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Women, Love and Learning

The Double Bind

Alison Mackinnon

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’?
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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 →