When I’m working on a project, in addition to reading historians’ evaluations of people, events, and topics, I like to get myself into the mood of a time period by reading contemporary novels, watching films of the era, listening to popular music of the moment, and things of that nature. I find it gives me a more nuanced understanding of the time, and it also allows me to keep working even as my concentration levels rise and fall. To that end, as I’ve been giving some thought to American women’s experiences of the 1950s and early 1960s, thinking especially about what life was like for women who intended to marry before they married, I picked up Rona Jaffe’s 1958 bestseller The Best of Everything.
In many ways, The Best of Everything is like a fictional account of Sex and the Single Girl before Sex and the Single Girl (published in 1962), which makes sense since many of the stories within stem from Jaffe’s own experiences working in an urban office environment. In the book, a host of characters serve as “career girls” at fictional Fabian Publishing where they navigate expectations and challenges of the workplace (wolves who see them as easy prey; senior women who identify them as threats) while also facing the challenges of maintaining active New York City social lives on their paltry salaries. In reviews and retrospectives of the novel, I’ve found some discussion about how the book suggests that the women see their jobs as secondary to their desires to meet men and, ultimately, to marry. I found the text far more complicated than that.
While certainly, there are plenty of women in the office pool who are career girls only so long as they need to be, there are others, most notably Caroline Bender, who find work at Fabian to be something of a revelation. As she began to read and review manuscripts, she thought “It was good to be able to care so much about work….For her the thrill was in the competition and in the achievement.” When we see her matrimonially focused coworkers through her eyes, the picture is not especially complimentary. Mary Agnes is a case in point. She works at Fabian as a means to an end, bringing her lunch every day rather than going out so she can save money for the wedding of her dreams. Even in the high speed, and from Caroline’s perspective, extremely exciting world of metropolitan publishing, Mary Agnes doesn’t feel tempted to wish for something more. Caroline indulges Mary Agnes, complimenting her wedding plans and smiling at details shared in the workplace. More critical (and more reflective of Caroline’s real views) are the thoughts of her roommate Gregg, an actress who’d temporarily worked at Fabian when desperate for income. Her evaluation of women like Mary Agnes: “‘The Happy Ones’ [she] called them, not knowing exactly why they were happy and not wanting to join them, but sometimes going so far as to say that it was a shame she couldn’t end up in such a bovine and contented way. She also called them ‘The Grapefruits,’ because she said if you were to slice one of them in half she would be revealed to be all partitioned off into nice little predictable segments, every one of them the same.”
Well. Those are some views (BOVINE!?). Really, such perspectives – even in 1958 – should come as no surprise to anyone at all familiar with the many varied experiences of American women of the era. Furthermore, these assessments directly reflect the propensity to dissect and critique the nature of conformity in 1950s American life more broadly. Still, such views tend to catch me off guard, and I know I’m not alone. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the media, advertising, and larger culture of the age, which suggest dreams of weddings and marriage and family life were universally shared across the population (a population universally imagined also, it must be noted, as white and middle class). But thoughtful and, clearly, even critical views existed. More importantly, they made their way into a culture that regularly ignored alternative perspectives or dissent, proving, yet again, that the 1950s are not merely the boring, staid prelude to the 1960s so many people imagine them to be. Further, such views reveal that ideas of women as historically devoted to romantic relationships – and at any cost, personal or professional – and preoccupied with dreams of weddings and marriages and babies ignore the diversity of goals and desires experienced and expressed by women over time.