My friends from college they’re all married now;
They have their houses and their lawns.
They have their silent noons,
Tearful nights, angry dawns.
Their children hate them for the things they’re not;
They hate themselves for what they are-
And yet they drink, they laugh,
Close the wound, hide the scar.
That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be (1971)
This is how The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan begins:
The problem lay buried, unspoken for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – “Is this all?”
There is one thing you notice almost straight away when you do any reading about the feminist movement in the 1970s: how America was the fountainhead of almost all of the ideas and momentum in this movement at this time, and how the rest of the western world followed her. One of those early well springs of ideas, an articulation of female unease, was Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique which was first published in 1963.
The first chapter of Friedan’s very famous (and very readable) book is called The Problem that Has No Name and in it Friedan chronicles the post World War II situation for American women. For people like myself who are cynical about the ability of society to change it is refreshing reading, because things certainly have changed from this:
- By the end of the 1950s the average age of women in America getting married dropped to 20, and was still dropping, into the teens. Fourteen million girls were engaged by seventeen
- The proportion of women attending college in comparison with men dropped from 47% in 1920 to 35% in 1958
- By the mid-fifties, 60% (of women) dropped out of college to marry
- By the end of the fifties, the United States birth rate was overtaking India’s
- Fewer and fewer women were entering professional work. The shortages in the nursing, social work and teaching professions caused crises in almost all American cities
- In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfilment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture.
Friedan is describing something that was going to be attacked and significantly altered by the feminist movement from the late 1960s onward. Statistics were going to change, lines on graphs were going to sharply alter direction, but some things, things to do with the heart, were not going to change.
The song that first got Carly Simon noticed was That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be. It’s a startling song, quite melodramatic in its musical setting, and lyrically moving and complex. The dilemma the song dramatises is clearly explained in the first verse and chorus:
My father sits at night with no lights on
His cigarette glows in the dark.
The living room is still;
I walk by, no remark.
I tiptoe past the master bedroom where
My mother reads her magazines.
I hear her call sweet dreams,
But I forgot how to dream.
But you say it’s time we moved in together
And raised a family of our own, you and me –
Well, that’s the way I’ve always heard it should be:
You want to marry me, we’ll marry.
For Carly Simon the song was personal.
Not only did it draw on her childhood, it described her last few years: she had moved on from three men she might have married… while her sister and best friends had married and were having children….. All of this was representative. In a brand new college poll, 10 percent more respondents had called marriage “obsolete” than had described it that way the year before.
Sheila Weller, Girls Like Us, pp.344-5
Even by the 1970s the average age of first marriage was already shifting up from the 1950s mean of 20 described by Friedan. By 2005 it would 26 in the USA. The institution of marriage was getting bad press. In New Zealand in 1972 the Listener printed a cover story about the death of courting. The tone is matter of fact:
Many people are convinced that the art of courting is extinct. There is nothing, they say, except sex talk and casual furtive intimacies. Romantic love has been devalued. The perfume and chocolate have all but gone.
One young lady reports,
There was a boy who wrote her poems when she was seventeen. “It was old fashioned and I liked it at first, but after a while it just made me sick.”
Geez. Tough crowd.
The article progresses along these lines; young ladies tell us that they just hang out with their partner and then move in together and it’s no big deal. Reading this thoroughly modern piece now I was struck by two things. Firstly, how young these women are (Jenny, 20, engaged to be married; Sheryl, 18, married and in own home; Fran, 18, getting married some day), and secondly, how depressing it is to have the key relationship of your life stripped of all it’s heat and romance and turned into a transaction between business partners. But then if you think romance is all blarney or, worse, manufactured garbage designed to ensnare women in marriage and destroy them as individuals, well then you might take the view of Carly Simon’s character in That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be in 1971:
You say we can keep our love alive
Babe – all I know is what I see –
The couples cling and claw
And drown in love’s debris.
You say we’ll soar like two birds through the clouds,
But soon you’ll cage me on your shelf –
I’ll never learn to be just me first
Carly Simon got married in 1972. She married the sensitive-woman’s-bit-of-1970s-crumpet, James Taylor, and they had two kids. The marriage ran ten years, often unhappily, and James “struggled” with heroin addiction for large parts of that marriage. (I say “struggled” because I always feel that a large part of the struggle for people who are wealthy enough to afford it is actually enjoying the benefits of said addiction.) Tim White interviewed Carly Simon for Rolling Stone in the early 1980s and found her in a very washed out mood. At that point in her life, Simon had certainly drowned in love’s debris.
Mind you, Carly’s description of her first meeting with James at the end of one of his concerts is certainly not a description of romantic love,
James came up and embraced me… and then we went in the bathroom and f**ked.
But we’re all totally over romantic love anyway, right?
The relationship flew along at quite a rate with only a few bumps along the way:
Early on [James] had told her he didn’t like her songs.
They married shortly before Carly Simon’s career exploded with the release of You’re So Vain and the accompanying album No Secrets. You’re So Vain isn’t about James Taylor, but in a way I think it is, because once you get over the party piece of who it is rumoured to be about, I think you may as well think about it as being a song about a certain kind of man in general in the early 1970s. Scratch the surface of this kind of new switched-on man, and you get complacency and arrogance.
Friedan may have written the clarion call that led to many legal changes that affected the lives of women immeasurably, but there are some things that are far harder to change. The social conditioning of a few thousand years for one. And love. It can make you do foolish things. Like marry heroin addicts who don’t respect your music.
In Rolling Stone, January 1973, James and Carly were the stars of a ten page spread. James Taylor, the newly wed, in full-on romantic role, declared to the world:
She’s a piece of ass; it bothers me – if she looks at another man, I’ll kill her.
Sweet baby James.