The Chilling Sexism of Adlai Stevenson, Liberal Hero of the 1950’s

While we may think we already know how bad things were, we actually don’t — and a piece like this forces us to remember. The author, Clarissa Atkinson, is a historian with a string of books and articles to her credit (she’s also my aunt); this first-person approach is a new direction for her, and it really pays off here:

No matter how frustrated they might be [Stevenson told the 1955 Smith graduating class] by a “sense of contraction, of closing horizons and lost opportunities . . . women ‘never had it so good’ as you . . . This assignment for you, as wives and mothers, you can do in the living room with a baby in your lap or in the kitchen with a can opener in your hand . . . there is much you can do . . . in the humble role of housewife. I could wish you no better vocation.”

It gets worse.

One thought on “The Chilling Sexism of Adlai Stevenson, Liberal Hero of the 1950’s

  1. ‘I want merely to tell you young ladies that I think there is much you can do about that crisis in the humble role of housewife—which, statistically, is what most of you are going to be whether you like the idea or not just now— ”

    Not only does Ms. Atkinson not mention what Stevenson meant by “crisis,” she also does not comment on whether his statistics are valid. If most of his female audience were going to end up as housewives (and I have no idea whether this was so) then perhaps he was doing something truly revolutionary — like telling graduates the truth instead of dribbling commencement pablum over them.

    In general, I find it hard to be shocked that a man born in 1900 would harbor gender-role stereotypes that are still present in much of the population today. This piece seems to reveal more about the sensibilities of its author than the in-sensibilities of its subject.

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