A forgotten early 20th-century Betty Friedan

Quick: where do these sentences come from?

[The housewife] masters in a year or two years at most details which must nevertheless be repeated, although all the freshness and interest have gone out of them, as long as life lasts.

In a vague and unanalyzed way she feels the inexorable effects of child training and housekeeping upon her own mental life and powers.

She has a sense of injury that she has fallen upon a career so uninteresting and uncongenial.

Betty Friedan, right? The Feminine Mystique. The problem that has no name.

No, not right—as you’ve probably guessed, since this blog isn’t called “My Year in 1963.” (The post title may have been a tip-off as well.) They come from an October 20, 1917,* article in the New Republic called “The Price of a Home,” by Julia Clark Hallam.

Parade staged by the Iowa Woman’s Suffrage Association. Boone, Iowa. October 29, 1908. Photographer: Moxley. (State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines)

There were feminists back then, of course. For the most part, though, they were fighting for the vote, not talking about bored housewives. In fact, in order to win men over to the suffragist cause, they were deliberately not rocking the gender equality boat.

Julia Clark Hallam was a suffragist, too—she headed the Iowa Equal Suffrage Society from 1909 to 1910. But she wasn’t having any of this “one battle at a time” business.

Hutchison Hall, University of Chicago, ca. 1910-1920 (Library of Congress)

“The Price of a Home” starts with the tale of a woman (clearly Hallam herself) who applies to graduate school twenty-five years after graduating from college with honors. In the years in between, she has raised four children. The school’s dean agrees to admit her, but he predicts that she won’t succeed. She asks why.

“Because,” replied the dean, after taking a moment or two for reflection, “our experience has compelled us to realize that the occupation of home making, important as it is, does not prepare the mind for its higher activities and attainment.”

Hallam sees the dean’s point.

Lack of intellectual content in experience and constant repetition arrest mental development as certainly as newness, freshness and interestingness make for mental growth.

The way she describes this problem leaves little doubt that she’s experienced it first-hand.

There are days when [the housewife] feels she must throw all the dishes on the scrap heap rather than wash them, and as for breaking an egg, which has to be done so endlessly in cooking, she clenches her teeth lest she jam the whole sack of eggs into the garbage pail.

Frontispiece, Studies in Child Development, Julia Clark Hallam

In a follow-up article the next week, Hallam takes on the argument that, while keeping house might be tedious, raising children is intellectually stimulating.

Doubtless there are elements of truth in this argument, yet I wonder if those who press it realize how often a child has to be bathed? Let us admit that the first ministrations of this kind bring the thrill of the mentally fresh and the emotionally pleasurable. But after the act has been repeated several hundred times the thrill refuses to report for duty.

Again sounding very much like Friedan, she says that technology is not the solution.

I am inclined to believe that mechanical inventions are proving thought-killers rather than thought-producers, and that the time they save is wasted unless it can be given to activities which have a real mental content.

Good Housekeeping, January 1918

It’s too late for the present generation of homemakers, Hallam says. But she’s optimistic about the future.

My most earnest hope and conviction is that through the influence of continued intellectual rebellion on their parts against the present conditions, we shall blaze a trail which for our daughters and granddaughters will lead out to a reconstructed society where all individuals shall have equal share in grasp of mind and freedom of spirit.

In the debate sparked by the article, Hallam comes in for a fair amount of condescension. But not all of her critics are men. Elizabeth Childe of Washington, D.C., says that, after searching through “a mind darkened by twenty years of homemaking,” she has found the flaw in Hallam’s argument: her failure to distinguish between housework and the rewarding—to Childe, at least—occupation of homemaking. Friedan, too, was criticized for saying that no one could possibly enjoy being a housewife. (Another criticism of Friedan, that of class bias, could also be applied to Hallam. Her husband’s work—he was a lawyer—might seem enviable, but would she want to trade places with a male assembly line worker?)

Frontispiece, The Story of a European Tour, Julia Clark Hallam

Hallam did earn her degree, an M.A. from the University of Chicago, in 1910. In addition to her work as a suffragist, she taught high school in the United States and the Philippines. She wrote several books as well. The Story of a European Tour (1900), is, sad to say, even more boring than it sounds.** In Studies in Child Development (1913), we learn about “The Boy’s Greatest Danger,” which is, you guessed it, “onanism, or self-pollution.” You can read what she has to say about this life-threatening problem, and how to solve it, here.*** But most of her advice is more sensible, and she was described as a pioneering advocate for sex education (or social hygiene, as it was then known).

Hallam died in 1927, at the age of 67. Her occupation, as listed on her death certificate: housewife.

*Granted, this blog isn’t called “My Year in 1917” either. But the debate over Hallam’s article continued for months in the letters to the editor, which is how I came across her.

**The height of the action, judging from my quick skim: she and her husband think they’ve lost their train tickets, find them at the last minute, are separated on the platform in the confusion, and are brought together by a nice young man from Princeton.

***If you’re pressed for time, here’s a sample: “Everyone has seen an electric battery which has spent its force. It is a dead thing. So the body, with its splendid life forces wasted—not to speak of the moral and spiritual and degradation that follows. It is one of the great tragedies of life.”

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