For the past several weeks I’ve been reading through motive magazine from 1962-1972 in preparation for a conference paper I’m delivering in March. I’m looking at the way the magazine employed gender, sex, and sexuality during the ten year period leading up to its break from the United Methodist denomination.
One of the precipitating events leading to the break was a special issue put out in March/April 1969 on what was then referred to as the women’s liberation movement. The issue proved so controversial, not least because the word “fuck” appeared in one of the articles, that the May 1969 issue was embargoed and the editor, B.J. Stiles, was asked to step down. This weekend at Boston University’s Mugar library I read through the letters to the editor that poured in in response to the “women’s” issue, and I thought y’all would enjoy reading some of the reactions the motive staff saw fit to print in the October and November issues the following fall.
They were introduced by Joanne Cooke, staff member and guest editor of the women’s liberation issue:
Response to our March-April issue on women was overwhelming. At first it seemed to reveal a great split among our readers, but on closer examination we saw as much similarity as difference.
Everyone who wrote, whether they had burned the issue or bronzed it, believed they did so as an affirmation of the same basic values: belief in and respect for human dignity, belief in individual responsibility for actions and mutual responsibility for and to one’s brothers and sisters, belief in the right (and duty) to ‘vote’ and to make one’s voice heard, belief in the right (and duty) of individuals to join together to organize and to coordinate their efforts to achieve a common goal, and rejection of the Playboy Philosophy as an attitudinal and behavioral guide.
Curiously, almost all the letters were addressed, ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Gentlemen,’ in spite of the fact that the issue was written and edited by women. Response ran about 60-40 in our favor, but only 24% of our supporters and 11% of our detractors were subscribers. Sixty percent of those responding favorably were women, while sixty percent of those responding negatively were men.
Twenty-year-old Jessica J. Powers (Glenside, Pennsylvania) wrote in to complain that the disgruntled feminists were ruining it for everyone else. I’m particularly fascinated with her construction of women as either mothers and “lovely, loving women” or bread-winners/fellow-workers. At the level of cultural narrative, at least, it seems women couldn’t be both:
I love my femininity and womanliness and I am proud of my sex. I like to have men open doors for me, hold my chair, help me with my coat. … I find that any woman who has a valid opinion about pertinent issues will find acceptance if her opinions are, in fact, valid. … If you achieve your goals in liberating the women of this country [, our] children will no longer look to us as their ever-loving mothers but rather another bread-winner. Our husbands will no longer look upon us adoringly as feminine, lovely, loving women but rather a fellow-worker … Please, in your quest, remember those of us who love our womanhood. Don’t ruin it for us.
A.J. Gunther from Dynnyrne, Hobart, Tasmania, concurred. I’m particularly impressed by Gunther’s ability to suggest a solution to the problem he presents (“they both take on the home chores”) in the context of completely dismissing it as a possibility for home life:
In this crazy world of computers, wars, and crass commercialism, it is up to the women to put human values first. It is the wife’s job to meet her husband morning and evening, to share some things in common, and to provide beauty and comfort in herself and in the home. … If Mrs. works at being a woman of the world all day … When she comes home after a day in the world outside—unlike Mr. who can relax from his job—she goes into high gear to tackle the T.V. Dinners and household requirements. Unless they both take on the home chores, something has to give—what?
Time for relationships, time to listen, time to make a real pie. It is no coincidence that the divorce and delinquency rates are directly proportional to the freedom of the ‘liberated’ working wife. … It is an even wiser woman who realizes that her role in the home is the first and most important job—the cultivating of human relationships in an atmosphere of love.
And in defensive terms that would be perfectly at home on Reddit today, Harold O. Harriger from Lubbock, Texas, assures motive that his woman most certainly isn’t an angry feminist lesbian … although she might morph into one if he allowed her to read about this women’s liberation stuff:
Deep, dark forebodings beset me as to what might happen if my Rebecca got hold of the issue; poor lass—four kids, 100% female, and swears she wouldn’t trade me as a playmate for the best Lesbian in town. Just doesn’t understand the situation, I guess.
Of course, saner voices such as those from a female seminarian, Mrs. Susan Whitledge Nevius (President, Boston University Theological Students Association), also weighed in:
Certainly the ‘four-letter words’ used in the March-April issue were not out of place, especially with the excellent explanation given for their use on page five in the editorial. … Certainly the Methodist Church and its officials have more important things to do than hassle over ‘four-letter words,’ especially when male chauvinism is so rampant in The Methodist Church itself. When our denomination has been ordaining women since 1956, how can it still make recruiting films called ‘It Takes a Man’? Why do most of the official forms still ask for ‘wife’s name’ instead of ‘spouse’s name’; and why does the Discipline continually refer to ‘the minister and his wife’ rather than ‘the minister and spouse’? Why is no recruiting for the parish ministry done among women? I did not even know that it was possible for a woman to be a parish minister until I got to seminary. However, seminaries are no exception, for it is my seminary experience so far that has convinced me of just how deep the prejudice against women is.
And a chaplain from Michigan State University, Keith L. Pohl, who (likely unwittingly) undercuts his praise by referring to the women who assembled the issue as “girls”:
As most ‘red-blooded’ American males I should respond to the March-April issue of motive with resentment and indignation. However, good sense does on occasion win over the emotion of male pride, and superior journalism deserves to be recognized… Thank the girls for a job well done, and I continue to look forward to each issue as usual.
I do find particularly fascinating how even some who began their letters on a fairly even note of acceptance found that they needed to distance themselves from those women represented therein:
You presented two sides of the picture. 1) the career woman who has heard ‘When are you going to get married?’ once too often and 2) the Lesbian who is a human being but has had to live as something less than a whole human being because of a stereotype built out of misunderstanding and fear. “You did not present the third side of the picture: We women who are proud to be wive and mothers, who know that we have an important job to do, a job that no one else can do for us, we women who have dignity in the role that we have ‘chosen.’ … We are the women who were liberated long ago … liberated from envy, self pity, bitterness and guilt because we respect ourselves as human beings with an important job to be done. (Donna R. Brancy, Sparta, New Jersey)
The women’s liberation issue and the letters in response to it are, actually, the very first instances since 1962 that I have seen the word “lesbian” appear in the magazine (“homosexual” is used in the few instances prior to this when same-sex desire is referred to).
Women’s liberation and Lesbianism were, of course, but two nodes on a nexus of threats facing the American family during the Cold War period. Sharon R. Swenck, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University (Richmond, Virginia) raises another:
We are reminded that if the communists can destroy the structure of our homes, their job of destroying our society is well on the way to establishment. Being a wife and mother is a lovely and beautiful life and just whom do you want to ‘Liberate’ and for what? Shame on the Methodist Church for allowing such a publication. May God help us all is my prayer.
Still, more than the question of women’s role in society, it was the use of the word “fuck” that really seemed to get under the detractors skin:
The college students of our church have brought to my attention the March-April 1969 issue of motive. They are honest, modern, exposed college and university young people. They view the current issue as being plain, raw pornography. Their question is a simple, sincere one: ‘Is there any place left where we can get freedom from the trash that is spelled out in the four-letter words that little boys and girls learn to write on the toilet walls?” (Ramsey Bridges, Minister, Cross Lanes United Methodist Church, Charleston, West Virginia)
And people were, of course, always willing to haul out the “tone” argument:
Too many of the articles in the issue of motive were angry, self-defeating, and, as B.J. Stiles suggested, ‘anti-male.’ To put the male ego on the defensive and to impose on the male population an abundance of guilt is to perpetuate the set-back in openness and understanding acceptance for which women have been paying the price since the feminist movement days” (Beth E. Rhode, The Hunter College Protestant Association, Inc., New York, New York)
And even though this letter was written in praise of the issue, I’m honestly uncertain what Mr. Bill Garrett of Nashville, Tennessee is talking about — or how it relates to women’s lib:
The current issue on ‘The Liberation of Women’ focuses on an issue which is of growing concern to the whole younger generation. Facets of the issue include (1) the demythologizing of that language phenomenon known in the minds of many adults as ‘the four-letter word,’ (2) a willingness to deal openly with our society’s hang-ups, perversions and misunderstandings about sex, (3) an awareness of the total-environment orientation of much of life today, and (4) the basic need for handles and/or role models to begin creating and finding meaning in the midst of conflict and ambivalence.
And finally, in December 1969, a letter which is succinct in its condemnation:
Do any of you people connected with this magazine even faintly know what it means to be born again or to be saved? … This issue looks like it was put together by a bunch of sick people and women who hate men!
I applaud Mrs. Gus Rivalto (Memphis, Tennessee) for working in the evil feminist trifecta of ungodliness, lesbianism, and man-hating in a brief two-dozen words.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this stroll through a thin slice of my 50+ pages of research notes! In a couple weeks more it’ll be time to stop with the reading and start with the writing (gulp). If you’re in Boston and interested in the history of religion, check the conference out! See you there (maybe). And I’ll be posting the conference paper here after the presentation.