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Marriage in the 1950s

Updated: Jan 17

Always interested in matters of women's health and as you know, an avid collector of antique books, I pulled A Marriage Manual off my shelves this afternoon, published in 1953. The subtitle is A Practical Guidebook to Sex and Marriage so I am eager to dig into the reality of this time. What were the expectations of women within the institute of #marriage? How much has changed? What remains the same or maybe, what wisdom might each of us gain from the older generation?


This little book of about 300 pages is authored by two physicians, one male and one female. She was a medical director at the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau and Marriage Consultation Center in a New York Community Church and he was a clinical professor of preventive medicine at New York University College of Medicine and was the vice-president of the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau and Marriage Consultation Center.


This particular book was first published in 1935 and was reprinted 29 times, so it must have certainly resonated with the times. The forward shares that it is recommended in many colleges and universities so what are its main ideals?



Well, the first chapter starts with dialogue between a newly #engaged couple and their physician, "No, we have no particular problems, but we just feel that we know too little about marriage in general."


The couple admit to not having had physical exams, nor reading much on the topic of marriage, for which the physician scolds them for waiting so long as they should have come in well before the final stages of preparation for marriage to determine their fitness for marriage. The physician then answers their question regarding the standards of fitness for marriage and the physician responds, "There really are no absolute norms or criteria of suitability for marriage. As in other fields, fitness implies the ability to meet the necessary requirements or purposes. The standards of fitness, therefore, depend upon what we consider the objects of marriage to be."


They then talk about the objectives of marriage, concluding that the main motives are "love and companionship, sexual intimacy and procreation - in our culture at least." They also share their desire for a secure and stable relationship and the physician responds that "under present social and legal conditions this type of relationship can be achieved only through marriage."


Can you imagine your sense of self, your sense of security coming from marriage as if your purpose in life is to find that person beyond yourself that allows you safety, most especially for women. Women in the 1950s were not allowed to make contracts or wills, could not buy or sell property, had little control over their earnings in most situations, and were discouraged from acting politically, such as holding office, even though they could vote. Women's rights were minimal.


Marriage also provided the social, legal, and moral sanctions for a sexual relationship. If you wanted to mate, you must wed. The text states this certainly wasn't the object of marriage, but more so the "intent was to insure the survival of the species and of the race."


Man has been the Provider and Woman the Preparer


When evaluating fitness for marriage then, the man must be able to provide for the family. Certainly we know that primitive tribes wouldn't allow men to even seek a wife until they have first proved their skills and courage, and in South African tribes had to first kill big game such as a jaguar - and if he killed five jaguars, he could marry five women. Other tribes such as the Inuit, it is said that they required the man demonstrate he could not only provide for his wife and future kids, but also his in-laws.


Interestingly, this good doctor admitted that the gap is widening, even seventy years ago, where a man becomes mature enough for marriage but not yet financially secure enough to support a family, necessitating contribution of the wife with regards to finding wages to contribute, yet they weren't paid near the same wages as women were regarded as submissive and inferior. It was no unusual for companies to have a written policy that stated women should be paid less than men.


Educational opportunities were also limited. The expectation was to just work in the interim between leaving school and walking down the aisle; don't hope for a career. Professional jobs were still largely closed off to women. Just 1.2 percent of women went to university in the 1950s yet since 1982, women have earned more university degrees than men.


The argument even back then was might a woman's lot even be improved my marriage? Husbands were harsh taskmasters according to history texts, most regarding the running of the home and parenting to be solely the woman's responsibility, expecting meals ready when they return from work, making all the household decisions of consequence and largely continuing to inhabit a separate sphere of pubs and football. Wait, has this even changed?


Stories of husbands confiscating their wife's pearl necklaces until they learned not to swear were among the many testimonies of oppressive times for women in the 1950s, although right now my thoughts go to Amini, the 22 year old arrested by morality police in the northern Tehran region of Iran for wearing a hijab improperly and ultimately dying after allegedly being hit multiple times in the head. Now women across the country are protesting by burning their hijabs or cutting their hair in a state of "No to the Islamic Republic."


In the 1950s, almost every state gave the right to men to have sex with their wife any time they wanted with or without her #consent. There was, in other words, no such thing as rape if a couple was married, and any form of birth control was still illegal in many places - even though women were expected to work to make up for the inability of the man to provide for the family and she still took full responsibility for home and family. Women were legally obligated to have children if her husband wanted them, and many forced to marry to even secure housing, so a life of poverty was exceedingly hard to escape.


Reproductive Fitness & Eugenics


Back to reproductive fitness though, as this is a major aspect of the first chapter and I have to share that in the dialogue between this physician and this soon to be wed couple, he explains that a man's #virility is so important that there existed Hindu lawmakers who examined men to assure their virility before they were privileged to marry. But when the lady in this dialogue asks the physician how one would know if a man hasn't yet had sex, the physician responds, "Normally every man... has had some kind of sexual experience... all men resort to some form of sexual activity, which usually begins in childhood or adolescence" and when asked about his reproductive fitness, "some advocate a routine study of a man's seminal fluid as part of the general premarital examination."

There is a bit of discussion about overall fitness and offering your best, "as a bad liver may spoil even an ideal marriage," but also learning about blood types and such - being fully in the know before committing to your spouse. Then the discussion of "eugenics and eugenic fitness for marriage" was explored, even discussing the controversy with whether personality is nature versus nurture. Interestingly, at this time there "was no way of knowing the presence of any hidden or potential defect in an individual who is normal himself." More interestingly, the physician shares, "Few people... are at present willing to permit eugenic considerations to guide entirely the affairs of the heart." Pages and pages are dedicated to eugenics - to breed a better human race and it's horrifying. To think that this was such a commonly accepted way of thinking just a few decades ago is truly nauseating to me. Notice, the heading makes clear this isn't about empowering couples through education with regards to a couple's potential for syndromes and birth defects in their offspring, but rather, this is about #racial eugenics. Vomit.


Gonorrhea and syphilis were the two venereal diseases of the 1950s and if suffering from a venereal disease in a communicable form, most states forbid marriage. New York required premarital medical examinations for syphilis before offering a marriage license, for example. Evidence of not just a lab result, but also a physician's signature was required.


Tuberculosis was also a concern, as was rheumatic heart disease, but there was also concern for "psychoses, of epilepsy, feeble-mindedness and other types of mental disturbances." The author writes, "Certainly individuals afflicted with serious hereditary deficiencies - the grossly abnormal, the feeble-minded, the psychotic - should be restricted from reproduction." So here it is folks, in the 1950s we were classifying mankind into superior and inferior classes, into better groups and the "socially inadequate" or the "social problem."


And the authors goes on to say - remember the number of publications and its distributions throughout universities - that "programs encouraged marriage and #reproduction among healthy individuals favoring marriage grants to young persons; salary increases for married men; low-cost housing projects; adequate prenatal care; lower maternity costs; maternity leaves for working mothers" and "such measures would make it easier for young people to marry and to bear and care for the children they desire."


The Biology of Marriage


This next two chapters focus on the male and female genitals as it is said to be the next most important aspect of knowledge for a couple planning to marry, not understanding overall health or even healthy boundaries, emotional maturity, communicating respectfully or identifying needs - or even #consent apparently. Alas, it comes down to the penis and the sperm or the .


Having said that, my #midwifery mind was quite impressed at the level and approach to educating this couple in the details of both the male and female anatomy. Never have I heard a physician take the time to offer significant education, as this is more often the nurse's role but even then, the explanation is short and the details few.


There isn't a great deal of advanced knowledge in what has been offered in this 1950s text. We don't wait until puberty to address undescended testicals anymore; we tend to refer for surgery at that first birthday, but what I found truly fascinating was the discussion of the differences between man and woman. Of course, the text does argue that certain features distinguish male from female, and "when a child is born, the only way to tell its sex is by looking at the genitals," and we can later tell by further development of the secondary sexual characteristics (which we know to be far more complex today), but what I found intriguing was the talk of #castration or the differences between the bull and the ox, the stallion and the gelding - or the man and the eunuch.


Admittedly, while I had heard of this, I didn't really have much knowledge and I suspect this is because it isn't performed as much today so our recollection is a bit beyond those who practiced medicine in the 1950s. However, this 1950 book on marriage discusses Oriental countries removing the testicals of men so they can serve as an attendant in harems. It also discusses the practice of castrating boys in Italy for the purpose of providing sopranos for #church choirs. Guess who performed this? Barbers, the first surgeons of our time, were apparently doing this quite often in Russia as part of their rituals.


When the author discusses the development of the egg in the ovary and the life cycle of our eggs, it occurred to me that at one point, we were nothing more than a receptacle or a sheath for their sword, receiving the offering of a man (yet oddly enough still beheaded if we didn't produce the desired gender) as it wasn't until the early 1900s that the egg was even identified. What an interesting inquiry it would be to learn when this making of life became a partnership and less the man being the contributor or having the dominant role, and the woman being the more passive or docile receiver.


Certainly in the 1950s, psychiatrists were still ascribing menstrual discomforts to emotional disturbances and #neurotic tendencies, or traditional #taboos and feminine affliction. This won't be found in print today but certainly is found in clinical practice. This mindset it maybe not as overt, but it is certain pervasive in our culture.


Another interesting finding is the author contributes the end of the childbearing years for women at about 45 years, and at its longest, 50 years. Today we find the average onset of menopause at about 54 years and early 40s would be an early onset #menopause, so again, another area of intriguing research with regards to the timeline here and why.


Goodness was I grateful to find the author describe the #hymen as a tissue that becomes "dilated," rather than one that must be perforated. He even recognizes this can't be completely closed as many believe because the menses must flow through, so to assume one can assure virginity simply from evaluating the patency of the hymen is grossly erroneous and oppressive.


This tall tale about the hymen though is one of the greatest misunderstandings about the female genitalia that seems to perpetuate itself for reasons solely based around #misogyny, but I share this story about my little sister to make sense of how the hymen works. As opposed to a film or door that must be burst through to gain entry and once perforated there remains evidence of a breach, the hymen is much more like the elastic around the leg hole of your panties and if your favorite pair of panties get too big but you don't want to get rid of them, you can take a pair of scissors and cut little nicks in them all the way around allowing for a wider entry. Like the hymen, a few nicks may only be necessary but as the demand increases, so may the necessity of additional nicks, which is why many men are perplexed during their wife's pushing phase of labor when the nurse squeals with delight, "Oh wonderful, the hymen has finally broken and we should see the baby any minute."

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