Some Words from Sylvia Plath and Betty Friedan's Forgotten Sister

Before The Bell Jar and The Feminine Mystique, another young Smith College grad had some sharp words for the cookie-cutter lives American women were expected to lead.

Flickr/Wikimedia/The Atlantic

Thinkpieces about young American women written by young American women have a long, storied history, and the pages of The Atlantic Monthly were no exception. "The modern American female is one of the most discussed, written-about, sore subjects to come along in ages," author Nora Johnson wrote in her 1957 essay "Sex and the College Girl." "She has been said to be domineering, frigid, neurotic, repressed, and unfeminine. She tries to do everything at once and doesn't succeed in doing anything very well."

Written when Johnson was a 24-year-old graduate of Smith College, the essay articulates a dilemma faced by many young, college-educated American women: how to handle the fraught act of sex during a postwar-era when women faced both the blooming of new possibilities (namely a career outside of the home), and the expectation to also remain perfectly, traditionally feminine—that is, marry, have children, and run a household.

As a 24-year-old college graduate myself, I can't in truth say the same pressures (minus maybe the career bit) apply to me. But this feeling of foreignness isn't a novelty; there's nothing quaint or remote about the problems Johnson describes. Whatever personal distance lies between me and this essay is closed quickly by empathy, an abiding sense of appreciation for the feminists who came before, and an understanding of the endemic hardships faced today by women around the world.

The sentiments in Johnson's essay echoed—or slightly prefigured—many of those captured in Betty Friedan’s explosive The Feminine Mystique, which was published more than five years later. But the same year Johnson’s essay appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Friedan, who was about a decade older, visited former classmates of her alma mater (also Smith College) for a 15th reunion survey. As she had suspected, when she peered beneath the suburban patina, Friedan found rampant, wordless dissatisfaction. Then, she referred to this unhappiness as “the problem that has no name.” It doesn’t take much to see the overlaps between Friedan’s writing and Johnson’s. Early in the The Feminine Mystique, Friedan laments how women “were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents.”

As much as Johnson’s words seem telegraphed in The Feminine Mystique, there’s another writer whose life and thoughts feel even closer in kin. One of those "neurotic ... unhappy women" who wrote poetry, Sylvia Plath was a fellow graduate of Smith and sometime-Atlantic writer who overlapped with Johnson and who died a mere week before Friedan’s book came out. In her semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar, published in the UK a month before her death, Plath gave modern American literature its most memorable, apt, and beautifully distressing images of the deep anxiety felt by women newly awakened to a full spectrum of opportunities and who, somehow and impossibly, were expected to seize them all:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor … and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions … and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

This paralyzing sense of urgency and inability to choose—at least in manners regarding sex and its attendant implications about a woman’s entire life—is borne partly of education, Johnson argued. “[The educated American woman] has been told that she is a valuable commodity, that only efficiency will allow her to utilize all her possibilities.” The only way to survive under such pressures, such a woman learns, is to keep a “safety catch”:

There must always be something held in reserve, a part of her that she will give to no one, not even her husband. It is her belief in herself, modern version, and the determination to protect that belief. It is the vision of possibility which remains long after she is mature enough to accept the eventual, gradual limitation of the things that will happen to her in life. It is the dream of the things she never did.

Whether framed as “the dream of the things she never did” or the rotten fig tree, the threat of psychic erasure and the ever-looming specter of failure followed these women and many others in the late 1950s. Both Plath and Johnson left college to become writers and wives and mothers (Johnson, now in her eighties, was already married with a daughter by the time she wrote “Sex and the College Girl.") But both were also among an increasingly vocal group of women tired of silence and smiles, of figuring out when and for how long to be appropriately sexless, of censoring their dreams and trying not to look, in Johnson’s words, too far “beyond the casserole and the playpen.” Before The Bell Jar and The Feminine Mystique, Johnson went on to publish two more pieces in The Atlantic Monthly: "The Captivity of Marriage" and "A Marriage on the Rocks."

Of course, the kinds of beliefs and social priorities that dominated 1960s feminist conversation were imperfect and incomplete. But as an essay that helped feed the rise of second-wave feminism, Johnson’s piece sensitively distills problems that many women’s publications at the time were leery of printing, and its existence is a fact worthy of celebration or, at the very least, gratitude.