Feminism on Trial
Acceptance & Popularity
When Ginny was twelve and just entering junior high school her family moved to New Paltz, New York, eighty miles northwest of the city near the Catskill Mountains. In the beginning she "felt like a Martian." She was a Catholic in a predominantly Protestant town. A second generation Italian-American in a three-centuries-old village populated by descendents of the original Dutch, German, English, and French settlers. A daughter of a blue collar worker in a society dominated by the offspring of college professors and administrators. A "city kid" surrounded by others her age who had grown up in the country.
To make matters worse, Ginny was an early bloomer. She reached puberty at nine and was developing breasts by the time of her relocation. Most of the other girls around her hadn't progressed to that point and she stood out prominently among her peers. Boys her age would laugh and make jokes behind her back and even grown men began staring at her. Embarrassed, she would wear baggy blouses to hide her "hated curves" but she couldn't do that any longer after her mother insisted that she wear a bra.
But Ginny, who longed for acceptance among those her age, soon realized that she could turn her liabilities into assets. "I began to realize that . . . my looks could be a tool. I was getting attention because of the way I looked, and attention might lead to acceptance." Boys had been telling her she was pretty and she began taking pains to enhance her natural beauty. She brushed and styled her long black hair the way the other girls did and applied makeup and mascara to highlight her large, dark eyes. Thus armed with the requisite eye-catching physical appearance, she set out on her quest for peer approval.
She started by flirting with a handsome, popular young man whose father was a dean at the university, then called the New Paltz State Teachers' College. They began dating and going to dances and, before long, "some of his popularity spilled my way. Even the girls began to thaw." Ginny got invitations to pajama parties, Saturday afternoon movie outings, and other feminine social events. She developed a strong network of friends among the other girls.
Within a year, having ascended the first rungs of the social ladder, Ginny ditched her first boyfriend and sought greener pastures. In so doing, she embarked on what would become a long pattern of preference for older, more savvy men. Fred Schindler fit the bill. She was fourteen and he was two years ahead of her in high school when they started dating.
Over the next few years, Ginny and Fred became so inseparable that marriage was assumed to be a foregone conclusion after she graduated. In fact, just before her graduation, they became engaged. Having a steady boyfriend of Fred's caliber cemented Ginny's acceptability among her peers. She was elevated to the upper echelons of her social circle. She took part in school sports, sang in the chorus, worked on the yearbook staff, and helped organize dances and proms. These were happy, fulfilling years for her. She graduated with honors and began contemplating her future.
For a time, Ginny worked as a waitress for a drive-in restaurant and that was considered okay for a young, single woman. But, when marriage came, it was expected she would quit working, have babies, and dutifully spend her days in a housecoat and slippers, following the dictates of a straight-ahead, "till death do we part" domestic lifestyle. Ginny, however, had other ideas, even though she couldn't exactly pinpoint them. A restless, adventurous stirring within her she was at a loss to explain.
A hint at what might lie in store occurred when she attended a Career Day while still in junior high. She went home to announce to her mother that she wanted to become a lawyer. The response was predictable for the time. Her mother laughed and questioned where the money for "all that school" was going to come from, while speculating, "You're just going to get married anyway. It would just be a waste." Had she been a boy, she wrote, it would have been different. Parents in that era saved their money for weddings if they had daughters and for college if they had sons.
By contemporary standards, it is difficult to imagine that such double standards once existed so recently in our history but they did, nonetheless. Women didn't routinely become doctors and lawyers in the '50s. Or pursue business careers or other careers traditionally considered a male bailiwick. Those women who pursued secular careers usually exploited the limited options open to them nursing, teaching elementary school, or becoming librarians or secretaries. Jobs the men didn't want. In many cases these were women to whom men were not attracted and they were simply thought of as "just making the best of their situation." Condescending terms now branded as sexist such as "old maid," "spinster" and others of a more vulgar connotation were routinely applied to these unmarried career women. These stereotypes were reinforced by the movies, TV, and other media during that era. "Gal Friday" was an acceptable metaphor for women in clerical positions as recently as the 1970s.
These were the "choices" most young women of the '50s faced: get married and become a housewife or follow a traditional female vocation as a lonely single. By the time she finished high school, Ginny Galluzzo knew she wasn't cut out for either one of them.