Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

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Sex-Ed Advice Books: "For Girls Only" and Other Memories

Culture has always demanded girls perform a series of emotional high-wire acts

As a kid, I searched desperately for instruction on something called the “mysteries of womanhood.”  I tried to find answers where I usually found them: in the pages of books. My local library had one titled For Girl’s Only. It was old but I didn't care; the librarian let me take it out and that was all I wanted. Written by male pediatrician Frank Howard Richardson, and first published in 1953, it had been reprinted many times by the time I was skidding into puberty–almost a dozen year after its initial publication. But I was so busy searching for a pattern I was grateful even for one that seemed laughably outdated.

I recently found a tattered copy of For Girls Only and reread it. Some of the questions are ones we’re still asking. What rights do parents have over the tastes, behaviors, and personalities of their children? What loyalties are due to various communities, especially if these communities are at odds with each other? Finally, what the hell is heavy petting? 

In a rather moving chapter on learning to negotiate the emotional labyrinths set up between mother and daughter, the author suggests girls need to temper their inner voices of resistance, petulance, narcissism, and rebellion in order to work within the structure of the relationship.  It doesn’t matter how old you are, or whether your mom is still around–the emphasis on mother/daughter relationships remains significant in women’s lives.

In many respects, the world had shifted on its axis between 1953–when the book was written–and 1965–when I found it in the library. The rules, guidelines, morals and definitions of nearly everything having to do with sexuality, courtship and expectations for adult life had been rewritten. 

Just think about it: In 1953, Queen Elizabeth II received the crown at Westminster Abbey and requested that the ceremony be broadcast on television; it was the first coronation ever to be televised. The young Queen’s media breakthrough was the most grand but it was not 1953’s only big TV moment for women. Seventy onen percent of all television sets in the United States had been tuned to I Love Lucy when, in January, Lucy Ricardo was the first television character to portray giving birth. 

Birth control via The Pill was still a gleam in the scientific eye: While chemists in Illinois were synthesizing early version of it in 1953, it wasn’t until 1965 that married women in America could get prescriptions from their doctors. It took another seven years and a lot of highly publicized and fiercely debated court cases for unmarried women even to have access to oral contraceptives.  

In 1953, terms of movie fantasy girls could choose between Peter Pan, who doesn’t want to grow up, and his Island of Lost Boys, or Marlon Brando, who doesn’t want to grow up, and his motorcycle gang of lost boys. Both Disney’s Pan and Brando’s “The Wild Ones” came out in ’53. 

The struggle towards emotional and sexual independence for women was in the air. Although published ten years later, Sylvia Plath sets her bestselling novel, The Bell Jar in 1953. Intelligent, creative, witty and bitter, Esther’s discontent with her “dream” life as the girl who has everything (a coveted summer job at a glamorous magazine, friends, a serious boyfriend and other admirers, and even a benefactress) is far less fulfilling than it appears at first glance. Esther comes to the recognition that she “Never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colors arrows from a Fourth of July Rocket.”

It wasn’t just Esther who wanted to change and excitement, either. 1953 also saw the publication of the Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Kinsey reported, to the shock of many readers, that 30 percent of American females had lost their virginity by age 23. 

And is it really a surprise that 1953 was also the year the first issue of Playboy was published? Its first centerfold featured a nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe, taken before she had become 1953’s blockbuster celebrity–in that year alone, she starred in two hit films, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. It was regarded as celebration of boobs, buttocks and cheerful dirty-mindedness.

The models in Playboy were portrayed not as professional prostitutes or denizens of low rent, highly dangerous, or otherworldly neighborhoods but were instead presented as the girl next door. If, that is, the girl next door was built like a burlesque queen and willing to undo her ruffled blouse.

What was a girl to do?

Dr. Richardson's suggestion that "a warm handshake good night" would be seen as quite enough physical contact was quickly going out of style by the time I read the book in 1965.

Yet the author gets credit for making a distinction between the days when young women from good families would be permitted out with young men exclusively in the presence of a chaperone, and he gets points for addressing the difference between hypocrisy and ignorance. 

The mothers and grandmothers preceding this generation of girls were often so entirely unaware of what went on in their own bodies, and so ill-informed about even the anatomy of the men that they would sometimes marry and be told nothing about the sexual act they would be expected to perform on their wedding night.  Richardson’s book is, therefore, remarkable in its emphasis on behavior and its consequences.

Rather than emphasizing how a girl feels about sex, it emphasizes behavior. By refusing to see girls as helpless bystanders to their own destiny, but instead insisting that they accept responsibility for the choices that they make, For Girls Only encourages its readers to embrace a sense of autonomy.

Finally, one of the happy surprises I rediscovered in For Girls Only is its emphasis not on artifice or coquetry, but on honesty and straightforwardness. To help girls guard against the fear that they are unlike anyone else is a way to help them guard against the trap of exclusivity: the adolescent's perpetual fear of exile can, as every adult knows, be a step towards exile.   Richardson’s book still resonates–he communicates what is still recognizable in our culture today. Only what can be heard and reproduced can have an echo; it’s the only thing that can last after its own moment.

Historically, our culture has always asked girls to perform a series of high-wire acts–where they have to balance between finding a genuine sense of self without falling either into the safety net (putting them out of the game) or plunging into the depths of sexual experience (leading to misery or exclusion from the marriage market). Richardson offers a reprieve by offering perspective: "Of course I can’t grow up all at once. Of course I shall make mistakes, and wish I hadn’t" is something every girl should be able to say to herself.

Good advice remains good advice.

 

 

 

Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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