50s: Gender in the Fifties

We were taught to respect women. Even back in those gender-restrained days, as we grew up, Dad was never disrespectful to women. Not when he was alone with his boys, and — we knew — not when he was alone with his friends. If there is such a thing as “locker room talk,” which became a thing in 2016, there wasn’t in our house. Nobody commented on physical attributes of women, so the most you’d ever hear was that some movie star was “sexy.” We were taught to open doors and pull out chairs for women, although not to hold them to the forced gender roles. Ladies first was taken for granted. 

When I started noticing girls as girls, they were magic, worthy of awe. Touching, or holding hands, connected me to their glow. They were soft to the touch and smelled like spring and flowers. They were different from us boys in all the best possible ways, alluring. And they were better. Higher beings. 

Love for us elementary school kids was a platonic “going steady” that started in the third grade for me, with Nancy Pershing. The other kids knew about it and respected it. It meant nothing more than an extra smile at odd times and partnering up during the square dance sessions in PE. Jane Trowbridge and Penny Tie in fourth, fifth, and sixth. 

And it also meant relating to the love songs they played on KYA, the rock station of the Bay Area. Earth AngelDream LoverYou Send Me, in my radio at night, with me dreaming of holding hands when we weren’t doing square dancing in PE. 

A lot of the oddities of gender from the fifties seem horribly out of place as I write this in 2020. 

Girls didn’t do sports. Not the cool girls. They could maybe do field hockey, but that was about it. Only boys rode their bikes to school, plus the occasional oddball girl who was not cool. 

Women were generally expected to be nurses, teachers, secretaries, waitresses, or retail salesclerks and cashiers. 

Mom, although she lived the stereotype, objected to the tight gender roles whenever she got a chance. Later in life, after we grew up, she resented her role as housewife and wished she’d had a career. She never wanted Martha to be pigeonholed. 

Mom and Dad taught us to believe in equality, ending segregation, civil rights laws, integrated schools.  But the blacks were in the Fillmore and Hunter’s Point in San Francisco and East Palo Alto, and we never went there. We also avoided the so-called “Mexican” neighborhoods in Mountain View.  The fear of the other was unspoken, in the background. Prejudice and bigotry weren’t allowed in our house, but then our house was in a lily-white suburb. 

For more about gender, then and now, there’s a password protected piece on some related issues, in my section on reflections.