Back in the day, those days of uncompromising conformity, women weren’t in the workforce in large numbers. They had been. They were home now, advised by various and sundry home & shelter magazines to “make way for the boys coming home” from World War II. Conventional wisdom said that nice girls got jobs in secretarial occupations, teaching (mostly elementary), nursing (not so much as physicians), and domestic service. There were the outliers – the women who wanted to be accountants not simply bookkeepers; the women who wanted to design kitchens not merely cook in them; the women who wanted to be engineers crafting plans for automobiles not just driving the kids to Scout meetings. However, for too long they remained the outliers.
Job interviews until relatively recently allowed men (who did the hiring) to ask women (who wanted the jobs) to ask about the applicant’s love life – the real question being “How long are you going to be with us before you get married and quit?” Or, “…until you get in a ‘family way’ and we ‘have to let you go’.”
In a way the 1950’s Rules of the Gender Game were as deleterious to men as to women. The entire onus of family expenses in white suburbs was on the man. The ‘little woman’ could work for some ‘pocket money’ but this wasn’t considered completely within the Rules. It was expected in white circles that African American women would work, after all “they had to,” – but again, not as the doctor, but as the nurse; not as the architect but as the cook. It was all very domestic.
It was all completely phony. How did so many women acquire basic bookkeeping skills? Quite often They were keeping the household accounts. Clean, launder, cook, and keep track of the mortgage and car payments; make sure the charge accounts were paid and the Green Stamps collected in the books for redemption.
It was all economically counterproductive. How many elements of technological progress were delayed because a qualified women was passed over in favor of a less qualified man? How many companies suffered because men were promoted and paid more than many over-qualified women, resulting in less overall productivity?
It was all potentially dangerous.
While the economic onus was placed on the male, the sexual issues came down on the female. It was her place to “control herself.” Boys would be boys, after all they just “sowed wild oats,” but the young ladies – it, nay, IT, was her fault. She wanted IT. She asked for IT. She deserved IT. She dressed for IT. She didn’t resist IT. She was in the wrong place, the wrong time, doing the wrong thing and “that’s what happens.”
So, if he lurked around the water cooler making cracks about the fit of her sweater over the bra designed to define and shape the bust…that was also “what happens.” If he didn’t mind a bit if she bent over to retrieve a file folder… If he wasn’t “really serious” if she showed a bit of cleavage, then she shouldn’t mind either. After all, department store catalogs of the era advised women how to dress to “please the husband,” or to attract one.
If the tenor of the times made the sopranos uncomfortable, gee, it couldn’t be more uncomfortable than those girdles with the hosiery clips attached? Indeed, most men did treat their wives with respect, their children with courtesy, and their friends wives with civility. However, that didn’t prevent or indeed even much shame the troglodytes who delighted in patting fannies and snapping bras. This activity didn’t go un-noticed but it wasn’t enough to make a ‘real’ man feel discouraged. And that’s the point.
It isn’t 1950 anymore. It’s no longer acceptable to opine sourly but quietly that Dodgy Roger at the garage is hassling the women in the office; Dodgy is going to find himself on the wrong end of an HR complaint. It’s no longer acceptable to ignore Jumpy John’s continual disparagement of his female cohorts … it’s another route to an EEOC investigation. It’s no longer acceptable to say “that’s his private business,” when men engage in obscenities and vulgarities in the workplace. It’s not business and if it’s in the workplace it’s not private.
The hard fact of life for vulgarian men is that while the general atmosphere of the 1950s allowed men to avoid some of the more quotidian consequences of unseemly behavior – boorishness and obscenity have never really been socially acceptable. To believe that they once were is to indulge in a fantasy past that never truly defined a reality; they are left with residuals which still make life more difficult for women.
To engage that fantasy is to forget that even in the 1950s invitations to a backyard picnic dwindled if the boor didn’t mend his ways; social interactions at church, in public, and in private diminished as the unacceptable behavior increased. The difference sixty six years later is that real men do understand the meaning of ‘consent,’ and that real men are less accepting of marginal behavior. Real women are less likely to remain quiet about sexual harassment and assaults, although they are still vilified for speaking out as if the entire burden of proper behavior is still attached to them.
She should have reported it. She should have reported it sooner. She should have reported it to more than family and friends. She should have reported it to the police. She should have …. When the real question should be: Why did HE do it in the first place?
So, no, it’s not 1950 anymore. 1950 wasn’t even what some contemporary boors imagine it to be. Perhaps the best we can do is continually remind the boorish vulgarians among us that while progress has been made and there’s little room in contemporary society for their antics, we still have a ways to go.
We still have some distance to cover to remove ourselves from the make way for the boys mentality, the admonitions of the catalog sales department that a well fitting sweater could please him or attract him; from the uninformed attitudes that boys should be given more latitude than girls in matters of manners and morality. I agree with the First Lady, it seems unconscionable that we’re still talking about the basics of human civility.
One of the most interesting questions surrounding our current election season is if we, as a society, are as willing to confront the agents of social aggression as we are to confront foreign acts of aggression?