50 YEARS AFTER THE ASSASSINATION
Looking back at the way we lived
November 19, 2013
It was a decade that sparked some of our most tumultuous years as a country. John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War — those dramatic events are often the lens through which the 1960s are viewed.
But when it comes to the way we lived, especially in the earlier half of that decade, a sense of optimism and innocence still prevailed.
“To me, there were two ’60s. What we characteristically think of as the ’60s really gets underway in 1965, when (President Lyndon) Johnson commits a real army to Vietnam. Then there was the first half of the ’60s, which was really the ’50s in many ways,” said Michael Aaron Rockland, a professor of American studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “It’s like the ‘50s were 20 years long. We come out of World War II and all people want to do is buy a house in the suburbs … and get a Ford and have some babies and have a normal life.”
That may be simplifying things, but for many people, such simplicity tends to frame recollections of the 1960s years prior to Kennedy’s death. “It was an ‘Ozzie and Harriet’-type of lifestyle,” said Irv Thompson, referring which ran from 1952 through 1966.
Thompson, a Yardley native who lives in the Pine Run Community in Doylestown Township, was 15 in 1963 and attending Admiral Farragut Academy, a college preparatory school, in Pine Beach, N.J. He recalled the path before him was clear: “Grow up, get a college education, get a job I would have until I retired, have two-and-a-half kids and a house with a picket fence,” he said.
Life would ultimately take him in a different direction — he was drafted, but his service was deferred due to a shoulder injury, leading him to eventually join the Navy. But many conformed to that societal expectation and the rigid gender roles of the time.
“Socioeconomically, it was important to people to have traditional marriages, in terms of the father being the breadwinner and the mother being home,” said Linda Abrams, a therapist with the Council for Relationships and director of its Spring House office. “Even if it didn’t feel fulfilling, the division of roles was what people did.”
1963 was the year Betty Friedan’s landmark book, “The Feminine Mystique,” was published, challenging the image of the contented housewife. Still, many women did indeed seem happy to abandon their ambitions for domesticity. Abrams’ mom read Friedan’s book, yet insisted she and her friends didn’t fi t its profile of unhappy housewives.
“My mother loved being home … but some people say, ‘It looked better than I felt.’ There was the sense that it wasn’t OK to not feel good about it (not working outside the house),” said Abrams. Even women who had the opportunity to work, like Doylestown Township’s Sandra Fickes, sometimes opted to stay home.
Fickes was 27 in 1963, raising three children and living in Bedminster. Her own mom had been prohibited from working in the family business manufacturing pet food. But when Flickes was given a choice, she said, “I wanted to be a mother first. My day-to-day revolved around the kids. It was a commitment: marriage, childrearing, taking care of your parents and in-laws. These were expected steps in life. It was an enjoyable life.”
After Mount Holly, N.J., native Virginia Whalen married, she gave up her job as a secretary to stay home and raise their kids. When an illness forced her husband to retire in 1963, she returned to work in the Bronx. After his death, she moved back to New Jersey, where she got a job as a secretary in the Westampton Township School District — and a liberal arts degree from Rider College. But she never regretted those years spent at home with their brood of five.
“There might have been a couple of times where I envied my friend going into Manhattan when she got all dressed up,” 91-year-old Whalen, of Medford Lakes, N.J., said as she recalled a neighbor who worked for a cosmetic company. “But I was happy. It was that old time. Father goes to work. Mother stays home. Father knows best.”
Today, marriage and raising a child are often delayed in the pursuit of a career, and women are just as likely to be the family’s breadwinner as men. The push for marriage equality, the growing number of couples who live together outside of marriage and even technology have also redefined what constitutes the traditional family.
“Society is more accepting of people who choose to not be married and have children, especially as more women are able to support themselves,” said Samantha Gross, a history professor in the department of social and behavioral science at Bucks County Community College. “People get married and say, ‘We don’t want to have children.’
“And if you do want children, just take a look at technology: you don’t even need to have sex to get pregnant. You don’t need to carry the child yourself. You can have a child who is biologically yours but you were never pregnant,” she said.
When it comes to gay marriage, the controversy harks back to the ‘60s and another perceived threat to the institution of marriage.
Then, interracial marriage was illegal in many states, with similar arguments protesting that it wasn’t what God intended. The U.S. Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia struck down such laws in 1967. That led to an increase in marriages between whites and blacks, but the possibility of gay marriage wasn’t even on the radar.
“We didn’t know gay and transgender even existed,” said Bunny Swartz, who was a junior at Bensalem High School in 1963. “It just didn’t touch our lives.” Neither, it would appear, did divorce and dysfunction — at least not compared with their prevalence today.
“If someone got a divorce, it was horrifying in your circle of friends,” said Whalen. “I would think there were several marriages where, because of the stigma, they stayed together for the children. Today, I think sometimes couples get married with the idea if it doesn’t work out, they can always get a quick divorce.”
Yet, according to Abrams, divorce rates today are about the same as they were in the 1960s. Earlier this year, a study by The Marriage Foundation, a U.K.-based nonprofit dedicated to enhancing marriages, revealed a couple who gets married today has the same chance of getting divorced after 10 or more years of marriage as a couple who married in 1963.
“It happened, but it was more scandalous than it is today,” said Gross. “Just because people stayed married didn’t mean they were happy in their marriage.”
And just because people weren’t as open about their sex lives didn’t mean they weren’t having as much sex either — and before marriage, too.
“Unmarried women used to pass around a wedding ring in the doctor’s office so they could have access to birth control,” said BCCC’s Gross. “Teenage pregnancy rates peaked in the late ’50s (from a record high of 96 births per 1,000 women in 1957) … and then started going down, down, down.”
But no one would glean such things from media portrayals of that era.
“TV shows, they certainly created this glossy veneer over decades and parts of decades that were certainly not glossy underneath the surface,” said Gross.
Then TV — in black and white — served as a source of family entertainment. But it wasn’t the recreational hub or the diverting distraction it often is today.
“We used to play board games. We played Monopoly, Parcheesi, all different kinds of board games. We played cards,” said Thompson, who also recalled the nights his parents had friends over for their bridge club. “That was a big social thing for everybody, to come into each other houses and do these kinds of things. It wasn’t sitting around watching television.”
When families did watch TV, variety shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which premiered in 1948, were popular.
“Back then, from 8 to 9 (p.m.) was known as the family hour. There were shows that appealed to families in those early hours: ‘The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,’ ‘The Patty Duke Show,’ ‘My Three Sons’ — they were very popular shows,” said Harvey Solomon. He’s a national pop culture authority and the author of six books about movies, television, music and fashion across the decades, including “Book of Days: ‘60s.”
Television in 1963 tended toward wholesomeness and conformity, compared to today’s glut of reality shows that revel in crass behavior and frank sexuality, along with anything-goes, adult-oriented sitcoms like “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “Modern Family,” the latter featuring a gay couple
parenting an adopted child.
In 1963, married couple Rob and Laura Petrie (Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore) slept in separate beds on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — though the sitcom was among the first to dispense with the happy homemaker uniform of a dress and pearls. And one of that year’s most popular films — “Beach Party” — featured a bikini-clad Annette Funicello with her navel covered to preserve an air of innocence.
“Sex was always taboo, both in television and film,” said Solomon. “You could be suggestive, but you couldn’t show anything. Violence certainly wasn’t as pronounced as you would see it in television today. … Back then, the network censors were very much in power.”
Parents didn’t have to worry as much about what their kids were exposed to, and that extended beyond TV.
“The whole idea of community was a wonderful thing,” said Abrams. “There was such an opendoor kind of policy with neighbors. Thinking about safety really wasn’t at the forefront. There really was the sense people were watching out for each other.” Today, we lead more disconnected lives.
“There is so much stress and schedules have gotten so frenetic I think people don’t catch their breaths,” said Abrams, the therapist. “It’s a lot harder to have a family meal and a lot of people don’t set boundaries with their electronics. It’s a lot harder in this world now with all the technology.”
In 1963 — the year pushbutton phones were introduced and some households still shared telephone service through party lines — few could have imagined a world of smartphones, iPads and countless digital devices to supply us with a steady stream of information and connect us instantaneously.
“I think for people to have face-to-face contact or even voice-to- voice doesn’t come as naturally because it’s so easy to do it in an impersonal way,” said Abrams. “Picking up the phone is kind of an odd thing. In the course of a week, I have at least 10 clients who get their cellphones out to read me something on a text. If you’re in a restaurant, people can be texting and be at the same table. The idea of being together can still be an isolating thing.”
Many of those who came of age or raised kids in the early ’60s decry such overuse. Whalen does like looking up information on the Internet, especially regarding her health, but she still writes letters to her children and grandchildren, though she knows they would prefer email.
“I guess that’s gone (letter writing) by the wayside now that you can text,” she said. “My daughter is trying to teach me. She say it’s so much easier, so I will try it.”
Thompson, who has a smartphone, learned how to text a few years ago when he realized it was necessary to communicate with his daughter.
“She wouldn’t answer my phone calls but if I texted, she would write me back,” the Bucks County resident said. “I’m glad I figured it out. I text all kinds of people today, but I’m still not real good at all the shortcuts, like using ‘U R’ instead of ‘you are.’ ”
Thompson also has a Facebook account, but not everyone has been so eager to embrace social media.
“I often wonder, would I have used these things if they had been around when I was in high school? Would I have used Facebook? The answer is absolutely,” said Swartz. “But all this technology, I’m overwhelmed. I can only see it for its practical component. I would never be in my car without my cellphone because what if something happened?”
But does her 8-year-old granddaughter really need to have an iPad?
“I feel like it’s one of those things I just don’t get,” Swartz said. “It’s like Twitter. Why am I the least bit interested in what Jay Leno is having for lunch?”