“Betty, Girl Engineer” and 1950s sexism
In general, I love the old 50s sitcom Father Knows Best. It’s funny, and it even pushes the boundaries at times, such as one episode which addressed prejudice against Latinos, and another which showed Betty fending off a date who felt entitled to get more from her than she wanted to give.
But occasionally, it gets on my nerves with the old sexism. For example, Father joking about Mother’s “womanly” manipulations to get what she wants, because apparently she’s not supposed to just come out and ask.
Though if you watch other media from that time period, such as movies or sitcoms, you soon discover that not all the women portrayed behaved like this.
For example, on Donna Reed, Mrs. Stone is very much against women using manipulation to get what they want. She comes out and asks her husband for things.
The wife on Make Room for Daddy is a housewife, and occasionally submissive, but she can also be very fiery and fights back when she thinks her husband is unfair. She and other wives also feel threatened by a new Asian bride, because they fear their husbands will expect them to wait on them hand and foot. They soon learn that the bride is the way she wants to be, and that their husbands like them the way they are.
Alice Kramden does not strike me as the kind of person who would use feminine wiles for anything. She’s not submissive at all.
Zelda Gilroy decides that she’ll have to be the one to work, because she’s brilliant, while Dobie Gillis is just plain lazy.
Of course, Lucy Ricardo is the epitome of manipulative and scheming females, though–in a crossover episode of Make Room for Daddy–we discover that Ricky won’t have her any other way.
As for how real women acted, I bet there were as many differences back then as there are today. The women in the media are “types,” some more real, some more idealized.
Back to Father Knows Best. In one episode, tomboy Kathy learns to become a Proper Girl (TM) because that’s the only way boys will want to date her. She learns how to manipulate because that’s what girls do.
In one of the last episodes, Betty, the oldest and almost done with college, applies for a job; a young man also applying, shames her for trying to take away a job he needs for his career. (Maybe she needs it too!) In the end, she decides what she really wants is to be a bride, not the job.
Last night, I saw “Betty, Girl Engineer,” which I also saw back in high school. Yeah, it annoyed me then, too, but I forgot what all happened. Last night refreshed my memory.
A good summary is in this blog post by Shereen. Basically, Betty goes through aptitude tests at school which show that she’d be good at engineering. She comes home, all excited about this career choice.
But everyone at home laughs at her, like this is just one of Betty’s silly little whims, because girls don’t belong in engineering. Father even chides her for thinking she can handle higher math such as algebra and trigonometry.
She signs up for a work-study position surveying, but is shamed out of it by the supervisor. However, instead of telling everyone where they can stick it, and following her dreams, she succumbs to the brainwashing, puts on a dress, and the chauvinist pig supervisor becomes the latest in her long string of boyfriends. Father even encourages the chauvinist pig to lecture Betty out of her silly dreams (since apparently girls need to be taught by men what to think). She ditches her silly whim of being an engineer, and becomes a Proper Girl (TM).
Over on the IMDB page on this sitcom, somebody brought up sexism in the show, but got shamed by everyone else for complaining about it.
[Update 6/14/17: The forum page appears to have been removed from the site, so the link no longer works. However, someone posted a review of the episode the same time I posted mine here. Read the other review here.]
Apparently, from the comments I read in that thread, if it happened 50 years ago, you aren’t supposed to look at it with a “modern lens,” but just accept it as “the way it was.” And apparently, old shows are much better than godless modern ones which present fathers as goofballs etc. etc.
Hm. So, then, when I read, say,
—The Sun Also Rises and everybody rips on Cohn for being Jewish, or
—The Great Gatsby where they see a couple of rich young black men and dismiss them as a couple of uppity “bucks,” or
—Trilby with all the author’s prejudice against Jews, which he clearly states and then throws into the slimy character of Svengali, or
–any old book or movie in which blacks are dismissed as simple-minded,
I’m supposed to just say, “Oh, that was another time and it would be wrong for me to look at it from the lens of our modern times.”
Hm. I’ve been critiquing various forms of media all my life for sexism, racism, and the like, without feeling I was being unfair just because it was written/filmed a long time ago.
What about the people who lived in those times and had to suffer from the sexism and racism which was so acceptable back then but not now?
If women in the 50s were perfectly happy being housewives and not following their silly, childish dreams of becoming engineers/scientists/etc., then why did we have the feminist movement just a short time later? Why did so many women in the 60s and 70s sound so unhappy with their lot? Yes, many women did and do want to be housewives, but many don’t.
Even back then, there were women who wanted careers. Women weren’t just perfectly content to follow one path until Gloria Steinem came along and convinced them otherwise. No, this was percolating for a long time.
For example, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that she helped Pa out in the fields, and didn’t just help Ma in the house. She also wrote that she refused to say the word “obey” when she married Almanzo in the 1800s, and he said no decent man would want her to.
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman way back in 1792, arguing that women were only overly emotional because they weren’t given proper education or opportunities for careers.
George Sand–a woman who took a man’s pen name to be taken seriously–was certainly no conventional housewife.
In Jane Eyre, we find this passage:
It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.
Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth.
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.
It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex (p. 129).
My Honor’s thesis in college was about women writers of Victorian times wanting to break out of society’s restrictions on them. It was titled “I’ve Stopped Being Theirs,” a line by Emily Dickinson, whose poetry revealed an intense desire to decide her own fate.
While researching, I discovered that even Little Women seemed to be Louisa May Alcott’s ironic attempt to whitewash reality with what society said women “should” be. Her own family was nothing like the Marches, and she was more like Jo, yet she–like Jo–was told by others how she “should” act.
(Maybe I should pull out that old thesis and post it here? Of course, it’s quite long, because that’s required of theses. I may have to chop it up and edit it. But it was good enough to get an A and be filed in the school library as an example for others! 😀 )
In fact, I wrote this thesis–and became a feminist–after my experiences with a very sexist ex, Phil, who tried to force me into an old-fashioned, submissive role, even while chiding me for wanting to be a housewife. (Doesn’t make sense, I know. But also demonstrates why my feminism is NOT the kind which tells women they should not be housewives. On the contrary, I believe in letting women decide for themselves.)
Also, in the early decades of the 20th century, women were already starting to break out of society’s restrictions: women doctors, women scientists, women journalists. Remember Marie Curie? In fact, when the Nazis took over in Germany, they forced not just Jews but many women out of their jobs, because they thought women should just be housewives. (Their preaching on this turned around and bit them on the butt later, when the women were too content being housewives to want to help the war effort.)
It has been common for decades to hear about the “idyllic” 1950s. That everyone was religious and everyone knew his/her place and was happy. But if that were true, then where did the unrest of the 1960s come from? If life were perfect, then who but an idiot would want to turn everything upside-down? Why were there riots? Why were there marches and protests? Where did the feminism come from?
No, that feminism didn’t start in the 1960s. It started centuries earlier.
Instead of looking at this as, “You can’t judge a 1950s show with your modern lens,” how about we say, “Yes, this is an example of the rampant sexism that inspired women to rebel in the 60s and 70s. This is how tough our mothers/grandmothers had it. Look what they had to fight against! Let’s appreciate what they went through.”
- Father Knows Best (blog post on this episode)
- section of a book on feminism, describing what really went on in the 50s, how women were being brainwashed into leaving their jobs after the war–and how FKB and this episode contributed
- women engineering students in WWII
- Hedy Lamarr, WWII inventor