150 Years Of The Atlantic June 2006

Women’s Empowerment

This is the fifth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Terry Castle, a professor of English at Stanford. Her books include The Apparitional Lesbian and Courage, Mon Amie
October 1957

In 1957, Helen Hill Miller, a Washington, D.C.-based writer and a correspondent for The Economist, considered the social and psychological obstacles facing women attempting to forge careers in science.

When the Atlantic was started, women scientists were next to unknown …

Much of the time and energy of women who entered the scientific professions in the nineteenth century was spent in either contriving to take barriers gracefully or crashing into them with results demolishing sometimes the woman, sometimes the barrier …

To many a pioneer who came up the hard way, the lot of the science majors of the class of 1957 who are entering advanced study or employment this autumn seems a very easy one. This does not mean, however, that all bars are down. A few “No Admittance” signs are still posted: for instance, use of the 200-inch telescope at Mount Palomar is denied to women astronomers, on the ground that living facilities on the mountain are inadequate, though the 120-inch instrument at near-by Lick Observatory is unrestricted. Similarly, some industrial corporations still refuse to hire women engineers, on the ground that living conditions in the field are difficult …

Other types of restriction remain. One is the counsel that many young girls get when making up their minds about entering a profession. Interviewed in his private machine shop among boulders and birches at Belmont, Massachusetts, Dr. Vannevar Bush [the renowned pioneer in analog computing] credited folklore with much of the reluctance of women to attempt disciplines based on logic, such as mathematics and physics. Promising youngsters, he remarked, are frequently scared off by the declaration: “Girls aren’t good at math.” Some girls, he believes, can be very good at it. Dean Gordon B. Carson of Ohio State’s College of Engineering concurs: “There is still some social stigma and question in the high schools of the nation when girls major in the scientific-mathematics portion of the high school curriculum” …

The two-way stretch of a home and a job, during at least part of a married woman’s life, is undeniable. To solve this highly personal problem without quitting requires finding an employing institution that can accommodate itself to maternity leave, part-time employment, sudden emergencies. It requires a family in accord with the effort. It requires finding, for at least part of the time when the children are young, another woman who can relieve the scientist of the necessity of being in two places at the same time. And it requires a certain philosophy about scientific attainment: in today’s competitive conditions, continuity of work is almost indispensable if one is to get as far as one might be able to go—as Vannevar Bush puts it, “Getting to the top on part time is doggone tough.”

Volume 200, No. 4, pp. 123–128

June 1961

Two years before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique articulated “the problem that has no name,” novelist and essayist Nora Johnson considered the frustrations of the well-educated homemaker.

Probably every educated wife has found herself staring at a mountain of dirty diapers and asking herself desperately, “Is this all there is?” And at the same time she is embarrassed by her dissatisfaction; she, of all people, with her intelligence and realistic view of life, should be able to rise above it. But the paradox is that it is she who is least able to. She lives for a better day. Things will be easier when this baby is born, or that one toilet-trained, or the children are all in school; and she will have time to be pretty and intelligent and young again. The mistake is in thinking that everything is going to solve itself by magic. What our girl must do, as she stares at the diapers, is to accept some of the truths about marriage and motherhood that her education and society conspired to keep from her, and go on from there. And if she would appreciate what she has, she must do it now, not next year or five years from now.

The first truth is that marriage does not automatically equal security and contentment. An unmarried friend of mine told me once that she did not see how any problem in marriage could be as bad as one outside of it, because if you had your man, anything else could be easily straightened out. We had a long argument about whether the heart sank more over a sick child or a departed boy friend, and neither of us won. She is one of a good many girls who think that three dates a week, secretarial jobs, and the responsibility of keeping themselves clothed are a nerve-shattering, frantic business, and who look forward to marriage and motherhood as a long, relaxing rest cure. “Getting married and settling down” is a valid notion for men, as it has been throughout history, but not for potential mothers. The day the doctor confirms one’s pregnancy is the day to start bracing oneself for the really hard work. (I cannot convince my unmarried friends of this, but, of course, that is as it should be, or many babies might never be born.)

The truth is that, with the birth of the first child … from that moment on, mama is no longer the center of attention; the baby is … The business of life is starting now, and every day of mama’s life proves it to be so. And here her struggle starts. She wants to give everything to the baby; she wants equally to hold on to herself, her intelligence and uniqueness, while the baby constantly tries her patience, her strength, her nerves, and roots out of her the deepest emotions she has ever known in her life. This is a whole new process, and not one that provides built-in security …

A girl does not need a college education to take care of babies and keep house … It is the simple, nerve-wracking, mindless, battering-ram process of trying to teach a savage to use a fork. It requires bloodless patience, a deadly will, enormous physical stamina, and a stable disposition, but no precision instruments. It takes strength and determination.

For the fact is that motherhood makes the heaviest demands in what might be called the areas of least experience. I would be surprised if there were a single college-educated mother who has not been struck by the total uselessness of her liberal education when it comes to housewifery. Instead of distilling pearls of knowledge from a large body of facts, she must now master a whole new set of domestic facts: how to roast a chicken, remove gum from the rug, take a child’s temperature, keep the shine on the Sheraton table, iron a blouse, or even change a tire or build a bookcase. Some of these necessities are positively shocking. The care of dirty diapers and the job of keeping the oven clean call for a strong-minded unfastidiousness; even more does the whole process of having a baby, which is certainly nature at its rawest.

Volume 207, No. 6, pp. 38–42

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