EXCERPT: 'When Everything Changed,' by Gail Collins

But by 1960 television was big business and if women were around at all, they were in the kitchen, where they decorously stirred a single pot on the stove while their husbands and children dominated the action. (In 1960, the nominees for the Emmy for best comedy show were The Bob Cummings Show, The Danny Thomas Show, The Jack Benny Show, The Red Skelton Show, The Phil Silvers Show and Father Knows Best.) When a script did turn its attention to the wife, daughter, or mother, it was frequently to remind her of her place, and the importance of letting boys win. On Father Knows Best younger daughter Kathy was counseled by her Dad on how to deliberately lose a ballgame. Teenage daughter Betty found happiness when she agreed to stop competing with a male student for a junior executive job at the local department store, and settled for the more gender-appropriate task of modeling bridal dresses.

In dramatic series, women stood on the sidelines, looking worried. When Betty Friedan asked why there couldn't be a female lead in Mr. Novak – which was, after all, a series about a high school teacher – she said the producer explained: "For drama, there has to be action, conflict. … For a woman to make decisions, to triumph over anything, would be unpleasant, dominant, masculine." Later in the decade, the original Star Trek series would feature a story about a woman so desperate to become a starship captain – a post apparently restricted to men – that she arranged to have her brain transferred into Captain Kirk's body. The crew quickly noticed that the captain was manicuring his nails at the helm and having hysterics over the least little thing.

Cowboy action series were the best-loved TV entertainment in 1960. Eleven of the top 25 shows were Westerns, and they underlined the rule that women did not have adventures, except the ones that involved getting kidnapped or caught in a natural disaster. "Women used to be the big stars, but these days it's men," said Michael Landon, one of the leads in Bonanza, the long-running story of an all-male family living on a huge Nevada ranch after the Civil War. Perhaps to underline their heterosexuality, the Cartwright men had plenty of romances. But the scriptwriters killed their girlfriends off at an extraordinarily speedy clip. The family patriarch, Ben, had been widowed three times, and his three sons all repeatedly got married or engaged, only to quickly lose their mates to the grim reaper. A rather typical episode began with Joe (Landon) happily dancing with a new fiancée. Before the first commercial, the poor girl was murdered on her way home from the hoedown.

"All the men become lawyers and all the women work on committees"

TV created the impression that once married, a woman literally never left her house. If the viewers knew that really wasn't true, many did accept the message that when matrimony began, working outside the home ended. In reality, however, by 1960 there were as many women working as there had been at the peak of World War II, and the vast majority of them were married. (Young single adult women were, as we'll see, as rare as female action heroes at this point in history.) More than 30 percent of American wives were holding down jobs, including almost 40 percent of those with school-age children.

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