The modern/antiquarian and very long history of the subjugation, control and disenfranchisement of women slips not so silently into the present here in the USA; elsewhere around the world this idea isn’t so “antiquarian” at all and this presence is heavier still. The morality of the capacity that restricts access to education, and voting, and access to work, and equal rights in the control of a family, seems slow in catching up to modernity.
This concept of control struck home again while looking through a selection of CBS documents on the state of radio in 1938. They seemed benign though ruthless in what they were trying to accomplish: a simple objective and complex way of reaching it—the sale of advertising on the radio. Looking for comparisons between radio and the rest of the information-control market, I came upon thin volume entitled What’s Happening in Daytime Radio?, which for the most part was taking an historic early stab at directing advertising at the women who were evidently relentlessly following the soft romantic exploits of some of the fifty or so “soaps” that were broadcast in 1938. (These very mild romantic adventures were called so because of the soaps and detergents that sponsored and advertised on these shows, directed of course at the target female audience.) The opening section started “The Women (God Bless ‘em)”, wound its way through every manner of inferiority-inducing female imagery: “the women, god bless ‘em, are not always chatterboxes. They do like to listen. And listen carefully. They do what they’re told…by radio.” It is still shocking though, in an odd way, not at all surprising, to see this sort of copy printed at the highest levels, and taking place within the lifetime of my still extraordinarily full-of-life mother.
In this same pile was another bleak remembrancer of the still-alive past, The Perfect Secretary, a bleak messenger from 1938. In addition to the de facto class and sexual regulation of the structure of the business world and the woman’s hardly-existent role in its formulation, we are introduced to the concept the most basic mechanisms and elements of the control of a subjugated group. The pamphlet attempted to conform the personality and character of the woman to her job as secretary. The unannounced writer states that “it would be a mistake to overlook the importance of the personality of a secretary. What makes personality? Manners and dress produce personality.” He then moves on to specify the fat middle of the correct mode of dress, reminding the secretary or secretary-to-be that it was not only the “slovenly, unkempt” girl who lacked personality, but also the overdressed girl was well “who adopted the undignified style of costume”. But correct dress and coifed hair wasn’t enough: “with poise there is no personality”. (“An attractively dressed girl without poise is unfortunate.”) “Conspicuously colored nail polish is not becoming to a secretary in the better offices.” “Flippant and unreliable manners bury the finest personalities.” And lastly, “it is one of the first duties of a secretary in an office to be ever conscious of avoiding body odors”. There are another 34 pages of correctnesses that follow, to painful to specify. These attempts at control at the most basic level of a person’s identity were “normal” for their time, and a remarkable testament to advances (thus far) in equalizing the world of men and women.
“When we consider the positive evil caused to the disqualified half of the human race by their disqualification — first in the loss of the most inspiriting and elevating kind of personal enjoyment, and next in the weariness, disappointment, and profound dissatisfaction with life, which are so often the substitute for it; one feels that among all the lessons which men require for carrying on the struggle against the inevitable imperfections of their lot on earth, there is no lesson which they more need, than not to add to the evils which nature inflicts, by their jealous and prejudiced restrictions on one another. Their vain fears only substitute other and worse evils for those which they are idly apprehensive of: while every restraint on the freedom of conduct of any of their human fellow-creatures (otherwise than by making them responsible for any evil actually caused by it), dries up pro tanto the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being.” John Stuart Mill, The Subjugation of Women, 1869