I just started reading a little book called The 1950s, edited (and partly written) by Stuart A. Kallen. I picked it up at the library to do background research for my reimagined, possibly-set-in-1950s Crane Girl, but even if I weren’t writing a novel, the book is fascinating in its own right. A veneer of blissful, Leave It to Beaver suburban prosperity, with McCarthyism, the Cold War, and gender and racial tensions bubbling under the surface. Not to mention the end of polio, the dawn of the Space Age, and the glittering potential of ENIAC. The stories almost write themselves.
The book has a section written by Kallen, beginning on page 24, titled “The Role of Women.” It begins:
In the years before women’s liberation, fifties women were simply expected to perform the jobs of stay-at-home mothers. A widely read book titled The Women’s Guide to Better Living advised, “The family is the unit to which you most genuinely belong. . . . The family is the center of your living. If it isn’t, you’ve gone far astray.”
I was immediately intrigued by this Women’s Guide to Better Living. What else did it say? How widely was it followed? What, exactly, did American society expect from women in the 1950s, and just how skewed was it? I figured I’d do a little research and write today’s blog post about it.
For starters, The 1950s has the following footnote for the passage above:
Quoted in Miller and Nowak, The Fifties, p. 147.
This would seem to indicate that Kallen just grabbed the quote from another, earlier book with a near-identical title, rather than taking the time to hunt down the source material. In fact, seven other quotes are also pulled from Miller and Nowak, and every quote in the essay is likewise taken from secondary sources, most with titles like The Fifties. Kallen does this with fourteen quotes in under twenty pages. Unless I’m badly misunderstanding, this seems awfully lazy.
What’s more, if you go back to the quote’s secondary source – Miller and Nowak, The Fifties, p. 147 – you learn a couple of very interesting facts.
First, the title is not The Women’s Guide to Better Living, it’s The Woman’s Guide to Better Living. It’s a minor detail, but details matter, especially for the name of a primary source. This kind of mistake is just sloppy. It may not be solely the fault of the author/editor, Stuart A. Kallen; he may have been under some kind of crazy deadline. Kallen’s official page claims he is cranking out more than ten books a year, so perhaps that’s not surprising. But regardless of the reason, it reflects badly on the book as a whole.
Much worse, however, is that – according to Miller and Nowak – the full quote from Woman’s Guide is as follows:
Whether you are a man or a woman, the family is the unit to which you most genuinely belong. . . . The family is the center of your living. If it isn’t, you’ve gone far astray.
In other words, the point Kallen’s making in his essay – that women were being disproportionally pressured into obsessing over family life – is completely contradicted by the full quote, which is clearly addressing both genders. And since that’s the only part of the quote that was cut, it’s hard to believe that the exclusion wasn’t deliberate. A distortion like this goes beyond mere sloppiness and approaches genuine deception.
(To be clear, I’m sure that women were, indeed, overwhelmingly pressured into a confining social niche, and I imagine that this Woman’s Guide probably is sexist overall. I’m not arguing the larger point. I’m saying that the point is weakened by faulty scholarship.)
Anyway, it appears this Woman’s Guide is available online for a few bucks. I just might pick myself up a copy and get my information straight from the source.