- Historic Sites
THE STORY OF THE MEN AND WOMEN WHO IN THE 1950S HELPED CREATE THE SEXUAL LANDSCAPE WE INHABIT TODAY
May/june 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 3
When the decade of the fifties began, sex was still something of an illicit subject in America. Nor had there been any serious modernization of the technology of birth control in more than forty years. Never mind that an event as transcending as World War II had profoundly changed people’s attitudes on many subjects, including a far greater candor about things sexual among younger adults; these changes were nowhere noticeable in American mass culture. But in the decade ahead ordinary Americans were about to become infinitely more open and sophisticated about their sexual habits and practices. Even as the 1950s progressed, a team of brilliant scientists was speeding forward on its way to discover a simple birth-control device that its developers hoped could be taken orally each day—a kind of pill to control pregnancy. At the same time, by the middle of the decade there were the first signs of new social and political attitudes among American women that would surface in the next decade as the women’s movement. In short, a revolution was beginning.
“God, what a gap!”
Alfred Kinsey was both fascinated and troubled by the vast difference between American sexual behavior the society wanted to believe existed and American sexual practices as they actually did exist. For example, at least 80 percent of successful businessmen, his interviews showed, had had extramarital affairs. “God,” he noted, “what a gap between social front and reality!” And he spent the latter part of his career tearing away the facade that Americans used to hide their sexual selves.
Mrs. Kinsey said, “I hardly see him at night any more since he took up sex.”
Kinsey was no bohemian. He lived in the Midwest, he married the first woman he ever dated, and he stayed married to her for his entire life. Because he was an entomologist and loved to collect bugs, he and his bride went camping on their honeymoon. In his classes at the University of Indiana he always sported a bow tie and a crew cut. He drove the same old Buick for most of his lifetime and was immensely proud of the fact that he had more than a hundred thousand miles on it. On Sundays he and his wife invited faculty and graduate-student friends to their home to listen to records of classical music. They took these evenings very seriously; Kinsey was immensely proud of his record collection. When the wife of one faculty member suggested that they play some boogie-woogie, the couple was never invited back.
Kinsey’s house was the only thing he had not paid hard cash for. He bought it with a small down payment and took on a mortgage of thirty-five hundred dollars. He was extremely careful about money and almost everything else. He once told a colleague, Wardell Pomeroy, to drive back from New York at thirty-five miles per hour with some large models showing the reproductive process: “Anything faster than that is not safe for such a heavy load.” The mother superior, Pomeroy called him.
Kinsey did not smoke, and he rarely drank. Relatively late in his career he decided to smoke since it would make him more like the men he was interviewing and help put them at their ease. Try as he might, he never quite got it right, and his assistants finally suggested that the prop was hurting rather than helping. With drinking it was the same. After his death Pomeroy wrote, “To see him bringing in a tray of sweet liqueurs before dinner was a wry and happy reminder that Alfred Charles Kinsey, the genius, the world figure, was a simple and unsophisticated man in the true sense of the word.”
His greatest passion was his work. He approached it with an intensity that was rooted in the Calvinist zeal of his forefathers. He generally worked every day of the year except Christmas Day. He had always been, his biographer Pomeroy shrewdly noted, a collector . As a boy he collected stamps, but it was the only collection he ever made that was not designed to be useful. Sickly as a child from rheumatic fever, he had not been able to play; instead he became a student of nature. He wrote his first book in his teens, a small monograph entitled “What Do Birds Do When It Rains?” By the time he was in college at Bowdoin, he had come to love collecting plants and animals.
As a graduate student at Harvard he won a fellowship that allowed him to travel around the country. “No other occupation in the world could give me the pleasure that this job of bug-hunting is giving,” he wrote, and he never failed to see the beauty in plants and in animals. Earle March, a San Francisco gynecologist, once spoke of Kinsey’s rare ability to “look through the ugliness to something lovely beyond.” March added, “I often thought about him as an athlete of the spirit.” During the early forties he published Edible Wild Plants of North America , which was voted the most important book of the year by the trustees of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.
He seemed by this time to be the least likely candidate to become one of the most controversial figures of his generation. He was a highly respected professor of zoology in a good department at Indiana University. Esteemed by his colleagues for his collection of gall wasps, he was also popular with his students, a kind and humane teacher who was generous with his time.
Then, in 1938, a group of his students came to him and asked questions about marriage. He was touched by their innocence. At first he refrained from answering, fearing he knew too little. Then he went out and read everything he could on the subject and was appalled by the available material—in both quantity and quality. Some of the students petitioned the university to start a course on sexuality and marriage. From the start it was Kinsey’s course. He was one of eight faculty members who taught it, and he gave three of the basic lectures. The course was a huge success. It soon became an obsession with him. Clara Kinsey was known on occasion to tell friends. “I hardly see him at night any more since he took up sex.”
When he began his studies of human sexuality, one of his oldest friends, Edward Anderson, by then the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, wrote him: “It was heartwarming to see you settling down into what I sup pose will be your real life work. One would never have believed that all sides of you could have found a project big enough to need them all. I was amused to see how the Scotch Presbyterian reformer in you had finally got together with the scientific fanatic with his zeal for masses of neat data in orderly boxes and drawers. The monographer Kinsey, the naturalist Kinsey, and the camp counsellor Kinsey all rolling into one at last and going full steam ahead. Well, I am glad to have a seat for the performance. It’s great to have it done, and great to know that you are doing it.”
He began by taking the sexual histories of his students. He conducted the interviews in his tiny office, where he locked the door and sent his assistant elsewhere. The enrollment for the class grew every year; before long four hundred students were signing up for it. But his heart was in the research. Soon he was not only taking the sexual histories of his students but traveling out of town on weekends to find additional subjects. As the project took an increasing amount of his time, there was an inevitable conservative reaction against him in Indiana.
In 1940 Herman Wells, the president of Indiana University, who was largely sympathetic to Kinsey and his work, called him in and, citing complaints from local ministers, told him that he would have to make a choice: He could either teach the course or take his histories, but he could not do both. Wells assumed that Kinsey would give up the case histories. Kinsey resigned from the course. Those who thought he would do otherwise, he noted, “do not know me.” From then on he devoted himself exclusively to his research.
The study of American sexual habits was a delicate business. Kinsey wanted a certain bland neutrality to his researchers. Though he was a generous, abidingly tolerant man, he did not hire Jews or blacks or those with names that were not distinctly Anglo-Saxon. He knew the prejudices of the time and wanted no distractions from the already sensitive job that his interviewers faced.
During the forties, while much of the rest of the country was going off to war, Alfred Kinsey and a handful of assistants set off to interview as many men and women as they could on their sexual habits. At first they had limited resources; Kinsey used part of his own small salary to hire others.
In 1941 he got his first grant from a foundation, for sixteen hundred dollars; in 1943 he received his first grant from the Medical Sciences Division of the Rockefeller Foundation, a gift of twenty-three thousand dollars; by 1947 that figure was forty thousand dollars. The foundation thereby became the principal financial backer of his studies. By 1947 he was preparing to publish the first book of his results—a simple report on the human animal studied in one of its highest-priority biologic acts. His conclusions do not seem particularly startling today: that healthy sex led to a healthy marriage; that there was more extramarital sex on the part of both men and women than they wanted to admit; that petting and premarital sex tended to produce better marriages; that masturbation did not cause mental problems, as superstition held; that there was more homosexuality than people wanted to admit.
President Wells had made a few minor requests of him: He asked Kinsey not to publish during the sixty-one days that the Indiana legislature was in session, and he asked him to use a medical publisher in order to minimize sensationalism. Kinsey chose W. B. Saunders, an old-line firm in Philadelphia. The original printing was slated for ten thousand but as prepublication interest grew, Saunders increased it to twenty-five thousand. The book cost $6.50, had 804 pages, and weighed three pounds. Kinsey had received no advance against royalties, and whatever money he made, he turned back to his own think tank, which by then was known as the Institute for Sex Research of Indiana University.
Though he continued to sign himself on letters “Alfred Kinsey, professor of zoology,” his days as a mere professor were behind him. His name from then on was a household word; everyone knew of him as the sex doctor. Within ten days of the book’s release the publisher had to order a sixth printing, making 185,000 copies in print, a remarkable number for so scholarly a piece of work. To the astonishment of everyone, particularly Kinsey, the book roared up the bestseller lists, a fact somewhat embarrassing to The New York Times , which at first neither accepted advertising for Kinsey’s book nor reviewed it. The early critical response was good. The first reviews saw his samples adequate, his scientific judgments modest, his tone serious. Polls taken of ordinary Americans showed that not only did they agree with his evidence but they believed such studies were helpful.
Then his critics weighed in. They furiously disagreed with almost everything: his figures on premarital sex, his figures on extramarital sex, his figures on homosexuality, and above all, his failure to condemn what he had found. Not only had he angered the traditional conservative bastions of social mores—the Protestant churches on the right, and the Catholic Church—but to his surprise he had enraged the most powerful voices in the liberal Protestant clergy as well. Henry Pitney Van Dusen, the head of Union Theological Seminary, and Reinhold Niebuhr attacked. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the head of Riverside Church and the brother of the head of the Rockefeller Foundation, complained that the advertising for the book was not sufficiently sedate. Harold Dodds, president of Princeton, said, “Perhaps the undergraduate newspaper that likened the report to the work of small boys writing dirty words on fences touched a more profound scientific truth than is revealed in the surfeit of rather trivial graphs with which the reports are loaded.” By trying to study our sexual patterns, Kinsey was accused of trying to lower our moral standards.
Kinsey was at first stunned, then angered, but never embittered. He was appalled by the failure of other scientists and doctors to come to his defense, but what surprised him most was the absence of scientific standards in most of the assaults. His critics were, he noted, merely “exposing their emotional (not their scientific) selves in their attacks.”
Kinsey well knew that his second book was even more explosive than the first.
The attacks wounded Kinsey, yet he refused to show it in public. Besides, there was a second book to finish. His biggest fear was that he might lose his key source of support, the Rockefeller Foundation. Unfortunately Henry Pitney Van Dusen was not just the head of Union Theological; he was also a member of the Rockefeller Foundation board.
At first the foundation stood firm. Alan Gregg, who was in effect Kinsey’s man at the foundation, congratulated Kinsey for handling himself so well in the face of such venomous criticism. But soon Gregg’s tone began to change. He started suggesting that Kinsey show more statistical evidence in the next volume, and before long he was warning that it might be harder than he had expected to sustain the funding.
The trouble, Kinsey learned, was the new head of the Rockefeller Foundation, Dean Rusk. Rusk had come over after serving as the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs. Cautious to a fault, wary of the power of conservatives in Congress, he was not eager to take serious political risks on behalf of something that must have seemed as peripheral to him as sex research. B. Carroll Reece, a conservative Republican from Tennessee, was threatening to investigate the foundation, and one of the reasons was the Kinsey report. Kinsey sensed that Rusk was distancing himself from the institute.
The second book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female , was published in the fall of 1953. Kinsey was well aware that it was even more explosive than the first; he was, after all, discussing wives, mothers, and daughters. As a precaution Kinsey invited journalists to come to Bloomington for several days so that he could explain the data to them and thereby help them interpret it.
Like the first book, it was a sensation. Within ten days the publishers were in their sixth printing; it would eventually sell some 250,000 copies. Again the initial reception was essentially positive; some of the magazine reporting was thoughtful. Then the fire storm began. “It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America,” Billy Graham pronounced. The worst thing about the report, Van Dusen said, was not Kinsey’s facts, if they were indeed trustworthy, but that they revealed “a prevailing degradation in American morality approximating the worst decadence of the Roman Empire. The most disturbing thing is the absence of spontaneous ethical revulsion from the premises of the study and the inability on the part of the readers to put their fingers on the falsity of its premises. For the presuppositions of the Kinsey Report are strictly animalistic….” Again Kinsey was disheartened: “I am still uncertain what the basic reason for the bitter attack on us may be. The attack is evidently much more intense with this publication of the Female. Their arguments become absurd when they attempt to find specific flaws in the book and basically I think they are attacking on general principles.”
The new book was the final straw for the Rockefeller Foundation. In November 1953 Kinsey’s supporters there made passionate presentations on his behalf and put in a request for eighty thousand dollars. Rusk rejected it. It was a shattering moment. Kinsey wrote a note to Rusk pleading with him to come out to Bloomington to see what they were doing and telling of how well things looked for the future. Later, in another letter to Rusk, he noted, “To have fifteen years of accumulated data in this area fail to reach publication would constitute an indictment of the Institute, its sponsors, and all others who have contributed time and material resources to the work.”
Kinsey redoubled his efforts. If he had been driven before, now there was a manic quality to his work. His friends began to worry about his health. He suffered from insomnia, began to take sleeping pills, and started showing up groggy at work in the morning. Problems with his heart grew more serious. On several occasions he was hospitalized, and by the middle of 1956 he was forced to stay home and rest. In the summer of 1956 he conducted sex interviews number 7984 and 7985. On August 25, 1956, he died at the age of sixty-two.
“This is the magic and mystery of our time”
There had never been any doubt among those who knew him that Goody Pincus was a genius. Born in 1903, in Woodbine, New Jersey, Pincus was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who lived in a Jewish farm colony founded by the Baron de Hirsch Fund, a German Jewish philanthropy. Joseph Pincus, Goody’s father, ran the local farm, lectured to Jewish farmers all over the East, and for a time was editor of the Yiddish-language newspaper The Jewish Farmer . As a boy Goody was fascinated by animals and told his father he wanted to be a farmer when he grew up; his father told him there was no money in farming. The oldest of six children, Goody was always studying or reading and usually seemed pleasantly preoccupied. The Pincus home was filled with intellectual energy and curiosity, and Goody always seemed to be at its center. Evelyn Isaacson, a cousin, remembered a typical evening. John, the youngest of the children, then about six, turned to Goody, then about sixteen, and said, “Goody, I have three questions for you.” “What are they, John?” asked the obliging older brother. “One, why are we here? Two, why were we born? And three, there is no God.” The family believed Goody a genius; his IQ was said to be 210. He remained fond of animals and eventually majored in biology. He continued his studies at Harvard Graduate School under William Castle, the leader of the first generation of American geneticists. Genetics seemed a perfect vocation for someone with Pincus’s immense talents. The field was just beginning to explode as scientists forged breakthrough after breakthrough.
Goody Pincus’s early work involved parthenogenic—that is, fatherless—rabbits. In 1934 he announced that he had achieved in vitro (that is, inside a test tube) fertilization of rabbit eggs. Pincus took great joy in his work and was uncommonly candid about it. That candor might have served him well in other fields, but in genetics it got him into trouble. His work, some contemporaries felt, scared people, creating visions of Frankenstein- Brave New World nightmares. The New York Times headline ran: RABBITS BORN IN GLASS: HALDANE-HUXLEY FANTASY MADE REAL BY HARVARD BIOLOGISTS . The Times , as one writer observed, “pictured Pincus as a sinister character bent on hatching humans in bottles.”
But that was nothing compared with an article in Collier’s entitled “No Father to Guide Them.” The article managed, as the writer James Reed noted, to combine antifeminism, antiSemitism, and a phobia of science. Pincus was depicted as a kind of Rasputin of the science lab, bent on evil deeds. In Pincus’s world, the Collier’s author J. D. Ratcliff wrote, “man’s value would shrink. It is conceivable that the process would not even produce males. The mythical land of the Amazons would then come to life. A world where women would be self-sufficient; man’s value precisely zero.”
In reality, Pincus was the gentlest and most orthodox of men, a devoted husband and father, who left little poems behind on the pillow for his wife when he went to the lab in the morning. Still, the publicity did not sit well at Harvard. Pincus was already something of a controversial figure: he was Jewish in an age when American academia was still largely anti-Semitic, and his critics claimed he was too ambitious for his own good (and probably theirs).
In 1936 Harvard, celebrating its tercentenary, cited Pincus’s work as one of the university’s outstanding scientific achievements in its entire history. The next year, when Pincus was thirty-two, it denied him tenure. He was devastated. Fortunately, his old colleague Hudson Hoagland had just gone to Clark University in Worcester as the chairman of its biology department. Clark was a small school with a long tradition of excellent science departments. Enraged by Harvard’s cowardice and pettiness, Hoagland invited Pincus to come as a visiting professor.
From the start Hoagland had a vision that went far beyond Clark’s tiny three-man biology department. He began to build a research center with talented young scientists who were drawn by his and Pincus’s reputations. Min-Chueh Chang, for example, was delighted to come to Worcester. A young Chinese scientist who had received a Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1941, he had read Pincus’s book “The Eggs of Mammals” in 1936. “A path-finding book, done when he was only thirty-three years old,” Chang said years later. “ Everyone in our field knew about him. You must remember that until then no one knew mammals had eggs.” Soon Clark’s research team numbered fifteen scientists, all of them considered brilliant by their peers and many of them nationally renowned. Their salaries were underwritten by dint of Hoagland’s vigorous fund-raising in the Worcester community. Their lab was a converted barn. Hoagland’s people did not, however, have faculty status and could not eat in the faculty dining room. Wallace Atwood, Clark’s relatively conservative president, hated Hoagland’s end runs, but he could harass him only by denying such small privileges.
Atwood represented the kind of academic bureaucracy that Hoagland and Pincus wanted to leave behind. Since Clark’s only contribution to their work was Hoagland’s rather small salary and a limited amount of space, they became independent of the university in 1944 and founded the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. As its co-directors they estimated an annual budget of about a hundred thousand dollars and declared its purpose to connect new biology to practical medicine.
The two men complemented each other. Hoagland’s son noted years later that his father never seemed as happy as when he was working directly with Goody Pincus. Hoagland was immensely skillful in tapping into the Worcester establishment for money. He persuaded businessmen to contribute twenty-five thousand dollars for an old mansion that became their headquarters. The staff was young and confident, full of the excitement that comes with having no institutional limits placed on it.
At first their funds were so limited that Pincus cleaned the animal labs, Mrs. Hoagland was the bookkeeper, Hoagland cut the lawn, and Chang was the night watchman. When a local businessman saw Hoagland, stripped to the waist, pushing a lawn mower, he added a grounds keeper’s salary to the budget. In 1950 Chang won an award of one thousand dollars for a paper on fertilization of rabbit eggs from the American Sterility Society; it allowed him to buy his first car. That same year Oscar Hechter, another research associate, won an award from the Endocrinological Society. “We don’t have to worry about money and salaries anymore,” an enthusiastic Pincus told Hoagland. “Our staff members can live on their awards.”
Personal politics didn’t matter to Pincus; only science did.
They were among the early leaders in this country in steroid research. In the late forties Hechter had won the CIBA award for a paper on producing adrenal hormones, but in the race to produce cortisone, the Worcester group was beaten by the scientists at Upjohn—at least partly because Worcester’s major benefactor, the Searle Pharmaceutical Company, was not particularly supportive of their effort. When the next great challenge came, the intensely competitive Pincus swore they would not be beaten again.
Pincus already had a sense that hormones could be used to control reproduction from his work in mammalian reproduction. As a young lab assistant he had been intrigued by what happened when too many rats were placed in the same cage: They attacked one another. His own ideas about the problems of human overcrowding stemmed from those experiments. He asked the people at Searle to finance research in the development of a drug for contraception, but again the answer was not encouraging. In fact, Albert Raymond, Searle’s director of research, came down hard on him: “You haven’t given us a thing to justify the half-million that we have invested in you … yet you have the nerve to ask for more research. You will get more only if a lucky chance gives us something originating from your group which will make us a profit.”
If the attitude at Searle reflected the wariness of a large corporation to be involved in something as sensitive as contraceptive research, then nonetheless the Worcester Foundation was remarkably isolated from the prejudices of the era. Its funding sources were varied, the contributors in the local community generally liberal, and there was no board to answer to. That did not mean that they were not wary. One night in the early fifties a woman knocked on the door of Pincus’s house. She was desperate, almost out of control. She was pregnant, she said, and needed help. Could he help her? Pincus was very gentle with her, his son John noted, but kept his distance. It was, he was sure, a setup; he knew of no other such incidents.
Then, in the winter of 1950, Pincus met Margaret Sanger. For nearly forty years she had been fighting hard to spread the gospel of birth control. She asked the scientist if some sort of drug was possible to stop conception. Pincus said yes, and out of that conversation came the first grant from Planned Parenthood. Not long after, Sanger introduced Pincus to Katharine McCormick, heir to the International Harvester fortune and deeply committed to the issue of birth control. She would become an early and crucial financial supporter of Pincus’s work. It was after an early meeting with the two women that Pincus first envisioned the device as a pill and one that would probably use progesterone in some manner to block ovulation. When he arrived home, he was so excited that he told his wife that he had discovered a new device for contraception.
Pincus was the driving figure of the team that made the assault, the leader who kept everyone aligned, whose vision guided the search from the start. Personal politics did not matter to him; only science did. To that end he could be quite cold-blooded. He was capable of secretly undermining the attempts of a valued assistant to get a better position elsewhere. He could cut loose a staffer whom he particularly liked and promote another whom he loathed if he thought it would benefit the project.
He had the ability to remain focused on the central issue, no matter how complicated the problem. He envisioned a pill that would prevent conception by mimicking the hormonal condition of pregnancy, when the body blocked ovulation of its own natural instincts. If you could suppress ovulation, he believed, you could suppress fertilization. Significant earlier studies had suggested that progesterone might be an effective inhibitor of ovulation and that it might be taken orally.
Progesterone was then available in large part because of the work of an eccentric, maverick scientist named Russell Marker, who in 1940 discovered a cheap and plentiful source in the root of a wild yam that grew in the Mexican desert. Previously progesterone had been obtained only in minute amounts from animal sources and, as a result, was fabulously expensive—too expensive, in fact, to be wasted on humans; it was used exclusively to improve fertility in world-class racehorses. But with virtually no support or encouragement from others, Marker set up a primitive lab, and by 1943 he was able to walk into a small wholesale pharmaceutical company in Mexico City carrying two pickle jars filled with powder worth about $150,000 on the open market. Did the owners want some progesterone? he asked.
The first tests on the effect of progesterone on rabbit ovulation were started on April 21, 1951. The actual lab work was carried out by Chang, who was still so poorly paid that he lived in the laboratory, giving rise to persistent rumors among the neighbors that a Chinaman was kept chained in the basement.
Both Sanger and McCormick kept pushing Pincus for quick results; science, he tried to explain, does not necessarily work that way. Even so, the work went surprisingly well. Because of McCormick there was always enough money. Chang was a brilliant lab man, the perfect counterpart to Pincus. He had the patience to endure the seemingly endless laboratory work required in the effort.
From the start Pincus was optimistic. Chang was, he said, equally pessimistic, and he remained so even when test after test succeeded.
By 1952 there was an article in Look that predicted that Pincus would soon discover an oral contraceptive. Searle then passed on to the lab a progesterone steroid called norethynodrel, which, Chang reported back to Pincus, was more powerful than natural progesterone by a factor of at least ten to one. That meant it was time to go on to the next stage.
One thing that Pincus wanted from the start was a medical doctor as a collaborator; eventually the pill would have to be tried out on humans. For a time he considered Alan Guttmacher and Abraham Stone, both doctors and leaders in the birth-control movement. But Pincus worried that this affiliation might diminish their legitimacy for the project; moreover, both were Jewish, which might prove to be a liability, for opposition to birth control came primarily from Catholics and fundamentalist Christians. (For all its freedom from administrative control, the Worcester people maintained caution in publicly discussing what they were doing. The 1955 annual report was more than a little disingenuous; it spoke of unspecified work with animals to control ovulation. The 1956 report detailed the use of steroids to help control painful menstruation.) Finally Pincus turned to an old colleague and friend, Dr. John Rock. Rock was a distinguished physician, the chief of gynecology and obstetrics at Harvard Medical School. He was also a devout Catholic. Rock and Pincus had known each other since the thirties by dint of their common interest in hormones, although for diametrically different reasons: Rock was trying to use them to cure infertility in women. He believed progesterone and estrogen might stimulate the womb, and he sent one of his assistants to work with Pincus to learn from his experience in retrieving mammalian eggs. Gradually their work brought Rock and Pincus closer together.
In 1953 Pincus suggested to Planned Parenthood that they get Rock to do a study on the use of progesterone as a contraceptive device. Rock, whose attitudes toward contraception had been slowly changing, was finally ready to participate. In 1954 he tried the new synthetic hormone from Searle on three women. Rock was in many ways a very conservative man. He had argued against the admission of women to Harvard Medical School and often told his own daughters that he did not think women were capable of being doctors. But his views on birth control evolved steadily. In 1943, when he was fifty-three years old, he had come out for the repeal of legal restrictions on physicians to give advice on medical birth control. In the mid-forties, although scrupulous about not offering contraceptives to his own patients, he began to teach his young students at Harvard Medical School how to prescribe them. Years later he would pinpoint the late forties as the time when he became aware of what he called “the alarming danger of the population explosion.” He began to fit some of his patients with diaphragms, which so enraged some of his Catholic colleagues that they tried to have him excommunicated from his church. In 1949 he wrote a book with David Loth called Voluntary Parenthood , which was a comprehensive survey of birth-control methods available for the general public. Still, Rock’s primary motivation in joining with Pincus was to benefit couples who, despite all physiological evidence to the contrary, were unable to have children. In the past he had had some success injecting the women with natural progesterone.
He gave the progestin steroids to a group of fifty childless women at his clinic, starting in December 1954. The dosage was ten to forty milligrams for twenty successive days for each menstrual cycle. When the women came off the progestin, seven of the fifty, or 14 percent, were able to get pregnant. That was wonderful news for Rock. In addition, there was among the fifty a virtual 100 percent postponement of ovulation. That was wonderful news for Pincus and Chang. Pincus became so confident that he had begun to refer to “the Pill.”
The FDA approved the Pill in 1960: by 1963 over two million women were on it.
By the fall of 1955, when the International Planned Parenthood meeting took place in Tokyo, Pincus had decided to go public with his research. He asked Rock to join him, but Rock was uneasy; the research, while positive, was not yet conclusive, and he was also sensitive about making the announcement at a meeting of birth-control advocates. It was the closest the two men came to a break.
In Tokyo Pincus gave the most optimistic report yet on the coming of an inexpensive oral contraceptive agent. What he needed now were more patients and a broader selection of them; it was one thing to succeed with middle-class, college-educated women, but what about poor and illiterate women? Puerto Rico and Haiti were chosen as locales for mass testing. These were the perfect places for their needs—poor and overcrowded. Public officials there were more than ready for a serious study of birth control. In April 1956 the tests began on 100 women in a poor suburb of San Juan. It had been exceptionally easy to get volunteers; the problem was keeping other women out. The pill used was Enovid, made by Searle, whose officials were still nervous about being associated with Pincus in the program and whose top public relations people warned that this activity might destroy the company’s good name. The early returns from Puerto Rico were very good: In the first eight months 221 patients took the Pill, without a single pregnancy. There were some side effects, primarily nausea, but Pincus was able to reduce them by adding an antiacid.
Pincus’s daughter, Laura, took some time off from her studies at Radcliffe to help with the tests in Puerto Rico. Upon her return to Boston she was sent to brief McCormick, who lived in a grand mansion in Back Bay, a forbidding house that seemed to have neither lights nor life to it. Laura Pincus was, in her own words, rather naive about sex, and she got a little flustered talking to this old woman about the experiments. But Kate McCormick did not become unsettled; she talked openly and frankly. The sex drive was so strong, she kept insisting, that it was critical that it be separated from reproductive functions. Then there was a brief discussion of the pleasures of sex followed by a casual remark to the effect that sex between women might be more meaningful. This was spoken dispassionately, not suggestively. Nonetheless, young Ms. Pincus was stunned. Here she was in this nineteenth-century setting hearing words that seemed to come from the twenty-first century. Then, knowing that her visitor had to take the subway back to college, McCormick summoned her butler, who brought her a silver tray with coins. She reached down and picked out two dimes and handed them to her visitor. Later, after she had left, Laura Pincus looked down at the coins and noticed they had been minted in 1929.
The test in Puerto Rico proved to be an extraordinary triumph for Pincus. He began to travel around the world, talking with great enthusiasm of the coming breakthrough in contraception. He would tell his audiences “how a few precious facts obscurely come to in the laboratory may resonate into the lives of men everywhere, bring order to disorder, hope to the hopeless, life to the dying. That this is the magic and mystery of our time is sometimes grasped and often missed, but to expound it is inevitable.”
The people in Planned Parenthood thought Pincus was too optimistic and precipitous in his judgments, but this optimism was now shared by the more conservative Rock. They both were now pushing for acceptances of the Pill, and they were getting results: in 1957 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the marketing of the Pill for treatment of miscarriages and some menstrual disorders. By 1959 both Pincus and Rock were convinced that Enovid was safe for longterm use by women. In 1959 Pincus completed a paper on the uses of Enovid for oral contraception and sent it to Margaret Sanger. “To Margaret Sanger,” he wrote, “with affectionate greetings—this product of her pioneering resoluteness.”
In May 1960 the FDA approved Enovid as a contraceptive device. By the end of 1961 some 408,000 American women were taking the Pill, by the end of 1962 the figure was 1,187,000, and by the end of 1963 it was 2,300,000 and still rising. Of it Clare Boothe Luce said, “Modern woman is at last free as a man is free, to dispose of her own body, to earn her living, to pursue the improvement of her mind, to try a successful career.”
The discovery made Searle a very rich company. To Chang’s great regret the Worcester Foundation never took any royalty. Nor in the eyes of the Worcester people was Searle generous in later years. Despite several representations on behalf of his family and of the Worcester people, Searle paid only three hundred dollars a month in benefits to Pincus’s widow after his death in 1967. When the Worcester people suggested repeatedly to Searle that the company might like to endow a chair at the Worcester Foundation in Pincus’s honor, Searle not only declined but soon after donated five hundred thousand dollars to Harvard to endow a chair in reproductive studies. It was the supreme indignity: rewarding the institution that had once denied Pincus tenure with a chair in his own specialty.
“A quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex”
Marilyn Monroe was the stuff of which male fantasies were made. She was at once both lush and childlike. She knew the power of her own sexuality, knew how to turn it on and turn it off. In a way she was a photographer’s dream. “The first day a photographer took a picture of her, she was a genius,” said the director Billy Wilder, who understood her talent better than anyone in Hollywood. In 1949, very much down and out on her luck and still trying to crash Hollywood as a starlet, she agreed to do a nude shot for a photographer friend named Tom Kelley. He paid only fifty dollars, but she was living hand to mouth and she owed him a favor—he had lent her five dollars on an earlier occasion for cab fare. Besides, fifty dollars was precisely the amount of money she needed for the monthly payment on her secondhand car. She was not nervous about the nudity, only its potential effect on her career, and she signed the model release with the name Mona Monroe. In fact, Kelley noted that once she took her clothes off, she seemed more comfortable than before, in his words, “graceful as an otter, turning sinuously with utter naturalness. All her constraints vanished as soon as her clothes were off.”
The picture Tom Kelley shot was soon hanging on the walls of thousands of barbershops, bars, and gas stations. It also helped launch a sexual empire. For in the fall of 1953 a young man named Hugh Hefner, anxious to start his own magazine, read in an advertising trade journal that a local Midwestern company had the rights to the photo. Hefner drove out to suburban Chicago and bought the rights for five hundred dollars.
At the time Hefner felt himself a failure. He had been born in Chicago in 1926. His father worked as an accountant for a large company, and even in the worst of the Depression theirs was a comfortable home financially. However, there was little emotional warmth. His grandparents were pious Nebraska farmers, and theirs remained a God-fearing home: no drinking, no swearing, no smoking. Sunday was for church. Hefner’s first wife later noted that she never saw any sign of affection or anger displayed by either parent.
Hugh Hefner was a bright, somewhat dreamy child; in terms of social skills and popularity he was always on the outside looking in. He graduated from high school in 1944, went into the Army, caught the last months of the war, although he saw no combat. When he came home, he drifted for a time, unsure of his future. Then he entered the University of Illinois to be with his high school girl friend Millie Williams. He had been dating Millie for several years, but they still had not consummated their affair. After they were married in 1949, Hefner continued to drift, supported by Millie, who was teaching school.
The one thing he loved was cartooning, at which he was, regrettably, not particularly talented; for the next two or three years, he went back and forth between jobs, usually in the promotion departments of magazines. For much of the time he and Millie lived with his parents in order to save money. At one point in his drive to become a cartoonist, he quit work and stayed at home to draw. The results tended to be pornographic reworkings of popular comic strips. Millie Hefner was convinced this erotic sketching was a rebellion of sorts against his family’s Calvinist roots and the emotional and sexual aridity of that household.
As a convert to the cause of more open sexuality, he became a crusader, taking up that cause with the passion his puritan grandparents had espoused in their religion. For all his subsequent success in terms of personal sexual freedom, there was, according to some who knew him well, a certain grimness to his pursuit of pleasure.
Hefner was only twenty-seven when he started his magazine. All of his small savings and some of his friends’ were tied up in it; if it failed, he would owe several thousand dollars. Playboy was not Hefner’s original choice for a name. He had wanted to give it the cruder title of Stag Party , but a letter from the lawyers of a girly magazine in New York called Stag threatened legal action if he did not change it. Playboy it became, as an afterthought.
Hefner printed seventy thousand copies of the first issue, hoping that it would sell at least thirty thousand of them at fifty cents each. Instead, bolstered in no small part by word of mouth on the Monroe photos, it sold fifty-three thousand—a huge success. He was in business. Within a year, by December 1954, circulation had reached one hundred thousand. By early 1955 Playboy had $250,000 in the bank, and Hefner had turned down an offer of $1,000,000 for the magazine from a group in Chicago. Hefner demanded ever more glossy photos and used what he considered sophisticated writing; he was trying to make Playboy legitimate and stated his purpose of bringing sex out into the open.
Hugh Hefner’s great strength was his lack of sophistication.
The Calvinists, Hefner believed, thought sex was dark and furtive, and the other girly magazines of the period were so cheap and crude they seemed to confirm that judgment. It was Hefner’s particular genius to know that it was now going to be permissible to have an upscale, far more sophisticated magazine of male sexual fantasies that customers might not be embarrassed to be seen buying—or even leaving out on their coffee tables.
Alfred Kinsey was his hero, and he had understood from reading the Kinsey report that he was not alone, that his sexual attitudes and fantasies were mirrored by millions of other young men. In his first issue Hefner wrote: “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” There it was: the Playboy ethic, sex not only as legitimate but as a sophisticated life-style. By the end of 1956, still operating with a skeleton staff, Playboy was a phenomenon. Circulation was six hundred thousand. “A lot of it,” said Ray Russell, a writer and editor who was one of Hefner’s first hires, “was good luck, random choice, being carried on the tides of the times rather than the leader of the times. It was a matter of being the right magazine able to take advantage of a rising economy, more than any degree of conscious planning.”
Hefner was pretty much living in his offices in those early days. Then as he became more successful he converted a Chicago mansion into his home; even so he remained distant and remote, a kind of latter-day Gatsby who opened this plush residence to an endless stream of people whom he did not know, and who did not know him. In some ways he was still an outsider looking in. “Hefner,” said Don Gold, an editor at Playboy in the fifties, “is not a very complicated man. He thinks Poe is the best writer in the world. When he buys a pipe, he buys two dozen of the same pipe. He likes his mashed potatoes to have a dimple of gravy on them. He is mid-America personified. The Marquis de Sade would have told him to wait in a corner, though he is, in a healthy way, by sex possessed.”
Despite the magazine’s intellectual pretensions, Hefner’s great strength was his lack of sophistication. He was square but longed to share in the wider, hipper world that television and movies were bringing so tantalizingly close. In that, he mirrored the longings of millions of other young men from similar backgrounds, fantasizing a faster and freer life.
His success—for he soon became the most successful magazine publisher of the decade, a millionaire who styled himself an authority on the fast-lane life for the young, monied, and restless—echoed powerful new chords in American life. The first was a more candid view of sex and sexuality. Hefner sought to abolish America’s puritan past, so evident in his own background. In the broader sense Playboy represented the transition to the better, more affluent life that more and more Americans were enjoying as they lived decidedly better than their parents in material terms. The magazine explained how to buy a sports car and a hi-fi, how to order in a restaurant, what kind of wine to drink. It provided an elementary tutorial on the new American affluence for newcomers to the middle class, midwifing young men who were often the first members of their families to graduate from college into a world of increasing plenty.
Ordinary Americans now wanted (and could often afford) things that in the past had been the domain only of the very wealthy, and they wanted the personal freedoms those people had enjoyed too. In the onslaught, old restraints were loosened. If religion existed only as a negative force, Hefner seemed to be saying, if it spoke only of denial of pleasure and made people feel furtive about what was natural, then it was in trouble.
Hefner’s colleague Frank Gibney believed he had worked for two of the most important magazine publishers of the era, first Henry Luce and then Hugh Hefner, and he thought there was an interesting comparison to be made between the two. Luce was idiosyncratic, on occasion authoritarian, and overbearing, but he was driven by a curiosity that made him a man of breadth almost in spite of himself; Hefner, thought Gibney, had very little curiosity at all. He was essentially a narrow man, but he knew what he liked and he trusted it. “That magazine,” said Jack Kessie, an early editor, “was written and edited for Hugh M. Hefner.” Hefner was the square who wanted to be cool and as such he had a perfect sense of what other squares wanted to know and how they wanted to feel.
“If I don’t get out, I’ll die”
“Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor how long she will stay.” The prose caused neither John Cheever nor John O’Hara to look over their shoulders as the pre-eminent chroniclers of American social mores. But the story struck a nerve among the great mass of American readers. “One year, early in October, Indian summer came to a town called Peyton Place. Like a laughing lovely Indian woman, Indian summer came and spread herself over the countryside and made everything hurtfully beautiful to the eye…”
In 1956 the most surprising book on the best-seller list was Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, a young woman who had never published a word before. It was brought out in hardcover by a small publisher and went on to become the third best-selling novel of the year. Allan Barnard, an editor at the paperback house Dell, read the manuscript just before it was published and told his boss, Frank Taylor, “I have something I want to buy, but I don’t want you to read it.” Taylor gave Barnard permission to make the successful bid of eleven thousand dollars in the auction for paperback rights. It turned out to be one of the great bargains of all time. A few years later Taylor asked Barnard why he had asked him not to read it. “Because you wouldn’t have let me buy it,” Barnard said.
Peyton Place was considered in the lexicon of the day a sexy book, although Metalious was far less explicit than Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg—more serious writers who were struggling with the oppressive censorship laws of the era. But Peyton Place was such a phenomenon that the title entered the language as a generic term for all the small towns that appeared placid on the surface but that underneath were filled with dark secrets. In her book Metalious tore away the staid facade of Peyton Place (or Gilmanton, New Hampshire, where she lived) to reveal a hotbed of lust and sexual intrigue. “To a tourist these towns look as peaceful as a postcard,” Metalious told Hal Boyle of the Associated Press in an early interview. “But if you go beneath that picture, it’s like turning over a rock with your foot—all kinds of strange things crawl out. Everybody who lives in town knows what’s going on—there are no secrets—but they don’t want outsiders to know.”
Indeed, the principal occupation of Peyton Place was not so much farming or the town’s textile factory but gossip; people there not only led secret lives, they devoted most of their waking hours to sitting around and talking about them—at least about everyone else’s.
It was a small town of some thirty-seven hundred people, still largely cut off from the rest of the society. Class lines ran right through the center of it; a handful of powerful men—the factory owner, the lawyer, the editor of the newspaper, and the doctor—play poker once a week and decide what is going to happen in Peyton Place. When Betty Anderson, a local girl from the wrong side of the tracks whose father works for Leslie Harrington (the mill owner), becomes pregnant after a fling with Harrington’s son, the senior Harrington hands his employee a check for $500. A furious Betty charges in to see Harrington in his office and announces that she plans to marry his son. Harrington tells her that it will take only six men to say that they also had relations with her to make her legally a prostitute. Then he tears up the $500 check and gives her one for $250, promising that it will be $125 if she comes to see him again.
Mostly the town’s secrets stay secret with much less fuss. Constance MacKenzie, the prim, attractive young widow who runs the town’s dress shop, dreads that people will learn that in her brief time in New York she had an affair with a married man, who is the father of her daughter; another local girl is sexually assaulted and impregnated by her sinister stepfather, and the kindly local doctor must decide to save the young girl’s reputation by disguising an abortion as an emergency appendectomy.
The paperback, published in the fall of 1957, sold six million copies in the first two years. At the time, the novel was perceived as being successful because of its “hot passages.” Gradually, however, a revisionist view took hold that Metalious had powerfully and viscerally captured the problems faced by women in the modern world. If the author did not exactly become a role model to the generation of young feminists who emerged in the sixties and seventies, they nonetheless could find in her pages independent women who dissented from the proscribed and limited roles assigned them. Feminists suspected—for there was little evidence of this in the initial reviews of the book—that Metalious had achieved this almost without anyone’s knowing it. As Kenneth Davis noted in his book on the paperback revolution, Two Bit Culture , the women in Peyton Place “were on the cutting edge of a movement that had not yet arrived and still had no voice. They wanted more than to simply find the right man, settle down and begin breeding and keeping house.”
Rather, as Davis pointed out, Metalious’s characters might have come right out of the Kinsey report on women. They had sexual feelings and appetites that contrasted starkly with the attitudes women were supposed to have, as set down in endless books written by men. Nor were Metalious’s women nearly as admiring of men as in their mothers’ books. In fact, they often considered men unreliable and childish.
Metalious would have been surprised to find herself a feminist hero.
Emily Toth points out in her book Inside Peyton Place , a serious, feminist reappraisal of Metalious and her work, that the novel brought very different attitudes to sexual politics. Ft presented rape not as an act of sexual pleasure but as violence; the doctor who performs an abortion is described as saving a life. In Peyton Place, Toth notes, the women who depend too greatly on men lose out, while the women who are independent are winners.
Metalious had written as she did—roughly, simply, but powerfully—because it was her own story. She was angrier and more rebellious than she herself realized, although she had always shown little ambition to be a traditional housekeeper; Grace Metalious’s home was littered with garbage, dirty dishes, and beer cans. Women were supposed to be good mothers, putting their children above their own ambitions; Grace Metalious loved her three children in her own erratic way, but she let them do pretty much as they wished, and any real supervision tended to come from neighbors. Women were supposed to be dutiful handmaidens to their husbands’ careers; Metalious made no such efforts. She dressed in a way that jarred small-town sensibilities—in blue jeans, checked shirts, and sneakers. She never fully articulated her own feminist vision and probably would have been surprised had someone told her that one day she would be a heroine of the women’s movement. With a few exceptions she was not close to other women.
She was a lower-middle-class French-Canadian girl who grew up in small towns in New Hampshire, living always involuntarily in a matriarchy. The men in her family were bit players; her own father deserted them when she was young, and she was raised by her grandmother. Her mother fantasized a better life but slipped into alcoholism at a relatively early age. Grace loved to read and fancied that she could be a writer one day; at thirteen she had already begun a historical novel.
In high school Grace was bright and unusual, and teachers noticed her. Nonetheless, a literary future seemed out of reach. It seemed dimmer still when in February 1943, at the age of eighteen, she married George Metalious, a high school friend, because she was pregnant. When George soon went off to war, Grace was stunned by his decision to enlist; she was not caught up in the patriotic cause, and remembering her father, she saw her husband’s desire to serve as an escape from family responsibility. She worked at different jobs and raised her daughter, Marsha. When George Metalious came back, sure that his Army salary had been salted away for the down payment on a dream house, he was astounded to find that she had saved none of it. Rather, she had been supporting an extended family with his allotment checks. “How could you be so stupid!” he shouted at her.
They were like many couples trying to make their way after the war. George had come back to a child and a wife he barely knew. They struggled for a time, had a second child, both of them held jobs, yet they could save very little. Finally it was decided that the only way to succeed was for George to go to the University of New Hampshire on the Gl Bill. His family would follow, so common an arrangement in those days that there was even a phrase for it: PHTS, Putting Hubbies Through School. But if other young couples were caught up in the excitement of those years, always sure that their current sacrifices would be rewarded one day in the future, Grace Metalious was having none of it. “I am trapped, I screamed silently,” she said later of those years. “I am trapped in a cage of poverty and mediocrity, and if I don’t get out, I’ll die.”
By 1950 a third child had arrived. When George graduated, they were so poor that they had to borrow three hundred dollars to pay his debts so that the university would release his degree. His first job as a teacher at a tiny school in Belmont paid twenty-five hundred dollars.
Through it all she wrote every day, and in 1953 she began searching for a literary agent. She perused various writers’ magazines and finally came up with a name, Jacques Chambrun, an agent with a good deal of charm and a most unfortunate reputation for siphoning off the earnings of his writers. By early 1955 she had sent him her first novel, The Quiet Place , a routine story about a young couple struggling through GI Bill life at a New England college. It was rejected everywhere. Around the same time she sent off her second novel, entitled The Tree and the Blossom . She had read King’s Row , an extremely popular novel of the forties, which dealt with an incestuous relationship of an adolescent girl and her father. By chance a similar situation had occurred where Metalious lived, in which a young girl shot her father to protect herself and the rest of her family. In it Metalious had seen a sensational incident that would give her novel a special darkness. The manuscript, renamed Peyton Place , was mailed to publishers in May 1955.
Several houses turned it down, but a young woman named Leona Nevler, who had a good eye, read it while she was working as a freelance editor for Lippincott. It was impressive, Nevler thought; there was something poignant, vital, and real about the book. But it was not right for Lippincott, an unusually staid house. A few days later Nevler was interviewed for a job as a full-time editor by Kitty Messner, the head of Julian Messner. She had founded the small firm with her husband, Julian Messner, had divorced him, but had continued to work with him. When he died, she took over the company, so when Nevler mentioned the book, Kitty Messner was especially receptive to the theme, which dealt with a young woman’s desire for a better life. Messner, one of the first women to head a publishing house, made a note of it, called Chambrun, got a copy, and stayed up all night reading it. She understood immediately the force of the book and made Chambrun an offer. “I know this is a big book,” she told him. “I have to have it.” Chambrun cabled Metalious, who was so excited that she forgot to ask how much her advance was; the answer was fifteen hundred dollars. He told her to come immediately to New York to sign the contracts, which she did. She was awed by the elegant Kitty Messner. It was mid-August, and Metalious felt wilted by New York’s steamy heat; by contrast, Messner “looked as if she had never had a hot uncomfortable moment in her life. As for me, my armpits itched, I stuck to my chair, and my hair had gone all limp.”
Messner thought the book might sell three thousand copies, but Howard Goodkind, who handled the publicity, believed it could be promoted into a best seller; he suggested spending an additional five thousand dollars to get a publicist to create a special promotion campaign. The sum was a considerable risk in those days, but Messner agreed. The ads for the book employed a series of headlines reflecting its controversial nature. When it was published in late September, it shot up some best-seller lists, and a number of studios were bidding for the film rights. It sold sixty thousand copies in the first ten days. The reviews were generally respectful.
Fame and success were sweet for Grace Metalious at first. All her dreams seemed to be coming true. She sold the book to the movies for $250,000. But if she had been well prepared to overcome the adversities of her life, she proved significantly less able to deal with the pressures of success. “This book business,” she wrote in November 1956, “is some evil form of insanity.” Everyone suddenly seemed to want something from her and demanded she play the role of a sexy writer. She was uneasy about press and television appearances, and she particularly disliked being asked whether or not Peyton Place was autobiographical.
Even before the book’s publication her marriage had started falling apart. Liberated by her success and her changed financial position, she took up with a disc jockey. She began to spend money freely; at the same time, she stopped writing. Driven mostly by a Hollywood producer, she eventually wrote a listless sequel that she was not proud of, called Return to Peyton Place . (At the last minute a writer named Warren Miller was brought in to doctor it into a readable book.) Nonetheless, Return too sold well, though not as well as its predecessor.
For all the fame and the attention, Metalious’s emotional needs did not abate. “Our mother had to be told with the consistency of a flowing brook that echoes, ‘I love you, I love you,’” her daughter Marsha remembered. “We did love her strongly, but after a while ‘I love you’ became a ludicrous expression—worn to its nap like a rug travelled on day after day, night after night.” Her work habits continued to deteriorate. A glass of Canadian Club and 7-Up never left her hand.
By 1960 George Metalious had come back. In 1960 she published The Tight White Collar , which became her favorite book. It sold well, but shrewd editors saw that her audience was beginning to slip away. Soon she had serious financial problems and was said to owe the government more than $150,000 in back taxes. No Adam in Eden , a book about her French-Canadian family, was published in September 1963, but her emotional state continued to de teriorate. George Metalious left her again in the fall of 1963, and a few months later, in February 1964, she died of chronic liver disease.
“It was a strange stirring”
Throughout the fifties Madison Avenue often depicted the American woman as a new kind of modern princess, freed from the drudgery that burdened her mother’s generation by wondrous new appliances and gadgets that promised to make odious housework obsolete. But was this new woman indeed happier? That was one of the more interesting questions of the era, for the great migration to the suburbs and the parallel great ascent into the new middle class reflected a number of profound changes taking place in American society, not the least of which was the changing role of women.
“The more educated a woman is, the greater chance there is of sexual disorder.”
Women had come a long way in America during the twentieth century. In the 1930s twenty-six states still had laws prohibiting the employment of married women. A poll of both men and women at the time asked, “Do you approve of a married woman earning money in business or industry if she has a husband capable of supporting her?” Eighty-two percent did not. Nevertheless, during the Depression large numbers of women worked because their families needed every cent they could get.
With the coming of World War II, a profound change occurred overnight. That which had been perceived as distinctly unfeminine became a patriotic necessity. A study by the War Manpower Commission in July 1943 showed that some four million additional workers were needed in the armed forces and munitions industries and that a great many of them would have to be women. Suddenly eight million women were entering the work force.
That trend came to a stunning halt almost as quickly as it began. Within two months after the end of the war, some eight hundred thousand women had been eliminated from well-paying jobs in the aircraft industry, and the same thing was happening elsewhere. In the two years that followed, two million women lost their jobs. Part of the reason for the change was the ever increasing affluence of the country; families could now live easily with only one income.
As the fifties progressed, there was little encouragement for women to seek professional careers; in fact, it was often deliberately discouraged. In middle-class homes boys were from the start put on a very different track; they were inculcated with the requisite skills critical to supporting a family. A daughter, on the other hand, was educated to be genteel and get married.
In cases where equally well-educated men and women arrived at the same company, the men from the start were taken more seriously. The women were relegated to the job of being support troops, often working harder and longer for less pay with lesser titles. It was an unspoken assumption that whatever their skills and talents they would soon get married, become pregnant, and duly leave. Only someone more than a little eccentric or destined to be an old maid would stay the course. Short stories in women’s magazines tended to show career women as unhappy and emotionally empty, while glorifying the modern wife who devoted her life to raising her children and doing all that she could to help her husband’s career.
An influential book of pop sociology by Ferdinand Lundberg and his psychoanalyst collaborator Marynia Farnham, entitled Modern Woman: The Lost Sex , attacked the very idea of career women. “The independent woman is a contradiction in terms,” they wrote. Feminism “was a deep illness … the psychosocial rule that takes form, then is this: the more educated a woman is, the greater chance there is of sexual disorder, more or less severe. The greater the disordered sexuality in a given group of women, the fewer children they have.”
The ideal that women were to strive for was pinpointed by McCall’s magazine in 1954: togetherness. A family was as one, its husband the captain, the wife his first mate. It was a single universe, and the hopes, ambitions, and fortunes of its members were entwined.
“The two big steps that women must take are to help their husbands decide where they are going and use their pretty heads to help them get there,” Mrs. Dale Carnegie, wife of one of the nation’s leading experts on how to be likable, wrote in the April 1955 Better Homes and Gardens . “Let’s face it, girls. That wonderful guy in your house—and in mine—is building your house, your happiness and the opportunities that will come to your children.” Split-level houses, Mrs. Carnegie added, were fine, “but there is simply no room for split-level thinking—or doing—when Mr. and Mrs. set their sights on a happy home, a host of friends, and a bright future through success in HIS job.”
What all these magazines were portraying were women’s lives of the most conventional type; the wife was to be the new all-purpose support troop of the suburbs, taking care of the children, helping her husband, and, it seemed, never having any thoughts—and, equally important, any identity—of her own. But not every woman of that era accepted those rules so readily.
Like a lot of her contemporaries, Betty Goldstein graduated from college determined to lead a life that was unconventional and as much in contrast to her mother’s as she could. When she had entered Smith College in 1939, she had found everything that she had longed for as a smalltown girl in Peoria, Illinois: at Smith women were rewarded instead of being punished for being smart and different. She graduated in 1942, summa cum laude, full of optimism about the future even though the war was going on. She was offered several scholarships. Ambitious, admired by her classmates, Betty Goldstein was certain that she would lead a life dramatically different from that of her mother, a writer for the Peoria newspaper who gave up her career after marrying a local store owner. But at graduation time Betty Goldstein turned down the scholarships because she was interested in a young man; he had not been offered a comparable scholarship, and she was afraid it would tear their relationship apart if she accepted hers. That single decision, she later wrote, turned her into a cliché. Looking back on her life, Betty Goldstein Friedan, one of the first voices of the feminist movement, noted her young man’s face was more quickly forgotten than the terms of the scholarship.
Instead of getting married, she moved to the exciting intellectual world of Greenwich Village and became part of a group of liberal young people involved in labor issues and civil rights before it was fashionable. The women all seemed to be graduates of Smith, Vassar, and Radcliffe; they were bright and optimistic. Betty Goldstein worked as a reporter for a labor newspaper, and after the war she met a young veteran named Carl Friedan who was funny and charming. In 1947 they were married; in 1949 they had their first child. When she was pregnant with her second child, she was fired from the labor paper, whose radicalism, it appeared, did not extend to women’s rights. She took her grievance to the Newspaper Guild and was told that it was her own fault.
Friedan soon found herself part of the great suburban migration, swept away from the Village, where her friends were and where ideas seemed so important. As Carl Friedan made more money, they moved from a Queens apartment to a rented house in fashionable Sneden’s Landing and finally bought an old house worthy of Charles Addams in Rockland County. There Friedan spent her time scraping eight layers of paint off a fireplace (“I quite liked it”), chauffeuring children to and from school, and helping run the PTA.
In some ways her life was full, she would later decide, but in some ways it was quite empty. She liked being a mother, and she liked her friends, but she was not sure she was living up to her potential. She began to freelance for women’s magazines. Her early articles, “Millionaire’s Wife” ( Cosmopolitan , September 1956), “Now They’re Proud of Peoria” ( Reader’s Digest , August 1955), “Two Are an Island” ( Parents magazine, May 1957), were not exactly the kinds of intellectual achievements she had had in mind when she left Smith.
She was also quickly discovering the limits of what women’s magazines would publish. She read in a newspaper about Julie Harris, the actress, who had had a natural childbirth. That was something Betty Friedan, who had undergone two cesareans, admired and even envied, so she got permission from the magazine to do a piece on Harris. She had a glorious time with the actress; was completely captivated by her, and wrote what she thought was one of her best articles. It was turned down because it was too graphic. That was hardly her only defeat. When she suggested an article about Beverly Pepper, just beginning to experience considerable success as a painter and sculptor, the editors of another magazine were scornful. American women, they told her, were not interested in someone like this and would not identify with her. Their market research showed that women wanted to read exclusively articles that examined their roles vis-à-vis their husbands and children.
Then on the occasion of her fifteenth Smith reunion, in 1957, she and two friends were asked to do a report on what had happened to the members of the class of ’42. She made up a questionnaire and got an assignment from McCall’s to pay for her time. The piece was supposed to be called “The Togetherness Woman.” The questions were: “What difficulties have you found in working out your role as a woman?” “What are the chief satisfactions and frustrations of your life today?” “How do you feel about getting older?” “How have you changed inside?” “What do you wish you had done differently?” The answers stunned her. She had tapped into a great reservoir of doubt, frustration, anxiety, and resentment. The women felt unfulfilled and isolated with their children; they often viewed their husbands as visitors from a far more exciting world.
The project also emphasized Friedan’s own frustrations. All those years trying to be a good wife and mother suddenly seemed wasted; it had been wrong to suppress her feelings rather than to deal with them. The surprise for her was that there were thousands of women just like her out there. As she later wrote, “It was like a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip cover materials, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’”
As she had walked around the Smith campus during her reunion, she was struck by the passivity of the young women of the class of 1957. Her generation had been filled with excitement about the issues of the day; when Friedan asked these young women about their futures, they regarded her with blank looks. They were going to get engaged, be married, and have children, of course. She thought, This is happening at Smith, a place where I found nothing but intellectual excitement when I was their age. Something had gotten deep in the bloodstream of this generation.
“Look, only the most neurotic housewife would identify with this.”
She left and started to write the piece for McCall’s , but it turned out to be very different from the one that she had intended to write. It reflected the despair and depression she had found among her contemporaries, and it reflected, she was sure, the feelings of a great many women who lived through their husbands and children. Not surprisingly, McCall’s , the inventor of togetherness, turned it down. She heard that all the women editors at the magazine there wanted to run it but had been overruled by their male superiors. So she sent it to the Ladies’ Home Journal , where it was accepted—and rewritten so completely that it seemed to make the opposite points. She pulled it. That left Redbook , where Bob Stein, an old friend, worked. He turned it down and called her agent. “Look,” he said over the phone, “only the most neurotic housewife would identify with this.” She was, she realized later, challenging the magazines themselves. She was saying that it was wrong to mislead women to think they should feel one way when in fact they often felt quite differently. She had discovered a crisis of considerable proportions, and these magazines would only deny it.
It was nothing less than censorship, she believed. Women’s magazines had a single purpose, she decided—to sell a vast array of new products to American housewives—and anything that worked against that, that cast doubt on the happiness of the millions of women using such products, was not going to be printed.
At about that time she went into New York to hear a speech by Vance Packard, the writer. He had just finished his book The Hidden Persuaders , about subliminal tactics in advertising. His own efforts to write about this phenomenon in magazines had been completely unsuccessful, he said, so he turned it into a book, which had become a major best seller. The parallels between his problems and hers were obvious. Suddenly she envisioned “The Togetherness Woman” as a book.
After all, she reasoned, books were not dependent upon ads, they were dependent upon ideas, and the more provocative the idea, the more attention and often the better the sales. She called George Brockway, an editor at W. W. Norton & Company who had liked her magazine work. He knew there had already been a number of attacks on conformity in American society, particularly as it affected men. Here was an attack that would talk about its effect on worn- en, who were, of course, the principal buyers of books. He was impressed by Friedan. She was focused and, to his mind, wildly ambitious.
She told Brockway that she would finish it in a year; instead it took five years. Her research was prodigious. Three days a week she went to the New York Public Library for research. The chief villains, she decided, were the women’s magazines. What startled her was the fact that this had not always been true. In the same magazines in the late thirties and forties there had been a sense of women moving steadily into the male professional world; they celebrated the career woman who knew how to take care of herself and who could make it on her own. But starting around 1949, these same magazines had changed dramatically. It was as if someone had thrown a giant switch. The new woman did not exist on her own. She was seen only in the light of supporting her husband and his career and taking care of the children.
Some psychiatrists, she found, had noticed a certain emotional malaise, bordering on depression, among many women of the era. One called it “the housewife’s syndrome”; another referred to it as “the housewife’s blight.” No one wrote about it in popular magazines.
So, gathering material over several years, she began to write a book that was to come out in 1963 not as The Togetherness Woman but as The Feminine Mystique . She was approaching forty as she began, but she was regenerated by the project; it seemed to give her her own life back. The result was a seminal book on what had happened to women in America. It started selling slowly, but word of it grew and grew, and eventually, with three million copies in print, it became a handbook for the new feminist movement that was coming together.