Goodbye, Good Little Girl Syndrome
Children, especially girls, have been raised by parents to believe in and practice what I’ve christened “The Good Little Girl Syndrome.” The name says it all and I dare think that I need to explain, but I will do that. We are, in fact, probably witnessing the death of that syndrome and we can find one sign of it in the #MeToo hashtag that is so prevalent on Twitter.
The history of the demise of this syndrome may be unclear as many believe it sprung up like a mushroom in the night and, suddenly, was fully formed in the minds of millions of women. That is not so. From my perspective, it actually was instigated, perhaps unwittingly, by the writers of the “Mad Men” TV shows.
Too many writers have waxed philosophical on this era, one in which they were never immersed. But the era of the Mad Men is one with which I am fully acquainted, having witnessed it firsthand as a naïve young girl in the world of New York City’s publishing and related fields.
Three martini lunches, after work dalliances with married men who had to catch their trains to their families in Greenwich, Connecticut, and pathetic young women who began their day with a glass of vodka prior to getting on the subway to go to work.
I saw all of it but remained in my carefully woven mental cocoon. I had, after all, been groomed, so carefully groomed, in The Good Little Girl Syndrome by the dear Sisters of Charity. They, too, suffered through this syndrome and never wavered from it or their staunch belief that it was the only way for a decent little girl to grow up into womanhood.
The sisters were told to bring their own linens and money for making their own habits. One of their vows was of poverty and the Catholic Church was a great help there, paying them a less-than-minimum wage to teach the kids and tend to the sick. Tish, tosh, such rubbish.
All of it, including the fawning on women from the Seven Sisters, who could afford $125 Lord & Taylor dresses on a pathetic salary, was a part of that world. In this scenario, everyone knew their place, including the secretary who provided coke and pills in her apartment for well-known entertainers, until they arrested her. I remember the front-page headlines in The Daily News.
Secretary to a vice president no more, she was sent to jail and forgotten except in snide remarks during too-lengthy coffee breaks. And there was that awful front-page photo of her doing the perp walk to the police car. She’d even made a trip to California, it was whispered, with a famous actress. Gossip for days.
The news hit the front page of the local tabloids and the shock waves hit everyone like a gut punch. We soldiered on in our appointed roles, forgetting her and what she’d done, including bringing down the poor office mail girl who wanted desperately to be a shoe model.
Gradually, as we progressed into the middle-60s with the loosening of our verbal coarseness and the tossing of bras, young women rebelled. Along with them, college students rebelled, and it began to move ever closer to new life goals for women.
White gloves and small, appropriate hats were left in mom’s closet and marches for equal rights began in earnest. Betty Friedan, a woman I knew had worked with her and didn’t like her at all, wrote her classic, “The Feminine Mystique,” which I never read. Nor did I read “Our Bodies, Ourselves” or a host of other books about the new feminism. I didn’t need their books because I had the fire inside and the rebel didn’t need instruction.
Gradually, the “f” word began to sprinkle every paragraph I blurted out to my co-workers who did the same. All of us were women with a new sense of spirit if many of them were still going out with married men who had wives who “didn’t understand” them.
Society girl secretaries planned their engagement parties while dating other men in the office on the side. The marriages in which they would bond with Ivy League males were more on the order of family ties and financial concerns.
Young married women dutifully, sent their husbands to college, grad school, med school, and law school only to be divorced once some men got their degrees. That’s where the morning vodka came into play.
Women settled for Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School or courses from Evelyn Wood because the colleges, including Columbia University in NYC, Harvard and Yale, didn’t admit women. In fact, none of the “best” colleges admitted women and thus arose the “sister schools” of the fabled Seven Sisters. Even there, a woman had to have family money to attend, so most women found aspirations for careers too stressful in a world that denied it to them.
Typing and steno skills, plus knowing how to cook, clean and do laundry were all a woman needed in her limited existence.
College, if your family could afford it (there were few to no student loans) was a place to find a suitable husband, and even the fabled Dr. Joyce Brothers (nee Joyce Diane Bauer of Far Rockaway) graduated from The College of Home Economics prior to her career as a psychologist. Times had changed when Brothers made her move onto TV and won “The $64,000 Question” with her encyclopedic knowledge of boxing.
Brothers, in fact, was threatened with withdrawal of her membership in the American Psychological Association because she was answering questions on psychological topics in the media. A dean at my university told me about the furor it created. The APA believed her media activity was contrary to the ethical scope of a psychologist and should be constrained to a private office setting.
No longer did housewives find their psychological questions answer by “The Answer Man” or “Mr. Anthony” on the radio. Now, they had real, flesh-and-blood psychologists responding to their tales of woe on radio and TV.
Women, thanks to the stalwart efforts of their mothers, aunts and grandmothers, are enjoying choices and opportunities denied to the prior generations of women. Medical schools have opened their doors with some schools showing a 50–50 male-female student ratio where previously women were almost as absent as hen’s teeth. Engineering, computers, and other traditionally-male domains are now seeking bright women to join their ranks.
But inherent in this new cultural atmosphere is still obvious vestiges of the “old boy” network type of thinking about women. One instance can be found in the outrageous behavior at a BIO International Conference where topless women had corporate logos plastered on their bodies. Two years ago, it was J.P. Morgan’s turn to try to turn the clock back.
Today, I saw a somewhat uneasy young pharmaceutical detail woman waiting at a nurses’ station. Tottering on her too-high heels and with full makeup and long blonde hair, it made me ask myself if the burgeoning number of female physicians will change this career path, too.
Will we see a crop of attractive, muscular young men carrying those sample cases once again? Yes, we will and I’ve seen them.
Will these women be pushed out of this field as they had been in secretarial positions at the turn of the 20th century? Unbelievably, typewriters were considered “machines,” and women weren’t viewed as capable of operating “machines,” so men had these jobs.
Undoubtedly, there are women who have limited choices still and who must accept jobs that pay for the day or short-term contracts. We’re in a gig economy which can only present new challenges to women in terms of equal pay and equal respect for something other than their physical attributes. The Good Little Girl Syndrome is still with us and the battle rages on, more active in some parts of the world than in others.
But as Bob Dylan sang, “For the times they are a’changing…”