Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Enjoyed Being a Girl - 2

Girls at Play
Giving the Milk Away for Free

My girlfriends and I struggled through decades of discrimination, so that future generations of young women could be free of the narrow, oppressive attitudes that prevailed during our formative years.  We were often in the front lines of every battle.  The changes we fought for rarely benefited us, personally, but our younger sisters and eventually, our daughters, enjoyed the results, like paid maternity leave, improved admission opportunities to professional faculties, fairer hiring practices and more equitable pay.  

And, of course, the miracle of “partners” who helped out!  Male and/or female.

While I didn’t found any feminist magazines, go underground at the Playboy club or wear outrageous hats, like some of my role models, as a teacher for 25 years, I did stand in front of about 200 teens a year, subtly and not-so-subtly, endeavoring to steer their cultural attitudes in more egalitarian directions, in spite of the mandated, often irrelevant curricular material. 

So when I watch a TV series like ‘Girls’, it is with some dismay that I note that Lena’s characters have not exactly ‘Come a Long Way, Baby’, at least, not on the path upon which we pioneers set forth, long before they were born. 

Unfortunately, it seems the world they navigate is not much better for them than the one I floundered through …just in different ways.

For example, the goal, in those pre-liberation days, was not 'self-actualization', freedom from unplanned pregnancy or the possibility of heading up a Fortune 500 company.  It was marriage, and to that end, we were discouraged from giving any 'free samples' to any prospective partners.  

I recall this oft repeated admonition: 

"Why should they buy the cow, when they can get the milk for free?"  

Should you begin to analyze this offensive homily, in our PC climate, you could find yourself agog, wondering things like....
who are 'they'?
who, exactly, is the cow?  
why a cow?
what is the milk?  
how much does it cost? 
why should the cow sell the milk instead of giving it away for free?
what can a cow do with money?   
does the cow ever get to enjoy any forbidden milk?  etc. etc.

When I asked for my husband's reaction to this statement....
"Can you believe this sort of thing was what we were indoctrinated with when we were young?"....
he calmly lowered his iPhone and replied,
"Sure, I can.  I was the one trying to get the free milk!"

Back then, if a young woman had not yet managed to earn the degree commonly referred to as her ‘MRS.’ by graduation (a goal now pushed ahead, if even considered, at least 15 to 20 years for Hannah and her posse) an extra year in the College of Education or the School of Social Work was deemed appropriate.  A nurturing, ‘social-servicey’ job like teaching, nursing or dental hygiene was considered acceptable….’something to fall back on’ when the inevitable 2.5 kids went off to school in a few years.  You’d get your summers off or make your own hours.  

If you couldn’t find a man to support you right away, you were still expected to earn money while you awaited deliverance from singledom.  You lived with your parents since there were few acceptable alternatives other than running off to Israel.  Single young women could read about other single young women enjoying life in, say, New York, in steamy novels like Rona Jaffe’s “The Best of Everything”, but they certainly couldn’t emulate their daring escapades in dull old Toronto. 

No parent in his or her right mind (they came in pairs in those days) would support a daughter, either financially or emotionally,  while she 'found herself', living in a downtown hovel, traipsing around at late-night clubs and having indiscriminate sex with questionable prospects, like the young ladies in Bushwick.  When one of my associates expressed an interest in 'moving out', her mother immediately redecorated her bedroom so she would feel obligated to stay.  Another friend had the courage to 'move in' with her boyfriend after university, and was written off by her family.  It's still too painful to remember the young woman who fell in love outside her race, whose parents 'sat shiva' for her.  

Even if and when these women eventually married, the disgraces were difficult, if not impossible, to forgive and forget.

Admittedly, there was some sex.  Cars and their back seats were available for furtive gropings. (I hasten to say I read about this in the Romance magazines popular at the time...I cannot personally attest to this pastime.... for lack of opportunity).  Birth control pills had yet to be marketed, so, if you were single, you weren’t likely to need a place to have sleep-over sex, which, as everyone knew, led inevitably to pregnancy and back alley abortionists.

Popular films from those years, which scarred us for life: 

“Love with the Proper Stranger”, one of my faves, in which Natalie Wood makes a terrible mistake on a vacation and succumbs to a 'one-night stand' with Steve McQueen, a free-wheeling, irresponsible...(ie. not a 'good catch'), albeit, cute musician (oy!..or whatever is the equivalent in her traditional Italian family) and spends the rest of the movie alternating between searching for an abortionist and trying to seduce Steve into marrying her....

or “A Summer Place”, another stern warning about the wages of sin, where teen idols Troy and Sandra, in spite of shrieking parental guidelines,  'go all the way' at the first opportunity, with the predictable dire consequences.  

Even “Gidget” had a heavy moral discussion about the difference between ‘good girls’ and ‘nice girls’.  (If you had told Sandra Dee that 'hooking up' was on the horizon, she'd have collapsed in shock into her crinolines....all 85 pounds of her!).  

Pregnant girls, or, as they were referred to…girls ‘in trouble’, were shunted off to prenatal institutions, hidden from polite society until they could slink back, almost always alone, having placed their babies (who they were not even allowed to see for more than a moment) up for adoption.  With no social or family acceptance, let alone financial support from your friendly social service safety net, they had little alternative.  

“Out of Wedlock” was a stigma, not a lifestyle choice. 

Today, I have several youngish colleagues who have made the conscious decision to conceive, carry and mother children without the personal involvement of the sperm donors, but with the total participation and approval of their families and friends.  'Mr. Right', as he used to be known, has not made a timely appearance, so 'Mr. Right-Now' has taken his place.  

These women probably think I’m making all this 'herstorical' stuff up.  

They enjoy a certain amount of freedom from censure hitherto unknown.  Before, a married teacher had to resign as soon as she began ‘to show’ lest her students suspect she may have had sex (even married sex!).   Nowadays, my 'single-parent-by-choice' staff-mates feel quite comfortable carrying on in their jobs till the week before their due dates. 

Their students give them  baby showers!  
What would Dear Abby think?

Speaking of quaint sociological customs, in the 50's and early 60's, since actual sex (as opposed to simulated) was off the table, so to speak, at least until the engagement ring was on the appropriate digit and the shul/church was booked, the mandatory premarital visit to the gynecologist, to make sure that everything was relatively functional, offered the opportunity to ‘prepare’ the bride for the wedding night.  I'm not exactly sure what it entailed, but I had a few friends who absolutely refused this service.  Some had even rejected the use of tampons, on the grounds that they would compromise their virginity….a concept that was entirely foreign and perhaps, even bizarre, to women born even just a few years later.

Hannah's visit to her gynecologist was for an entirely different, more contemporary condition that sometimes results from very 'casual sex', a term that had no meaning 50 years ago.


  1. It is so important that you are telling women of today of the contribution made by the women of our generation to blaze the trail for them and their multitude of choices now. Just as the universities had quotas for ethnic groups, they also had quotas for women. That has changes so dramatically for the better. Love your perceptions and insights, Pidgy. Keep it coming.

  2. Thanks, permfloat, for the encouragement!

  3. Which is why I appreciate Andy Rooney's comments even more: "Nowadays ... women realize it's not worth buying an entire pig just to get a little sausage!"