By Clarissa Atkinson
I cast my first vote for Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and worked in his campaign, knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes, and typing names on index cards—the 1950s version of Big Data. You have to be old to have voted for Stevenson or even to remember him, but you might recall what your parents or grandparents had to say. They probably had strong opinions. Stevenson was a hero to a certain cohort, perhaps because he differed so dramatically in outlook and style from most politicians of that era—Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, John Foster Dulles, Joseph McCarthy. To another cohort, though, he was a pinko liberal or even a Communist, as well as an egghead (I think the term was coined for him, a balding intellectual).
J. Edgar Hoover, who should have known better, spread the word that Stevenson was gay, but that’s not likely. He was divorced when he ran for president—a problem on the campaign trail—but rarely without a female companion. Unlike so many successful politicians of his day and ours, he was not at all macho, and also not very tall (another campaign problem). Stevenson was an elegant, cosmopolitan man who used big words and tried to appeal to the best, not the worst, in his listeners. Notably, he stood up against the mindless anti-Communism of the times—the brutality and vulgarity of McCarthy, Hoover, and their ilk. He was an internationalist. He presented himself as a rueful, ambivalent figure who didn’t like the clamor of public life, but believed profoundly in public service. That’s the Adlai Stevenson I remember, a long-gone hero who died too soon—in 1965, at 65 years of age.
When I reread Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique a while ago, I was dismayed by its quotes from a commencement address Stevenson gave at Smith College in 1955. He told the graduates that “Women, especially educated women, have a unique opportunity to influence us, man and boy.” No matter how frustrated they might be 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.
He apparently foresaw no other opportunities for the graduates. Was this just the usual gender-talk of the 1950s? It seemed worse, especially, as Friedan said, from “the spokesman of democratic liberalism.”
I know a lot about gender-talk in the 1950s: I was there. (Although come to think of it, we didn’t exactly have gender in the 1950s.) Stevenson’s words certainly fit the tenor of the times; in fact they fit it all too well. I was disappointed; I thought he should have done better than average. Hoping the quotes had been taken out of context, I went online and found a longer excerpt from the address, reprinted by The Women’s Home Companion later that year. It was no better; in fact, it was worse, because there was more of the same.
Still—maybe that was out of context too. I turned to Princeton, where Stevenson’s papers are held, and they sent me a copy of the typescript of the entire address. Stevenson was notorious for working on his speeches up to and sometimes past the time they were due to be delivered, and the typescript is heavily edited by the author. He made additions and subtractions and underlined certain words and phrases to remind himself of emphasis: “an assignment to address several hundred young, charming, feminine eggheads, while exhilerating (no spell-check in those days!) is also a little disquieting.”
Stevenson began with salutations to the graduates, including an affectionate compliment to his future daughter-in-law (in the class of ’55), and to the president of the college, Benjamin Wright (the presidents of Smith were all men, of course, until 1975). He made a few comments about his unsuitability for the day’s assignment: self-deprecation, so unusual in politicians, was part of his charm. Then he launched into the substance of his address. Unlike the many commencement speakers who tell college seniors “how important they are—as citizens in a free society, as educated, rational, privileged participants in a great historic crisis . . . for my part,” said Stevenson,
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—and you’ll like it!
From where we are in the twenty-first century, that’s a breathtaking beginning. It gets worse.
But before I say how much worse, I want to enter another document into the record: another speech to college seniors, this time to Princeton seniors at their Class Day banquet in 1954. Stevenson, an alumnus of Princeton, began by remembering the “happier, more hopeful world” into which he graduated in 1922. But his speech was about the present, not the past, and about the future of the young men who heard him, whose
power is virtually beyond measurement. For it is to you . . . that American government must look for the sources of its power. . For if . . . those young Americans who have the advantage of education, perspective, and self-discipline do not participate to the fullest extent of their ability, America will stumble, and if America stumbles the world falls.
In the Smith speech he had explicitly declined to tell the graduates that they were important; at Princeton he insisted on it, urging his audience toward public life and good citizenship. Stevenson told the young men that the American dream had always depended upon educated citizens: “We in our country have placed all of our faith . . . upon the education, the intelligence, and the understanding of our people.” (Here, in light of the Smith speech, I have to ask who was included in “our people?”) He continued: “if I have made your tasks and your responsibilities sound formidable. . . may I also remind you that this is what makes the prospects of your careers so exciting.” Stevenson assumed that the prospects of Princeton seniors were exciting, and he urged them to welcome the challenge of a “time of historic change and of infinite difficulty,” not to allow “even the awful problems of the Atomic Age [to] claim all your attention. Dare, rather, to live your lives fully, boldly.” He closed with a lovely, sentimental tribute to the beauty and traditions of Princeton and a reminder: “You will go away with old, good friends. And don’t forget when you leave why you came.”
A old, good friend of mine was a member of that class at Princeton, and he recalls the occasion very well. He and his classmates were inspired, he remembers, to public life, to community service, to an exhilarating sense of their own destiny and opportunity. Stevenson’s speech figures prominently in both the 25th and 50th Reunion Books of the Class of 1954; it stands out in their memories of their college years. No wonder: Stevenson spoke to them like sons or younger brothers, comrades in the crucial work of educated citizenship and democratic leadership.
What of the memories of the Smith class of 1955? As far as I can discover, although the graduates were delighted to have such an eminent speaker, they remember almost nothing about what he said. After all, nobody would have dreamed of advising them to live their lives fully and boldly: in 1955, that would have suggested something dangerous, probably sexual. They were not elated and inspired like their brothers at Princeton, and apparently they also were not dismayed, as their daughters would have been in 1980 and (we hope) their granddaughters would be today. There are exceptions: one alumna told me she recalled
something clutching in my stomach as I listened to his talk. . . . Everything that we had been taught at Smith was contrary to this message and while I do not recall any public condemnation of his message, there was certainly a lot of underground grumbling.
Stevenson’s daughter-in-law remembers her “mother’s report that one parenting pair sitting behind her left the graduation early complaining loudly about his reflections on women and domesticity.” On the other side, another member of the class of ’55 thinks it “not entirely respectful and fair” to attack Stevenson’s words, given the world in which he grew up, and that “the women’s movement so often characterized by frustration and hostility [does not give enough] credit to the heroic work and economic support men gave—and still give—to their country and their families.”
But opinions of any kind are the exceptions; for the most part, at least in my small sample, there was no reaction to the substance of the speech. No letters on that topic were written to the Alumnae Quarterly in the several issues following; reaction came much later, after the publication of The Feminine Mystique and the beginning of second-wave feminism. Gloria Steinem, Smith ’56, and the college’s commencement speaker in 2007, remembers that on her graduation day, “life after 30 seemed a hazy screen to be filled in by the needs of others. . . we pretty much accepted the idea that women were more valued for giving birth to others than for giving birth to ourselves.”
The apparent indifference of the class of ’55 may not be a big surprise, given the times, but I do wonder about the reaction of the faculty—few of whom are still available for interviews, alas. (I was able to reach only two, and they did not remember the speech or the event.) Most of those in their hard-won academic regalia, seated on the platform behind the speaker, probably admired and voted for Adlai Stevenson. Many were women educated in the 1920s and ’30s, when they had to fight for places in doctoral programs and science labs. For many, the necessary dedication and commitment had precluded marriage and family. The distinguished Renaissance historian who taught the honors seminar when I was at Smith used to express dismay over our approach to our work and future goals. She deplored our rush to Yale or Dartmouth on the weekends and reminded us that in her day, serious students saw weekends as an opportunity to get ahead with their work. With the callous confidence of youth, we laughed at her concern, which seemed ludicrous, old-fashioned, and somewhat pathetic.
I can’t imagine what she thought about Stevenson’s speech. How I wish could ask her!
Long after my own undergraduate years, I began a belated career as a professor and historian. I revised my syllabi for medieval and early modern European history courses according to feminist precepts, pushing aside the Great Men, as far as possible, to include the history of persons who were not necessarily Great, and to focus on women. Even in the late seventies I was aware of some loss: as I discarded and criticized some of my ex-heroes, I occasionally recalled the melancholy, beautiful speech of lament spoken by Shakespeare’s unfortunate Richard II: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” I felt that way again when I read Stevenson’s Smith speech. No matter how carefully I think about the context or blame it on the times, I cannot quite recover the hero of the 1956 campaign.
In an earlier life, Clarissa Atkinson taught and wrote books and articles about medieval history, including Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe (1983) and The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages (1991). Now she thinks and writes about coming of age in the 1950s.