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How the Sexual Revolution Changed America Forever

With a little pharmaceutical ingenuity, the double standard relaxed its clawing grip on female humanity.

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Before the revolution, the whims of men determined the reputation, if not the fate, of women; female desire was contained within the closet of marriage; and men retained their traditional sexual privileges and discreetly enjoyed their sexual liberties. After the revolution, women, if they so chose, could dispense with men, or with marriage altogether, without giving up sex or children or a lifetime loving relationship. Of course, most women continued to love men, marry men, and have children with men. The point, however, was that for the first time in human history, women had a choice.

In a desperate effort to stop cultural change in its tracks, the critics of the new sexual order accused the sexual revolutionaries of destroying the traditional American family. They had their cause and effect reversed. By the time the revolution in sexual mores gained steam, the nuclear family was already in an advanced state of fission from the reactive force of its soul-bending emotional demands and outdated economic arrangements. Deprived of the coercive power of the law and public opinion, the sexual traditionalists took refuge in a myth.

The so-called traditional family of midcentury America was itself an invented tradition, with only a spotty historical pedigree. All proper families, according to this ideal, were made up of a working father, a homemaking child-focused mother, and two to four children, preferably residing in a suburban single-family home. Pets were common, grandparents and extended family less so. In previous eras, only the urban, educated, Protestant upper class could afford to live by this ideal.

Postwar prosperity, however, underwrote nuclear family proliferation for all—or almost all. The twenty years after the end of the Second World War in America were utterly unique in world history. Never before had the masses of ordinary people lived in such material comfort; never before had families in the midst of their childrearing years had disposable income; never before could they look forward to an old age of plenty and security. A white working man generally earned enough to buy a house; support his wife to stay at home minding the kids and running the appliances; send the boys and even the girls to college; pay for vacations, while allowing him to retire while he still had his wits and strength about him. (African American families, because of legal segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North, were left out of the postwar nuclear family compact. The wages of black men remained low, and black wives and mothers typically worked for wages as well. Poor Americans, of which there were millions, were left out as well.) In 1960, sixty-two percent of Americans owned their own homes. Two-thirds of all white women—not just those with children at home—did not work out- side the home. Families were large, larger than they had been since the nineteenth century. Elderly parents retired on their Social Security checks, instead of inside the homes of their adult children. Father Knows Best wasn’t quite reality-TV, but for white middle-class Americans, it wasn’t far that off.

After experiencing fifteen years of economic depression and war, most men and women were more than happy to sign up for the new traditionalism, the suburban lifestyle, and female domesticity. Still, politicians, teachers, medical experts, business leaders, journalists, and intellectuals worked hard to make sure the offer was one few women would refuse. In 1957, nine out of ten Americans thought any person who chose not to marry was either “sick,” “neurotic,” or “immoral.” A national best seller made the case that it was dangerous to allow single women to teach young children and called for a nationwide ban on their employment. More than half of American women were married by the middle of their twentieth year; those that were not married by the age of twenty-five were viewed as damaged goods, to be avoided or pitied. Employers paid women less than men and refused to hire them in jobs considered men’s work, in a practice that was perfectly legal because it was presumed to be perfectly natural. Even in cases in which a job was theoretically open to women, American women were grossly ill-prepared for most of those well-paying ones. In 1961, only 8 percent of women were college graduates. Only 2 percent of law degrees, 4 percent of MBAs, and 6 percent of medical degrees were conferred on women. In the year President John F. Kennedy announced the nation would put a man on the moon, most young American women dreamed of marrying by age twenty-one, quitting work, and having four children.