All the single ladies, part ZOMGeleventy!!111!!!

Psssssst! This is a clue.


Today’s post is about all of those “ZOMG college women having sexxay sexxxx with totally undeserving d00ds!!!! (and p.s. I’m bitter that I, the author of these articles, never scored in college!!!!) articles.  Take a gander at this essay and guess what year it was written in.  (Don’t be a jerk and Google it–give it an honest guess first.)  I’ll give you the link and details tomorrow.

The modern American female is one of the most discussed, written-about, sore subjects to come along in ages. She has been said to be domineering, frigid, neurotic, repressed, and unfeminine. She tries to do everything at once and doesn’t succeed in doing anything very well. Her problems are familiar to everyone, and, naturally, her most articulate critics are men. But I have found one interesting thing. Men, when they are pinned down on the subject, admit that what really irritates them about modern women is that they can’t, or won’t, give themselves completely to men the way women did in the old days. This is undoubtedly true, though a truth bent by the male ego. Women may change roles all they wish, skittering about in a frantic effort to fulfill themselves, but the male ego has not changed a twig for centuries.

.       .       .       .       .       .

The Eastern women’s colleges (and I can speak with authority only about [Alma Mater]) subtly emanate, over a period of four years, a concept of the ideal American woman, who is nothing short of fantastic. She must be a successful wife, mother, community contributor, and possibly career woman, all at once. Besides this, she must be attractive, charming, gracious, and good-humored; talk intelligently about her husband’s job, but not try to horn in on it; keep her home looking like a page out of House Beautiful; and be efficient, but not intimidatingly so. While she is managing all this, she must be relaxed and happy, find time to read, paint, and listen to music, think philosophical thoughts, be the keeper of culture in the home, and raise her husband’s sights above the television set. For it is part and parcel of the concept of liberal education to better human beings, to make them more thoughtful and understanding, to broaden their interests. Liberal education is a trust. It is not to be lightly thrown aside at graduation, but it is to be used every day, forever.

These are all the things that a liberally educated girl must do, and there has been in her background a curious lack of definition of the things she must not do. [Her] parents. . . can not very well forbid adventurousness, nor can they take a very stalwart attitude about sex. Even if they do, their daughters rarely listen. What or what not to do about sex is, these days, relative. It all depends. This is not to say that there are no longer any moral standards; certainly there are—the fact that sex still causes guilt and worry proves it. But moral generalizations seem remote and unreal, something our grandparents believed in.

Any guesses?

AND THE ANSWER IS:  Nora Johnson, “Sex and the College Girl,” The Atlantic, November 1, 1957.   Most of you were in the right period immediately, although Anymouse, Susan, and Lindsay were closest.  Kudos to Lindsay for picking up on the cadences of The Feminine Mystique, as Johnson was (like Betty Friedan) a Smithie, class of 1954.  I edited out the comments about the “jazz age” parents who could hardly complain about the sexual liberation of their daughters in the 1950s, but I probably should have edited out the comments about television, which were a dead giveaway that this article was probably a mid-20th century artifact.

This connection between cultural anxieties about college women’s  reproductive organs and sexual behavior have a long and storied past.  Therefore, Comradde PhysioProffe’s sense that it could have been written in the 1920s, and koshembos’s comment about 1890, are plausible (ignoring the TV reference) because these concerns about “college girls” have been recycled through the decades that women have been going to college (ca. 1850 or so).  I’ll see if I can find an article by a physician in the 1860s or 1870s claiming that women who go to college will necessarily suffer from “wandering uteri,” their ovaries will shrivel from studying Greek and Latin, and that they will have many fewer children and thus be warped and frustrated by life.

25 thoughts on “All the single ladies, part ZOMGeleventy!!111!!!

  1. I’d go with Anymouse, give or take five years–“Neurotic” and “television set” mean it’s post-war, but “Eastern women’s colleges” probably means pre-1970.

    But without those clues, parts of it could plausibly date to the 1920s.


  2. Well, it’s post the invention of TV. Without that detail, and a few others — e.g. the Freudian language — I’d say that much of it could have been written as far back as the early 20th century. Calling female college students “girls” probably went out sometime in the 1970s/early 1980s, but there’s no guarantee that this writer knows that (or is writing from recent rather than long-past experience). There were still apparently “Eastern women’s colleges” in quantity, however, and many college women were still attending them rather than co-educated formerly-all-male schools. That pushes it back a bit. I’d say anywhere from about 1950 to 1975, probably on the later side of that (mostly because of the references to sex, which suggest that maybe the pill had made its appearance), but I could easily be wrong about that.


  3. [I overlapped with Flavia, who was clearly thinking along the same lines] The idea of morality being “relative” also strikes me as a clue; I’d have to do some research to be sure, but complaints about “moral relativity” strike me as late ’60s/70s language (but mostly the province of the moral majority by the ’80s).


  4. Changed a twig… Dead giveaway. I’m going to take a risk on the television set part, a technology that–like the internet–is somewhat older than we think, and say before 1950, if only slightly. House Beautiful would also be a potentially searchable monitor. That silvery wig says to me maybe about 1782.


  5. I’d have to know when tv became enough of a moral issue the a wife would need to raise her husbands sights above it, but I’d guess late 50s or early 60s.


  6. I’m going to guess 1965 or 1966. Flavia and CC have convinced me that it’s post-TV, and the casual Freudianism (not just Freudian terms, but Freudian terms that have passed into general usage), pushes it a bit later.

    But something about the way “Eastern Women’s Colleges” are discussed gives me the feeling that most of the “Eastern Men’s Colleges” haven’t gotten around to admitting women yet. So, before the late 60s/early 70s.


  7. “Community contributor” seems recent to me. So does the concern for trying to do everything at once. *House Beautiful* is, I think, still around.

    But the “Eastern Women’s Colleges” and “girls” seem old.

    Still, plenty of people write “old,” so I’m going with recent, since 2000.


  8. I’m guessing early ’60s, like 1960-1964. The second paragraph sounds a whole lot like the parts of The Feminine Mystique that discuss college, and the assumption that women are going to college to find husbands/get “finished” rather than to start a career.

    The pop Freudianism and references to TV also told me it couldn’t be from the ‘teens or ’20s, which was my other thought.

    (I’m not 100% sure it can’t be from the ’50s, and of course I can’t be sure if the similarity to The Feminine Mystique is coincidental or a reflection of the author’s having read it. Whatever, I’ll go with 1963 and the author having read Friedan.)


  9. I’m guessing 1950s but with respect to the comments regarding the use of “girls” as a pre-anything giveaway would not work in the Commonwealth country where I now reside. The gents, who are not boys, use “girls” when they mean women all the time. I correct students when they do this, which probably only solidifies my status as “not from around here.”

    I made a similar corrective to a male colleague from a North Atlantic country during a meeting this week. After the umpteenth use of “fellow” to refer to a generic prospective consultant hire, I suggested “or she might…” Nervous laughs all around. I was later told by a well meaning male friend that “all the men in X country do that.” I replied that in my experience, most of the men in the world do that. Good times.

    My only real offering here is that “girls” and similar as a time marker is naive.


  10. Lindsay, I got the Betty Friedan vibe, too. I’m working my way through Seventeen magazines from 1963-1967 right now and though I haven’t had time to read terribly carefully (frantically scanning from ILLed microfilm against a deadline AND my library now on intersession hours 😦 ) there are echoes of the book in 1963-1964 (as far as I’ve gotten!). There’s also a regular column on choosing colleges and careers. And at the back, each issue has two pages of small ads for colleges, correspondence courses, beauty schools, secretarial schools, etc.


  11. Oh, I agree completely, Z. It’s the persistent nature of these complaints/anxieties about college women that interest me, across 150 years now (and counting.)

    I’m sorry that some of you were unable to find my update & big reveal–I published that yesterday morning. Maybe hitting your refresh button a few times will do it, if you haven’t found the answer yet?


  12. Thanks, sophylou! I think I’m going to assign something like that, plus the 1954 Atlantic article, plus something from the 1920s, and then the “hookup culture” article to my students this term, as I’m teaching history of sexuality again. I think this is something our current college students might have something to say about.


  13. I used to do a unit on the history of dating — read Kathy Peiss, watch the Coney Island scene in “It,” lecture from Beth Bailey, how-to dating film from Prelinger Archives. And everyone, men and women, had to go to Seventeen online to take a dating quiz (“what kind of date are you?” etc — I gave them a choice of quizzes) and bring in results so we could discuss how limiting/limited answer choices were and what they implied. Especially fun to hear male students’ reactions/scores.


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