1964: The Great Society?

1964: The Great Society?

Over the past few weeks I’ve been teaching a continuing education class for a group of retirees at a local college. The topic of the sessions is “1964: The Great Society?” It’s been a learning experience for me because I was a student at a small Southern college in 1964 and blissfully unaware of much of what was going on outside the confines of the campus. The only televisions I had access to were in the common room of my dorm and in the student center. I was not alone, apparently. One woman in the group said she was at the University of Michigan and heard President Johnson’s Great Society speech at her graduation, but she realizes now that she knew nothing of what was happening outside Ann Arbor.

The series comes at an important moment in my life. In 1964 I was 19, in my last year as a teenager. This year, obviously, I’m 69, in my last year as a sexagenarian. It’s been fascinating to look back at my world and myself fifty years ago. We’ve both changed a lot, thankfully.

One thing I’ve come to appreciate from presenting this series is how profoundly sexist our society was in 1964. And it started with children. Everyone knows Barbie, of course, and G. I. Joe (who was introduced in 1964), but have you ever heard of the Milton Bradley games “POW” and “WOW”? Or, as they were advertised, “POW for boys and WOW for girls!” Both games involved hurling a small projectile over a barricade and knocking down an opponent’s pieces on the other side. In POW the projectile was a cannonball and the targets were soldiers. In WOW the projectiles were pillows and the scene was a pillow fight between two groups of girls. See it for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T71Qf-KfkJQ

A Lux commercial from that year began with a man’s voice crooning, “A woman’s born to softness, and that’s the way it is, a soft and magic creature some man will call his.” Or consider the Buick commercial that calls the car a machine that “a woman can admire and enjoy to the fullest but only a man can understand.” When I hear that crap, I can understand Betty Friedan’s anger (The Feminine Mystique came out in 1963.)

The popular TV shows of that era reinforced this sexist attitude by making women disappear or be less than they could be. On “Bonanza,” “My Three Sons,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Flipper,” and “The Farmer’s Daughter” you had widowed fathers raising a total of eleven sons—not a daughter in the lot. And Ben Cartwright had buried three wives, with one son from each of them. Today the police would be looking more closely at that situation, I think. He could have hidden a lot on that huge ranch.

Samantha on “Bewitched” was an immensely powerful, several-hundred-year-old woman who gave up that status to marry “Durwood,” as her mother called him. She promised not to use her magical powers, but she often had to in order to be a dutiful wife. Above all she had to keep her identity secret from other mortals. Jeannie on “I Dream of Jeannie” would face the same dilemma in 1965.

Those shows are familiar to everybody, but in preparing for these presentations I came across another show from 1964 in which a woman’s identity had to be hidden. “My Living Doll” starred Bob Cummings and Julie Newmar, created by the folks who did “My Favorite Martian.” The show is almost unknown today because most of the master copies were destroyed in a fire. It lasted only one season, leaving Newmar free to play Catwoman on “Batman.” The rather flimsy premise was that Newmar was an android, AF709, made for the Air Force, but her creator didn’t want the Air Force to be able to use her powers. When he was transferred, he left AF709 with Cummings, a psychologist. Cummings was supposed to protect her identity and teach her how to be human. At one point he tells her she “could be the perfect woman: one who does what she’s told, reacts the way you want her to react, and knows when to keep her mouth shut.” I don’t expect you to believe me, so take a look at a clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gWxyz0XemA

Ah, yes, who doesn’t want to go back to that Great Society? No wonder Leslie Gore was singing “You Don’t Own Me.”

I never learned such sexist attitudes because my mother gave me a completely different model for what a woman could be. She was the first woman in her family to go to college. She started working in a department store when I was eleven, and she worked until just a few months before she died. I remember telling her one morning, when I was in the tenth grade, that I needed a shirt ironed for school. She said, “You know where the ironing board is.” Her great ambition in life was to own a motorcycle. In her 60s she finally bought a Moped. I can still see my kids clinging to her as she rode them around the neighborhood.

We can’t go back in time, of course, but if we could, 1964 is not a year I would set on the dial of the time machine. I don’t want to be 19 again, and I wouldn’t want to live in a world where people thought the way they did then. Once was enough.

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3 Responses

  1. Albert, I remember those days vividly. I was in high school and the guidance counselors automatically steered female students to the teaching profession. I recall one of my classmates in junior high saying, as a group of us discussed what we wanted to be when we grew up, that it was silly to talk that way because once we got married we’d have to give up our jobs and take care of our husbands and children. I remember thinking, “No, I won’t!” Plus the very prevalent and blatant racism of the time. I’m old enough that I remember growing up in Oklahoma in the 1950s, going to segregated schools and seeing “colored” restrooms.A lot of that was still going on in 1964.

  2. Janet, you’re right. Even though the Civil Rights Act was signed on July 2, 1964, racism was still pervasive. I was at the Univ. of South Carolina in the fall of 1963 when the first African American students were admitted. Things went better than they did at Ole Miss or Alabama, but it wasn’t easy for them. And we can never forget Freedom Summer in Mississippi and the murders of the three civil rights workers.

  3. My primary memory of 1964 is the onslaught of the Beatles and the British bands who made such a difference to the music of the time and as we now know to music forever.

    I do remember being deeply disturbed by my family’s assumption my function was to clean up after my three brothers. That secondary status made a significant impact on me for my entire life. They had to change their ways after they married, I noticed.

    The racial unrest of the period forced many many people to revise their thinking or pretend to revise their thinking about job suitability and qualifications. It was a pivotal time, no question.

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