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You'll Never Guess Which Liberal Darling Told College Women They Should Be "Humble" Housewives

Was a man once the "spokesman of democratic liberalism" also a spokesman for sexism?
 
 
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I cast my first vote for Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and worked in his campaign, knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes, and typing names on index cards—the 1950s version of Big Data. You have to be old to have voted for Stevenson or even to remember him, but you might recall what your parents or grandparents had to say. They probably had strong opinions. Stevenson was a hero to a certain cohort, perhaps because he differed so dramatically in outlook and style from most politicians of that era—Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, John Foster Dulles, Joseph McCarthy. To another cohort, though, he was a pinko liberal or even a Communist, as well as an egghead (I think the term was coined for him, a balding intellectual).

J. Edgar Hoover, who should have known better, spread the word that Stevenson was gay, but that’s not likely. He was divorced when he ran for president—a problem on the campaign trail—but rarely without a female companion. Unlike so many successful politicians of his day and ours, he was not at all macho, and also not very tall (another campaign problem). Stevenson was an elegant, cosmopolitan man who used big words and tried to appeal to the best, not the worst, in his listeners. Notably, he stood up against the mindless anti-Communism of the times—the brutality and vulgarity of McCarthy, Hoover, and their ilk. He was an internationalist. He presented himself as a rueful, ambivalent figure who didn’t like the clamor of public life, but believed profoundly in public service. That’s the Adlai Stevenson I remember, a long-gone hero who died too soon—in 1965, at 65 years of age.

When I reread Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique a while ago, I was dismayed by its quotes from a commencement address Stevenson gave at Smith College in 1955. He told the graduates that “Women, especially educated women, have a unique opportunity to influence us, man and boy.” No matter how frustrated they might be by a

"sense of contraction, of closing horizons and lost opportunities . . . women 'never had it so good' as you . . . This assignment for you, as wives and mothers, you can do in the living room with a baby in your lap or in the kitchen with a can opener in your hand . . . there is much you can do . . . in the humble role of housewife. I could wish you no better vocation."

He apparently foresaw no other opportunities for the graduates. Was this just the usual gender-talk of the 1950s? It seemed worse, especially, as Friedan said, from “the spokesman of democratic liberalism.”

I know a lot about gender-talk in the 1950s: I was there. (Although come to think of it, we didn’t exactly have gender in the 1950s.) Stevenson’s words certainly fit the tenor of the times; in fact they fit it all too well. I was disappointed; I thought he should have done better than average. Hoping the quotes had been taken out of context, I went online and found a longer excerpt from the address, reprinted by The Women’s Home Companion later that year. It was no better; in fact, it was worse, because there was more of the same.

Still—maybe that was out of context too. I turned to Princeton, where Stevenson’s papers are held, and they sent me a copy of the typescript of the entire address. Stevenson was notorious for working on his speeches up to and sometimes past the time they were due to be delivered, and the typescript is heavily edited by the author. He made additions and subtractions and underlined certain words and phrases to remind himself of emphasis: “an assignment to address several hundred young, charming, feminine eggheads, while exhilerating (no spell-check in those days!) is also a little disquieting.”