Marion Learns About the Family: Sexuality Education in the 1930s (Part One)
Wearing my historian hat, I am interested in the ways in which twentieth-century Americans made sense of shifting sexual and gender practices. The mainstream media often figures conflict over sexual morality as fallout from the post-Sixties “culture wars,” feminist activism and backlash, and the rising visibility of queer citizens. In actuality, American anxiety over -- and enthusiasm for adopting -- modern family and relationship practices can be traced back to at least the Progressive Era.
These anxieties often manifested themselves, much as they do today, through adult debates over what youth should know about human sexuality and when they should know it. By 1929, adult fears about discussing sex with young people were familiar enough that satirists E.B. White and James Thurber devoted a whole chapter of their book Is Sex Necessary?: or, Why You Feel the Way You Feel to the question of “What Should Children Tell Their Parents?”:
If young folks lack the tact of intelligence requisite to enlightening their parents, the task should be intrusted to someone else. Yet it is hard to say to whom. A child should think twice before sending his father around to the public school to secure sex information ... women teachers, to borrow a phrase, are apt to be 'emotionally illiterate.'
Here in the Massachusetts Historical Society we can find evidence of the lessons teens have been taught throughout the past two centuries regarding sexual health and sexual relationships. Within the Frank Irving Howe, Jr. Family Papers, for example, we find course materials for a class on “The Family,” offered at Walpole (Mass.) High School during the 1934-1935 academic year -- a few years after Is Sex Necessary? went to print. The class was attended by high school senior Marion Howe, whose Thurber-like doodles offer visual commentary on the curriculum’s typescript pages.
“The Family” is perhaps best understood as a course on the sociology of family life. It is part premarital counseling, part anthropological study. Readings -- drawn from religious pamphlets, sociological writings, and popular journalism -- cover the various forms of marriage, divorce, religious views on family life, family planning, sexuality within and “without” marriage, homosexualty (“inversion”) and birth control. Absent from this 1930s “sex ed” curriculum is frank discussion of sexual hygiene, the mechanics of partnered sex, or discussion of sexual pleasure beyond such vague phrases as “the sex instinct” or “a sex experience.” Perhaps Thurber and White spoke from experience when they suggested youths should “think twice” before securing reliable information about human sexuality from public school teachers -- at least those in Walpole, Massachusetts!
Many of the social issues outlined by curriculum’s introduction have a familiar, if slightly fusty, ring to them. “The problems of sex and the family are more acute and more wide-spread today,” the anonymous author begins, observing an “increased desire for freedom without an accompanying sense of responsibility.” Shifts in social order, including the industrial revolution, “has made marriage an economic liability instead of an asset for the man … [and] no longer the only career open” to women. Prolonged education leads to postponed marriage, while contraception “eliminates the fear of offspring.” As in the twenty-first century, feminism is criticized for encouraging bad behavior among women: “Many women [today] are making the single standard the low one practiced by many men.”
In other sections, the rhetoric of 1935 stands in stark contrast to what would be socially acceptable to articulate in a mainstream sexuality textbook today. Consider the following passage on family planning:
The question of the right of couples to remain childless involves the question of the desirability of race survival and the obligation of desirable potential parents to assume their share of the burden… With the rapid increase of undesirable human stock and the rapid depletion of desirable stock, an obligation certainly rests on those who have valuable biological and environmental contributions to make. The choice between single blessedness and a home with children cannot be settled altogether on a personal basis.
While such racialized fears and negative stereotypes about non-parenting couples still inform debates about family policy and morality today, the language of “undesirable human stock” and “the burden” of “race survival” used earnestly within a public school curriculum suggest how acceptable expression of anxieties change over time, even if the anxiety itself remains alive and well.
What did eighteen-year-old Marion Howe make of her education in “the family”? In part two of this story, we will endeavor to answer that question by cracking open her diary. Kept intermittently between 1934-1937, the volumes document her social activities and academic studies during her final year of school, as well as her first marriage (1936-1941) and the birth of her first child in 1937. Stay tuned!
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