"Sex and the College Girl" is a fascinating read 65 years later

I love that The Atlantic sometimes re-prints some of their most famous, impactful articles from decades ago. Most are a fascinating window into a bygone era, but some are still amazingly relevant today. 

This wry essay, "Sex and the College Girl" by Nora Johnson (from the November, 1959 issue), is a fun look at the sexual revolution that was unfolding at the time, and how it totally upended gender relations between men and women. We're still living with the reverberations from that earthquake 60+ years later — in many ways, the Christian right and MAGA can be reduced to an attempt to reverse the sexual revolution and restore the patriarchy.

The subheadline could have been written last week: 

"I think that the charge that men have become emasculated by the competence of women is both depressing and untrue."

Johnson quickly gets to her main argument:

The modern American female is one of the most discussed, written-about, sore subjects to come along in ages. She has been said to be domineering, frigid, neurotic, repressed, and unfeminine. She tries to do everything at once and doesn't succeed in doing anything very well. Her problems are familiar to everyone, and, naturally, her most articulate critics are men. But I have found one interesting thing. Men, when they are pinned down on the subject, admit that what really irritates them about modern women is that they can't, or won't, give themselves completely to men the way women did in the old days. 

Paging Mike Johnson and Harrison Butker

Then she looks at the impossible, inherent contradictions that women of the day wrestled with.

The fact is that, lacking a solid background of Christian ethics, most girls have only a couple of vague rules of thumb to go by, which they cling to beyond all sense and reason. And these, interestingly enough, contradict each other. One is that anything is all right if you're in love (romantic, from movies and certain fiction — the American dream of love) and the other is that a girl must be respected, particularly by the man she wants to marry (ethical, left over from grandma). Since these are extremely shaky and require the girl's knowing whether or not there is a chance of love in the relationship, sex, to her, requires constant corroborative discussion while she tries to plumb the depths of a man's intentions. Actions alone are not trustworthy. After all, a prostitute can arouse a man as well as (and probably better than) a "nice" girl. But if a man loves her for herself, and not just her body, he will augment his wandering hands with a few well-placed words of love. Clinging to her two contradictory principles, she tries to be a sexual demon and Miss Priss at tea at the same time; she tries not to see what strange companions love and propriety are.

Finally, she skewers the role her fancy education plays in all this confusion: 

The Eastern women's colleges… subtly emanate, over a period of four years, a concept of the ideal American woman, who is nothing short of fantastic. She must be a successful wife, mother, community contributor, and possibly career woman, all at once. Besides this, she must be attractive, charming, gracious, and good-humored; talk intelligently about her husband's job, but not try to horn in on it; keep her home looking like a page out of House Beautiful; and be efficient, but not intimidatingly so. While she is managing all this, she must be relaxed and happy, find time to read, paint, and listen to music, think philosophical thoughts, be the keeper of culture in the home, and raise her husband's sights above the television set. 

Things have changed so much since 1959… and yet we're still litigating so many of the same issues our Eisenhower-era predecessors did.