Women, Love and Learning

The Double Bind

by Alison Mackinnon (Author)
©2010 Monographs 256 Pages
Open Access


This book tells the story of a generation of American and Australian women who embodied – and challenged – the prescriptions of their times. In the 1950s and early 60s they went to colleges and universities, trained for professions and developed a life of the mind. They were also urged to embrace their femininity, to marry young, to devote themselves to husbands, children and communities. Could they do both? While they might be seen as a privileged group, they led the way for a multitude in the years ahead. They were quietly making the revolution that was to come.
Did they have ‘the best of all possible worlds’? Or were they caught in a double bind? Sylvia Plath’s letters tell of her delighted sense of life opening before her as a ‘college girl’. Her poetry, however, tells of anguish, of reaching for distant goals. Drawing on interviews, surveys, reunion books, letters, biographical and autobiographical writing from both American and Australian women, this cultural history argues that the choices that faced educated women in that time led to the revolution of the late 1960s and 70s. Something had to give. There are lessons here for today’s young women, facing again conflicting expectations. Is it possible, they ask, to ‘have it all’?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • 1 Who was she? Surveying the educated woman: posture photos, beauty queens, dormitory rules and achievement motivation
  • 2 Conservative times: Cold War, hot sex and the consumer revolution
  • 3 The experience: peer culture or academics?
  • 4 Life after college: a problematic realm
  • 5 From Mademoiselle to Ms magazine: mainstreamers, continuity and premature liberationists
  • Conclusion: It’s deja vu all over again?
  • A note on sources and method
  • Bibliography
  • Index


There are so many who have helped bring this book into the world. Research assistants Kate Leeson and Penny Gregory at the Hawke Research Institute made important contributions to the research at different times. Kate Leeson (again!) and Rosemary Luke have both provided excellent editorial help. I have enjoyed and profited from discussions with colleagues Linda Eisenmann, Kathleen Wieler, Pat Graham, Alison Prentice, Geraldine Clifford, Marjorie Theobald, the late Fay Gale, and Judy Gill to name a few. Others such as Sherry Ortner, Harvey Graff, Ravenna Helson, Elizabeth Boyd and Dan Horowitz have been prepared to enlighten me on particular aspects of time and place. Barrie Thorne (University of California, Berkeley) offered sisterly hospitality at Berkeley.

Part of the research and writing was carried out while I was a visiting fellow with the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, Canberra, in 2006. During that time I greatly valued discussions with other fellows and seminar participants in a very generative setting. The University of South Australia generously granted me study leave to visit archives and libraries in the USA. In 1994 an Australian Research Council small grant funded the initial survey that began this study. An Australian Research Council Discovery grant (2002–2004) facilitated further research and the travel both within and beyond Australia that made the book possible. Smith College also provided a Margaret Grierson ‘Travel to Collections’ grant which funded a productive visit to the Smith campus in Northampton.

I have enjoyed sharing my research journey with the many helpful archivists I’ve encountered along the way. They are the guardians of treasure troves. At the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Harvard, Jane Knowles, Kathy Kraft (Radcliffe Archives) and Sarah Hutcheon (Schlesinger Library) were great supports; at Smith ← 9 | 10 College Nanci Young and Amy Hague (Smith College Archives and the Sophia Smith Collection respectively) have been generous both during my time at Smith and in their responses to many email queries; Matthew Kaliner at the Murray Research Center, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard, was particularly helpful with sorting data; archives staff at the Center for American History at the University of Texas and Michael Widener at the Tarleton Law Library (University of Texas) assisted me in Austin. Marian Gade, at the Center for Studies in Higher Education (UC Berkeley); Carroll Brentano at Berkeley (Chronicle, UCB); Maggie Kimball, University Archivist at the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford; and Octavio Olvera, reader services coordinator and public service assistant, Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA all gave their time and expertise. Many of those mentioned above helped with the lengthy process of securing copyright permissions. The author and publisher gratefully acknowledge the permission granted to reproduce the copyright material in this book. Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions and would be grateful if notified of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.

The alumnae offices at the universities of Melbourne and Adelaide facilitated the sending out of questionnaires for the Graduating in the fifties: women graduates’ family formation study project. For permission to reproduce the Charles Blackman Alice on the cover – one that portrays superbly women’s ambivalence in the 1950s and early 60s – I wish to thank the National Gallery of Victoria and Viscopy Ltd.

One of the greatest pleasures of the study was the opportunity to interview – or just chat with – many of the wonderful women mentioned here. I’m so thankful that most were happy to have their letters and diaries published – an act of trust and generosity. Those who preferred to remain anonymous will be recognizable to themselves but not to others. I hope that they all enjoy revisiting their pasts should they read this book. Some have already told me that they have enjoyed ← 10 | 11 → the reminders of times long forgotten that interviews and permission inquiries have elicited. The past, particularly the past of the 50s and early 60s, is definitely a foreign country.

I’m particularly grateful to Jill Ker Conway, Alison Prentice and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on the full text. I am aware that their suggestions if fully implemented would have made this a much better book. Katrin Forrer at Peter Lang has been a delight to work with throughout the publication process as we emailed across continents, time zones and seasons. Malcolm Mackinnon has lived through this book with equanimity, as always. A graduate himself of the early 60s he watched the women around him undergo amazing transformations and still kept his head.

This book is dedicated to my granddaughters Georgie and Skye in the hope that by the time they grow up they will no longer find themselves facing the double bind.

Alison Mackinnon, 2010 ← 11 | 12← 12 | 13 →


Any era that is simultaneously as dynamic, as glorious, as conflict-ridden, and as traumatic as the 1950s and 1960s were will have many rememberers.1

What a luxury this is – I wrote in my diary in December 2000 – to walk alone in frost-edged woods on a crisp New England day. The river is frozen in part, with white floes strange to my Australian eyes. The winter woods do not lack colour: the crisp brown leaves, a quick crackle and a grey squirrel flits away, red berries, white birch trunks. Walking back through a venerable and well-endowed campus, with gardens, ponds, statuary and a sense of solidity and entitlement, I feel the joy of life and the wonder of being a woman with work to do in such an environment. Yet I had also enjoyed a privileged moment in time as a student in Australia at a women’s residential college in an era that now seems as far off as the nineteenth century. I too am a rememberer.

Dipping into women’s lives in the 1950s and early 1960s at Smith College I found many echoes of my own and a few differences. We shared, most of us, a lack of urgency about careers, a feeling that we would inevitably marry and produce children, be interesting wives to be sure, but wives nevertheless when that word still was a matter of pride. We shared a love of learning, of diving into literature, history, languages for their own sake, often for pleasure rather than for grades. After all there were plenty of jobs and few of us would be encouraged to take higher degrees. We thought we were individuals but we shared the uniforms of the time: Bermuda shorts at Smith, twin sets with Peter Pan collars at Janet Clarke Hall. Cashmere sweaters were universally desired except by that small minority who signalled rebellion, ← 13 | 14 even then, with sloppy joes and bare feet. How did that world change between my generation of women students and the young women so purposeful, so busily planning their careers, who now throng the Smith campus, and the campus of my old university in Melbourne?

When did the world change for twentieth century women? Was it when Betty Friedan’s The feminine mystique was published in 1963? Friedan was a student at Smith College, albeit at an earlier time. Or was it with the publication of Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch in 1970? Greer trod the grounds of my alma mater, the University of Melbourne, drank coffee at ‘the caf’ and had become a legend by the time I got there. Was it with the introduction of the Pill? Let us arbitrarily decide on a date – 1965 – and see what that produces. In Australia Sir Robert Menzies was the prime minister and the Rolling Stones toured the country. Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins led the Freedom Ride through country New South Wales. In the US the Vietnam War caused turmoil in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson and civil rights activists stormed the South. In 1964 on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley the free speech movement had galvanized rebelling students. Could life ever be the same?

Was this turmoil anticipated? Stephen Graubard, reflecting on 40 years of the journal Daedalus, claimed that many issues reveal much about the time in which they were published. None revealed more than the Fall 1964 issue, ‘The Contemporary University: U.S.A’. ‘It would be correct to say that this was almost the last moment when one could still believe that the American universities were essentially sound’, he wrote, ‘that no major troubles were impending. Indeed, there is something almost alarming in the quiescence, the sense of security and stability that permeates the greatest number of the essays in this issue, so different from what was written and said only a few years later.’2 This could equally be said of the Spring 1964 issue of Daedalus on women. It boldly declared feminism moribund.

I am not the first to choose 1965 as a turning point. French demographer Louis Roussel claimed 1965 as ‘a rare axis of change’, one ← 14 | 15 that led to the ‘banalization’ of previously condemned behaviour.3 Where might we find evidence of such a transformation? And what did it mean to its participants? The University of California (Berkeley) yearbook of 1965 focused on student protest and free speech. It was the end of an era, the beginning of a more open and sexually liberated climate at universities and colleges. The UC yearbook, Blue and gold, looked back at ‘a year filled with a new discontent, a new cause … the Vietnam question pounded in the hearts of thousands’. It noted that ‘by taking care of their own disciplining, the students of the University of California have proven that they are capable of governing themselves’.4 But did that inevitably include women? Could women be trusted to discipline themselves?

In the UC-B yearbook the women of the senior class no longer wrote of marrying Ted and raising five children as they had in the early fifties. Now they were women who ‘will travel then attend law school’; ‘will teach junior college, then graduate study’; ‘gain real estate license’; ‘graduate school in social work’.5 Marriage did not rate a mention. In Australia, where ‘students were being asked to stand up and be counted in political demonstrations on the streets of Adelaide’,6 obedience to traditional rules seemed increasingly irrelevant. In Brisbane, Queensland, in 1965 two women, ‘wives of university lecturers’ (as they were described in the popular press), chained themselves to the public bar of the Regatta Hotel in protest at women’s exclusion from that important social space.7 In campuses such as Berkeley, home to a massive and sustained anti-war movement, in Queensland or in South ← 15 | 16 Australia, nothing could have seemed as banal in these turbulent times as a concern with the hours at which women returned to their dorms.

Yet a preoccupation with every detail of women’s behaviour and sexuality was a major aspect of the 1950s and early 1960s. University study did not exempt them. Elaborate rules determined the hours at which women students could leave their residences, could socialize, particularly with men, how they should dress and what careers they should consider. Some institutions still had women’s wardens. If 1965 marked the end of an era what did that era look like? And what were the seeds of its destruction? Can we detect them in the imaginings and practices of women of the times?

Much has been written about the turbulent changes of the late 1960s. Yet the 1950s and early 1960s have not played a major role in histories of the twentieth century. They are often seen as dreary, suburban, conformist. Those years have been viewed through a Cold War lens, through the rise of consumerism, even by a narrative of growing access to therapy in an increasingly Freudian climate. But what happened to women in the 1950s and early 60s? Were they all confined to the suburbs, to becoming ‘station wagon wives’, wives and mothers living the consumerist post-Kinsey dreams of the day or, worse, filled with ‘suburban neuroses’? Were they waiting, in narcotized sleep, for the words of a Friedan, or a Greer?

Sylvia Plath, poet and mother, could not wait that long. In 1963 she took her own life, overwhelmed with despair. Was her death in some inexplicable way emblematic of the sheer impossibility of the dream: of being a wife and mother and at the same time a fully creative, independent self? Plath struggled with those anxieties at a time in which there was no name for the despair creative women felt, no explanation other than the individual one, no demons other than personal ones. Within the ‘bell jar’ of neurosis there was no escape. Germaine Greer has claimed that if the new feminists were around in 1963 Sylvia Plath would not have had to commit suicide.8 This is debatable but Greer herself helped to name ← 16 | 17 the demons, to enjoin women to stop blaming themselves for unachieved perfection, to name patriarchal society as the enemy.

This book tells the story of a significant group of women who confronted the prescriptions of the times. They went to colleges and universities in increasing numbers, trained for the professions and developed a life of the mind. They expected to be interesting people and to have interesting lives. At the same time they were urged to listen to their hearts, to marry young, to devote themselves to their children and communities. Helen Horowitz has written of the continuing importance up to the 1960s of campus life, a predominantly male culture in which the peer group was vitally important in the formation of student identities in the United States.9 This campus culture was taken up by women in the 1950s with a major emphasis on romance and sexual attractiveness. That emphasis, some have argued, was so strong that it indirectly eroded women’s career identities.10 Can we find evidence of this? Could women’s education, in this context, help them to think outside the square? Would they redefine success? I argue in this book that they were already undertaking the revolution that was to burst onto the English-speaking world in the 1970s.

Higher education for women is a key to social transformation. Education has been seen as both a change agent and as a force for conservatism in the lives of women. Could it be both at once? A consideration of the place of women in higher education inevitably forces a link with wider social, political and economic change. While university women in the 1950s and early 60s could be seen as a privileged cohort, they led the way for a larger number of their sisters in the years ahead. They were the graduates considered as ‘reserves’ for the labour market – or, worse, as ‘wastage’ from the system of higher education by administrators concerned with ‘manpower’ needs of the emerging economy. They attended universities when it was said that ‘every boy or girl with the necessary brain power must … be encour ← 17 | 18 aged to come forward for a university education’.11 Yet what girls with the necessary ‘brain power’ were to do with their education was far from clear.


ISBN (Softcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2011 (January)
USA Australien Akademikerin Geschichte 1950-1965 Studentin Soziale Situation
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2010. 256 pp.

Biographical notes

Alison Mackinnon (Author)

Alison Mackinnon is Professor Emerita at the University of South Australia and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Her extensive publications on women, education, and the changing life course include the prize winning Love and Freedom: Professional women and the reshaping of personal life (1997). She has held fellowships at Rutgers University, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Newnham College Cambridge, Umeå University, and the Australian National University.


Title: Women, Love and Learning
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