The Moral Disarmament of Betty Coed

This article originally appeared in the September 1962 issue of Esquire, marking Gloria Steinem’s first byline in a national magazine. On the occasion of a new profile of the legendary activist, we invited her to look back on her first Esquire story. Steinem writes:

“Looking back on that article from 1962, my first byline in a national magazine, I see that I was still referring to grown-up women as ‘girls,’ and in general, separating myself from my subjects. I wouldn’t do that anymore, nor would I agree with the idea that human beings have not always separated sexual expression from reproduction.

For instance, a decade or so after I wrote that article, I was sitting in the Kalahari Desert with a group of women who live there, and they were showing me the plants they use to strengthen fertility and those they use as abortifacients. They were part of a timeless democracy.

The problem is that patriarchal societies have tried to consign the ownership of women’s bodies to men, who then control the ownership of children, and thus have diminished or eliminated female control of our own bodies.

Now, I would be more clear that female or male, control of our own bodies is not just basic to health and personal freedom, but also democracy.”

See below for Steinem’s original dispatch from the front lines of the contraceptive revolution. To read every Esquire story ever published, upgrade to All Access.

If Vassar is to become the Poughkeepsie Victorian Seminary for Young Virgins, then the change of policy had better be made explicit in admissions catalogues.” —From a news story in the New York Herald Tribune, May 8, 1962

That is a Vassar student speaking. Her somewhat notable impatience arose out of a somewhat notable pronouncement by Vassar’s president, Miss Sarah Gibson Blanding, to the effect that premarital sexual relations constitute “offensive and vulgar behavior.” The need for Miss Blanding to make a statement of this kind and the reaction of the student to it, it became clear in the ensuing press discussion, illustrated more than a gap in morals: something basic and drastic has been happening recently to Life in the Student Handbook.

In March 1955, Smith College invited Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell and other literati to hold a symposium called “The American Novel at Mid-Century” for the benefit of its two thousand lady students. As soon as speeches were over and questions were allowed from the floor, Smith girls got down to the real, burning literary issue of the day, and it dominated the rest of the symposium. The question: “Was Franny pregnant?”

It was clear from the debate that followed that author J.D. Salinger, whose short story Franny had first appeared in print a month or so before, was a little ahead of the times. Quite a few girls had not caught his hints that Franny was having an affair, and were shocked at the idea. The majority was sophisticated enough to recognize the affair, but was misled by Franny’s faint on the way to the ladies’ room. (Who, brought up by Hollywood, could fail to take a faint, any faint, as clear evidence of pregnancy?) Only a handful of Smithies understood that the affair was incidental to the point of the story, that Franny was not pregnant but had fainted from the strain of having, or trying to have, a religious experience.

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Gloria Steinem in 1967.

All that was seven years ago in another time, a different era, which college administrators and other romantics already look back on with nostalgia. A current Smith junior says: “If you read in a story that a girl has got pregnant, you figure that she’s either been fantastically sheltered or that subconsciously, to use a corny term, she wanted to get pregnant. Anyway, she’s got to be a pretty special case.” Writers in or out of Hollywood should be warned that they can no longer build plots on loss of virginity or fainting pregnant heroines and expect to be believed. Marjorie Morningstar, which was taken seriously enough when it appeared to be heatedly denied by many a middle-class Jewish girl (“I’m not a Marjorie Morningstar!”), is now regarded as a kind of humorless Much Ado About Nothing in modern dress. Novels presently being written about, and sometimes by, college girls are not necessarily preoccupied with sex, but they do assume that it is a possible and probable part of a single girl’s experience. There has come to be, as David Riesman pointed out, more than one generation’s difference between generations.

Novels presently being written about, and sometimes by, college girls are not necessarily preoccupied with sex, but they do assume that it is a possible and probable part of a single girl’s experience.

Like all good heroines, Franny was ahead of her readers and so has endured. She had already arrived at a view of what her brother Zooey calls “just sex talking, buddy,” as a vital part, but only one part, of a very personal development. The realization that her lover is shallow and a bit of a stuffed shirt is not much more upsetting to her than the thought that the religion professor may also be a phony. As Leslie Fiedler writes, “If the Temple Drake of Faulkner’s Sanctuary stands as the classic portrait of a coed in the Twenties, the Franny of Salinger’s Glass stories bids well to become her equivalent…. Temple’s revolt was against vestigial puritanism and obsolescent chivalry and her weapons were booze and sex; Franny’s is against literature and the New Criticism and her weapon is the ‘Jesus Prayer.’” The point is to pursue truth and not be a phony, and sex is just another area in which to seek these goals.

If there is one thing that distinguishes the current crop of sixteen- to twenty-five-year-olds from the generations of ten or even five years ago, it is this de-emphasis of sex. As a bewildered women’s college dean put it, “It isn’t that they’re preoccupied with sex, it’s that they accept it so easily and then turn to you and say, ‘And now what?’” A graduate student explained: “Lovemaking can be good outside marriage and bad in marriage just as easily as the other way around. Sex is neutral like money. It’s the way you use it that counts.” And a sophomore from a Midwestern university, who had had no affairs herself, said, “One girl I know is sleeping with the boy she’s pinned to just because everybody else is having affairs, and another girl in my dorm is staying a virgin just because mother said so. They’re both phonies.”

For better or worse, the emphasis is now on the individual, and group judgments of individual actions are out-of-date. A national magazine polled college students on attitudes toward chastity and reported that nearly all respondents, male or female, virginal or not, phrased in some way the opinion that “sexual behavior is something you have to decide by yourself.” The belief that pleasure in sex was created only to insure the production of children seems to have disappeared with the idea that if God meant man to fly, He would have given him wings, and at about the same time. One student supported her decision to have affairs outside marriage with the fact that women are, after all, the only creatures capable of experiencing an orgasm at times when they are not capable of conceiving. Other arguments backing up the widespread rejection of society’s traditional ban on premarital sex were pure logic. A Boston working girl summed them up: “I’m not preaching against the institution of marriage by having affairs beforehand and I’m not going to produce illegitimate children for society to take care of. People who have no share in the consequences should have no share in the decision.”

Clearly, single girls who worry less about Franny’s being pregnant are worrying less about it themselves. They can afford to view affairs as a natural part of their development because science has removed the physical consequences of sex.

The contraceptive revolution is not new; it began more than eighty years ago when a German doctor invented the first really effective contraceptive device, the vaginal diaphragm. But science, even farther ahead of society than literary heroines, was no more successful than usual in effecting social changes by itself. Just as Malthusian Europe ignored all that the Greeks and Romans knew about birth control, American women ignored, or were ignorant of, the advantages of the diaphragm and other female contraceptive devices until pioneers like Margaret Sanger spread the word. Since that time, some forty years ago, contraception has become vital to the role of modern women. “The real emancipation of women,” says sociologist and historian Dr. Richard Lewinsohn, “began in the bedroom and the bathroom, with the rationalization of sex life.”

Single girls can afford to view affairs as a natural part of their development because science has removed the physical consequences of sex.

Education, family background, and religious training influence attitudes toward contraception, as well as toward sex in general. It is statistically determined that the use of birth control, from the rhythm method through mechanical devices, increases as education and income increase. According to studies quoted by Dr. Alan Guttmacher, President of the Planned Parenthood Federation, in The Complete Book of Birth Control, more education and better income also tend to shift the responsibility for birth control to the wife. Informal studies indicate the same shift among unmarried girls.

A young woman now teaching at the college where she was an undergraduate ten years ago says: “In my day, a girl might be having an affair, but it was considered part of chivalry for the young man to look after ‘all that.’ Now, a girl in the same situation thinks it’s dumb and even unwomanly to make the man responsible for her not getting pregnant.” A New York bachelor who has gone to every major debutante party since his graduation from Yale eight years ago commented that girls used to give worry about getting pregnant as a reason, or an excuse, for not going to bed with a man, but not anymore: “They know very well, and they know you know they know, all about contraception. One girl told me she wears a diaphragm almost all the time, and another one, age seventeen, said she takes a contraceptive along whenever she goes out, ‘just in case.’” The staff psychiatrist of a women’s college and a university put it simply, “It is no longer uncommon for single girls to have diaphragms.”

Since laws prevent the sale of such contraceptive devices without a doctor’s prescription and diaphragms require an initial fitting by a doctor, how are they so easily available to single girls? “Simple,” says one young actress. “Just go to a doctor and tell him you’re getting married. I went through the whole bit, including a blood test, just to get a diaphragm.” According to many doctors, she may have gone through the whole bit for nothing. One Boston general practitioner says he prescribes diaphragms to anyone who asks: “I don’t know a doctor who demands a marriage license before giving contraceptive advice or prescriptions. The law says ‘health reasons’ and leaves the interpretation up to our discretion. We proceed on the basis that unmarried women need medical contraceptive methods for their own and for society’s health.” In many cities, there are birth-control clinics where a girl, with or without a wedding ring, can be fitted for a diaphragm, generally at a lower fee than private doctors charge. The names of such doctors and clinics are handed from one girl to the next. Sentences that begin, “Listen, I know a very nice doctor,” have introduced hundreds of girls to one of several popular gynecologists with offices in uptown Manhattan near Columbia University and Barnard College. Another New York gynecologist estimates that a fourth of the young ladies who come to him for premarital examinations don’t have marriage immediately in mind, but he keeps up the pretense: “They get embarrassed if you tell them you know. They like to think of us as kindly old idiots.” A doctor in Washington, D.C. disapproves enough to lecture or refuse those who seem immature, but points out that in any drugstore, they can get creams and jellies “that are just a little less sure.” And as a last resort, there are always the contraceptives for men which every American male is taught to use in the Army, if not long before, and which often are sold from restroom vending machines. The only state in which the use of birth-control or contraceptive devices is prohibited by law is Connecticut, and even there, as the Supreme Court noted in 1961, there has been “an undeviating policy” of failure to enforce the law. In the face of all this, the girl who gets pregnant today probably is, as the Smith girl said, “a pretty special case.”

The fact that the contraceptive revolution is already in such an advanced stage may explain why the invention that marks its height and perhaps its completion—the first completely safe and foolproof contraceptive pill—is being accepted so quietly. Doctors are enthusiastic about evidence that the pill may inhibit the growth of certain kinds of cancer in women. Population experts hail it as the first big step toward finding a similar, cheaper substance for use in underdeveloped areas. There is even some lay opinion that the pill, which is also used to regularize menstrual cycles, might be the answer to Pope Pius’ 1951 plea to science for “a sufficiently secure basis” for the rhythm method. But for all the interest in the pill’s fringe benefits, there has been remarkably little controversy over its present use in this country as a contraceptive.

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From left: Gloria Steinem, comedian Dick Gregory, writer Betty Friedan, and US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Patricia Roberts Harris hold hands on Pennsylvania Avenue during the Equal Rights Amendment March, which took place in Washington DC on July 9, 1978. Many supporters wore white in homage to the suffragists who had marched in Washington sixty-five years earlier.

And it is being used. In the two years since the pill was approved for sale by the Food and Drug Administration, at least 750,000 American women have become users and the stock values of its distributors have jumped amazingly. Each day, about five hundred more women begin using the pill. Stockbrokers’ tip sheets note that “the total potential market has barely been tapped” and predict that a second brand of contraceptive pill soon to be marketed will expand the market ever more rapidly.

There are no figures on how many single girls are taking the pill, but there are indications of their interest in it. A national women’s magazine recently polled four hundred college girls on their attitude toward the pill, and got some startling answers. One girl wrote, “I might have postponed my wedding and had premarital relations instead.” Another said, “With one hundred percent birth control, you are not running the risk of hurting anyone by your behavior and therefore it is not immoral.” Several who had already had affairs were enthusiastic because they felt the pill would free them to enjoy sex more. Most replies made it clear that those who definitely want to have affairs are using existing contraceptives and those who definitely don’t are unlikely to be seduced by better birth control. But even supposing that answers to the effect that the pill was good only for “planning families wisely” or “the overpopulation of the Orient” were completely honest, there appears to be a swing group whose behavior will be influenced by widespread use of the pill.

Certainly, the pill’s advantages are at least as valuable to unmarried girls as to wives. For one thing, it is more aesthetic than mechanical devices and, because it works chemically to suppress ovulation, it can be taken at a time completely removed from intercourse. Most important, it is one hundred percent effective: during five years of large-scale tests and two years of public use, no woman who has taken the pill as directed—one each day for twenty days a month—has become pregnant and no dangerous side effects have been discovered. The necessity of a doctor’s prescription will do little toward limiting the use of the pill to married women. Minor side effects, usually slight gastrointestinal disturbances, experienced by one out of five women, mean the pill should be taken under a doctor’s supervision, but there are reports that druggists around one major university are selling the pill without prescription when they know the customer.

Dr. Gregory Pincus of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Massachusetts, one of the men most responsible for the pill’s development, says that it does not directly effect libido. There is evidence, however, that removal of pregnancy fears increases sexual drive. Dr. Guttmacher quotes findings: “In some of the field trials among women who previously had been constantly afraid of becoming pregnant, the effectiveness of the pill caused forty percent of them to report an increase in sexual desire.”

Constant fear was hardly the condition prior to the pill in this country, but removing the last remnants of fear of social consequences seems sure to speed American women, especially single women, toward the view that their sex practices are none of society’s business. A young lady editor described the new middle-class standard: “Anything that goes on in private between two consenting adults is moral. What is shocking now is only real promiscuity or homosexuality or sex in which more than two people participate, and even then no one would dream of interfering unless one of the participants is being forced.” The pill is obviously important to the sexual and the contraceptive revolutions, but is not the opening bombshell of either one.

When family, church or college administration tries to impose group standards on individuals with this new view of morality, the result is a surface victory at best. One ex-staff member of an Eastern women’s college cites the case of an undergraduate who was penalized because her room was messy. After finding the room in the same state for weeks, college authorities discovered that she was not using the dormitory at all, but was living with a young man at a neighboring university. The college made an example of the girl by expelling her and trying to retract her academic honors, including a Phi Beta Kappa key. For the girl’s friends, many of whom were leaders on campus, this was final evidence of the administration’s unrealistic attitude. As a result, college authorities found themselves even more seriously out-of-touch and out-of-step with their student body than before. The ex-staff member points out the danger of following policies at variance with the actual situation, and adds that current college administrators have to be blind not to know what that situation is.

If there is anything about which today’s serious and “cool” college girls show anger, it is hypocrisy and phoniness in their elder’s attitudes, but some of the more sophisticated are sympathetic to college administrative problems. A nineteen-year-old Wellesley girl said: “I know that colleges have to hold the line for parents and trustees and even some of the students. But while the State Department held the line for the French, the C.I.A. was probably in there backing the Algerians. Why can’t colleges have a C.I.A. or at least a few people on the faculty you could really talk to?”

Students say a few colleges and more big universities do have people you can really talk to. One administrator says his university has achieved success by a hands-off policy, and the dean of a coeducational college in the Midwest tells complaining parents that he is sorry but sexual practices that don’t directly affect the college community are not his problem.

Many educators, while personally wistful about the era when sex was a magic, forbidden country, objectively favor the current de-emphasis and acceptance of sex. The recently retired Barnard President, Millicent McIntosh, finds students “more realistic, more honest and actually more courageous than we were. Their sex ethics are founded on knowledge instead of ignorance; they are honest rather than hypocritical.” A psychologist associated with the Harvard School of Education believes the emphasis on individual morality is “part of a dangerous but thus far salutary change” that has led to the development of a woman who does not feel forced to choose between a career and marriage, and is therefore free to find fulfillment in a combination of the two. He calls this girl “self-motivated and autonomous” and notes that she makes the best kind of teacher.

The development of the “autonomous” girl is important and, in large numbers, quite new. Like Salinger’s Franny, she expects to find her identity neither totally without men nor totally through them. And as Franny had acting, she has work she wants to do and with which she feels identified. The autonomous girl has been freed partly by the contraceptive revolution and partly by the movement away from educating women, as Radcliffe President Mary Bunting puts it, “like little men.” She can marry later than average and have affairs if she wishes, but she can also marry without giving up her work. New educational and professional patterns are allowing her to lay aside her job during childbearing years and resume it full or part time afterward. As Sarah Lawrence professor Esther Raushenbush writes, “The dominant fact is not that women are as able as men, but that the stages of women’s lives are quite different from the stages of men’s … that finding a husband is itself an unfinished affair in the pattern of their total lives and that it will not be all there is.”

If all girls were so self-motivated, the disappearance of chastity could be mourned as the passing of a romantic convention, and the contraceptive revolution would be only the basis of an honest and nonphony morality.

The problem is that the many girls who are not self-motivated, who depend on the roles of wife and mother for their total identity, are now being pressured into affairs they can’t handle and jobs they pretend to like. In the fine old American tradition of conformity, society has begun to make it as rough for virgins and women content to be housewives as it once did for those who had affairs before marriage and worked afterward. Chaste girls feel “out of it” and women are apologetic for being “only housewives.” The whole situation is as ludicrous and in need of remedy as the one that put a scarlet “A” on Hester.

If all girls were so self-motivated, the disappearance of chastity could be mourned as the passing of a romantic convention, and the contraceptive revolution would be only the basis of an honest and nonphony morality.

Of twenty-seven college girls interviewed, ten had had affairs not leading to marriage, six were sleeping with young men they intended to marry, and eleven were virgins. Of those virgins, more than half were a little uncomfortable about it. One said: “It isn’t just the boys who pressure you into bed, it’s the other girls. Not that they say anything, but just by being around them I feel like some kind of nut.” Another complained: “I told a date nice girls don’t, but he just laughed, and he’s right. Nice girls do.” The mother of a college sophomore said her daughter confessed that she just couldn’t go back to college still a virgin. A University of Michigan instructor was propositioned by a girl he knew only in class who gave the rather unflattering reason that she was tired of being a virgin. And David Riesman writes: “A girl came to me, a university coed, who felt that she was quite crazy … because she felt guilt about sexual adventures. That is, she had feelings that would have been perfectly normal in earlier decades, but she had been convinced that it was wrong for her to feel the least bit troubled or problematic about sexual experience.”

This is not to say that all virgins feel immature or that they succumb to social pressure. Many are as secure in their virginity as those at the other end of the spectrum are in developmental love affairs. And, according to considerable evidence that virgins and girls who have had five or more affairs make equally good marriages, it is a girl’s sureness of her position that counts.

Outside college, nonautonomous girls are under even more pressure to pretend interest in jobs and disinterest in marriage. They often, to quote Dorothy Parker, “pursue monogamy from bed to bed,” becoming less happy and more desperate as they go. Experienced observers, mostly men, say that, in spite of their assumed love of independence, such girls are easy to spot. They are traditional enough to feel that men should be superior in every area, but enlightened enough to see that this is rarely true. The conflict often results in what might be called the Maid Marian syndrome: Girls go out to joust with men in the hope of being proven inferior so they can relax and be women, a habit which hardly ever increases their attractiveness to modern Robin Hoods. One single girl, whom the Harvard psychologist would call autonomous, says, “It’s those unhappy ones who give the rest of us a bad name.”

The old social problem of protecting the minority has carried over to the age of sexual freedom, but it is not the same minority.

Will the single woman’s position continue to change? The answer seems to be yes. Some sociologists feel that the contraceptive revolution will eventually raise the marriage age. Others think it may contribute to a companionate marriage where ties are not binding until the first child is born. The number of women who now have affairs before marriage and, if there are no children, divorce without guilt afterward may mean that we are already tending toward this view of marriage, in fact if not in law. One psychiatrist believes that women’s access to foolproof birth-control methods will keep them from being forced into marriage by their sex drives any more often than men are now, and will make it clear that marriage is not just a feminine invention. Among the so-called autonomous working girls, that seems to be true: six out of ten interviewed who were considering marriage said it was the men who wanted to marry while they preferred to wait. (One happily married writer said he had used the feminine tactic of refusing to see or sleep with his girl until she made up her mind to marry him.)

A home and family remain the eventual goals for both men and women, but for some women they are no longer the only goals. Like men, they are free to take sex, education, work and even marriage when and how they like.

But how much can women change when they are limited by nature to a biological function? The answer depends on how much of women’s traditional role is actually dictated by their biological function, and that is an issue now hotly debated among sociologists and psychiatrists.

Freud used the phrase “anatomy of destiny” to explain why women’s passiveness, receptivity and need for protection are biologically inevitable, and Helene Deutsch expanded the theory that much of women’s role is physically determined. But current experts are now questioning or modifying this theory. For proof, they point to cultural anthropology’s findings on the number of healthy societies in which women perform their biological function, but do not conform to the passive and receptive role Freud felt was natural. Dr. George Goethals, a psychologist at Harvard University, finds that there is no role which, when abandoned by women, causes dislocation in all societies, and that women’s role is more learned than physically determined. If this is true, the major part of being a woman is culturally determined and changeable. “What almost invariably does cause societal stress,” says Dr. Goethals, “is when man’s view of woman’s role differed from her actual role, whatever it may be.”

Men’s opinions on the subject of women’s role are hardly uniform. Some would agree with the New York bachelor who says, “I’d rather take the chance of a really successful marriage with the new kind of woman than be assured of mediocrity with the traditional kind,” or with the European photographer who believes, “If you love a woman, you must love everything she’s experienced. Nothing is less interesting than virginity.” But there are many who trace much of their own and women’s unhappiness to an abandoning of traditional roles; for these, women’s sexual freedom is a frightening development difficult to accept.

The real danger of the contraceptive revolution may be the acceleration of woman’s role-change without any corresponding change of man’s attitude toward her role. As one psychiatrist said in paraphrase of Margaret Mead’s verdict on the education of women, “The main trouble with sexually liberating women is that there aren’t enough sexually liberated men to go around.”

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Gloria Steinem