, where Miss Steinem works as an editor.”
That Ms/Ms/Miss thing tickles me a lot for some reason.
Others are shocking, although I expect similar things still happened today in places:
At a 1968 New Politics conference in Chicago, when some of the women attending wanted to introduce a resolution on women’s rights, the men in charge refused. One of the women was literally patted on the head by the chairman. “‘Cool down, little girl,’ he said. ‘We have more important things to do here than talk about women’s problems.’” When a woman spoke at the Washington antiwar rally during Richard Nixon’s inauguration, some of the men in the crowd called out, “Take it off!” and “Take her off the stage and fuck her!”
Others examples seem more solidly part of a previous era, thankfully:
As late as the Sixties, “one regular run, the ‘Executive Flight’ from New York to Chicago, actually barred female passengers. The men got extralarge steaks, drinks, and cigars — which the stewardesses were supposed to bend over and light.” The women were monitored by “counselors” who weighed them and took their measurements regularly to make sure they kept their figures. “Besides limits in weight and height, stewardesses were required, according to one promotion, to have hands that were ‘soft and white’ — a hint as to how welcome African-American women were at the time.” When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission convened, the flight attendants’ union was the very first in line. In a House subcommittee hearing in 1965,
Representative James Scheuer of New York jovially asked the flight attendants to “stand up, so we can see the dimensions of the problem.” The airline industry continued to argue with a straight face that businessmen would be discouraged from flying if the women handing them their coffee and checking their seat belts were not young and attractive.
To which Martha Griffiths, one of the few women representatives in Congress, replied, “What are you running, an airline or a whorehouse?”
Flight attendants were also among the first women to turn to the courts for equal rights. In addition to the requirements of appearance, stewardesses were not allowed to marry. Supervisors scanned wedding announcements looking for transgressors. When Eulalie Cooper was fired by Delta after six years for being secretly married,
a Louisiana judge agreed with the airline that serving food and ensuring safety on an airplane was a job that young single women were uniquely qualified to do, and therefore fell under the [Equal Employment Opportunity] law’s exemption for “bona fide occupational qualifications.”…
Moving on to this NYRB review by Timothy Ferris of Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up by K.C. Cole, there’s another example of a small thing bringing a much large inequality to life, this time the US’s racist segregation of the 1930s. I can’t quote the article, as it’s for online-subscribers only but, from Wikipedia:
In 1937 they [Frank and his wife Jackie] had been involved in local attempts to desegregate the Pasadena public swimming pool, which was open to non-whites only on Wednesday, after which the pool was drained and the water replaced.
It’s that detail which brings the unimaginable nonsense of segregation to life. I’ve read and heard and seen so much about it over my comfy, white, turn-of-the-century life that reading about a pool only being open to non-whites on a certain day in 1930s America hardly hits home.
It’s “after which the pool was drained and the water replaced” which makes me stop and my eyes widen.