Friday, October 21, 2011

Boswell Memorial Lecture at William and Mary traces and shows evolution of older ideas about marriage and family values, especially for southern women

On  Oct. 21, 2011, William and Mary GALA started uts 25th Anniversary Celebration with a Boswell Memorial Lecture (named after the famous historian on the subject of homosexuality and Christianity) with speaker Susan Cahn, Professor of History from the State University of New York at Buffalo, titled “Reading, ‘Riting, Rhythm and Romance: Southern Girls and Sexual Politics”.  

The lecture was held in Washington Hall, the languages department, on Jamestown Rd at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA.  The room was a typical stadium lecture hall, but I can recall taking English 101 in a smaller room in that Hall in that lost semester of fall, 1961, when we read T.S. Eliot and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", with the instructor's saying frankly that it was a poem about sexual impotence (greatly dreaded in that era), and later "The Art of Loving" by Erich Fromm, with all that criticism of psychological "symbiosis" (no mention yet of "polarities").

The presentation-lecture was accompanied by many historical still photographs, like those in a Ken Burns documentary, particularly of old animations or cartoons that showed the animus toward desegregation in the South before and throughout the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. (So, no this was not a lecture about Miss Scarlet – how she had it, lost it and got it back, and then lost Rhett—again.) 

 These pictures reminded one also of the old “filmstrips” that used to be shown in elementary schools in the 1950s to teach social studies.  One cartoon in particular, dated around 1950, showed a woman saying she saw nothing wrong with integration in public schools, and then traced the “argument” to “inevitable” mixed dating and mixed marriage, and mixed grandchildren, and then a final frame about “our enemies”.  The cartoon had originated in Union County, NJ.  

But there were also other slides of high schools, such as  school buses and proms, in the segregated south in the 1950s. 

Women worked during the WWII effort, of course, but for a while after WWII returned to homemaking. But in the early 1950s, employment opportunities gradually expanded for women, as they had even during the industrial revolution. Some families (both white and black) feared that they would not have grandchildren as daughters slowly returned to the workplace, even before Betty Friedan.  Families got fussy about demanding loyalty of their kids to family goals, and both the lack of marriage or marrying the wrong “kind” (race), or premarital sex—all of these were seen as sinking families. 

I can recall a Ladies Home Journal article around 1957 that complained that too many women went to college and asked the question, “whom would you rather have a college degree, you or your husband?”  Sputnik could change that attitude real fast.

The lecture demonstrated a problem with our use of "logic" in social issues. We assume a result is bad based on ideas that have no grounding in science. Furthermore, we assume that a harmless action by a single person will, if permitted, lead to a situation where others copy the action and the end result is the "harmful" collective situation. 

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