The cold war was a chilly time to be an American woman.
A big chill had crept into the well-appointed bedrooms all across the nation and it would appear that the American housewife’s libido was in the deep freeze.
An epidemic was ravishing the nation …frigidity. According to the medical community the mid-century American woman was as frosty and frigid as the polar vortex.
American husbands were getting the frigid-aire from their spouses.
The most envied woman in the world was the post war American homemaker…smart yet easy-going with never you mind freedom… this was the new Mrs America.
Her judgement and taste helped make Americas standard of living the highest in the world. It was a life of comfort and convenience, no rubbing, no scrubbing, no waiting no fuss no muss a world that was flameless, frost-free, filled with touch tone push button ease, and oh, it was … passionless.
Apparently the happy homemaker’s ability to orgasm was not achieved with push button ease, nor was it as automatic as her fully loaded kitchen.
Ironically the modern problem of “frigidity” had little to do with a woman’s actual enjoyment of sex. No longer did frigidity only mean disinterest in or ignorance of sex. It now included the woman who was sexually responsive, even taking pleasure in sex but did not meet the new criteria
According to mid-century psychiatrists and gynecologists frigidity was now defined as a woman’s inability to have a “proper” orgasm with her husband, the lack of which could result in the breakdown of the contemporary marriage.
The only cure for defrosting the frigid woman was to achieve a “mature” climax, a vaginal orgasm, the only AMA approved kind of orgasm.
The Big Chill
To the outside world Betsy Bland’s life in 1960 was bewitchingly magical.
In her smartly tailored shirtwaist dress and Playtex living cross your heart bra she was living the new American Dream- a lady Clairol colorful cold war world of carpools, cookouts, and cream of mushroom soup casseroles, catering to contented children and happy-go-lucky husbands.
But to Betsy everything seemed drab, a dull routine….even sex.
Not that she would ever let her husband Randy know how she felt. She prided herself on never denying him his rights.
“This was one wife,” she would boast,“who never said no.” Betsy had promised herself a long time ago that she would never shirk from her wifely duty.
But the once pleasurable sex act had become a ho-hum chore. In the dark of night Betsy wondered if there something wrong with her?
The Cold Woman
One brisk October morning as the laundry tumbled in the Kenmore dryer, and the roast cooked in the automatic oven Betsy flipped through the morning paper.
With the presidential election a few weeks away the race was heating up. The press loved Senator Kennedy and the paper was filled with flattering pictures of the handsome, smiling candidate. Betsy glanced approvingly.
Checking out the TV listings, one ad caught her eye: “This afternoon NBC will air “The Cold Woman: A study of Sexual Frigidity.” The show was described as: “A frank account of a problem affecting millions of American women today.”
Betsy blushed deeply.
Wash in Cold Water Only
Like most housewives, she was familiar with the popular Purex Specials for Women.
Decades before Oprah’s daily airing of America’s dirty laundry became the norm, this highly acclaimed series of soapy pseudo docudramas geared to the housewife dealt with intimate topics rarely talked about on television.
Running on certain afternoons the award-winning show dramatized such now all too familiar topics as “The Trapped Housewife,” “The Single Woman,” “The Glamor Trap,” “The Problems of the Working Mother,” “The Change of Life,” and this afternoons offering “The Cold Woman.”
The intimate topic came as no surprise to Betsy.
Checking Under the Beds
In recent years the American Woman had come under close scrutiny in the media especially when it came to her sexuality.
Kinsey wasn’t the only one peeking into the private lives of Americans. Mid century doctors and gynecologists had joined forces with psychiatrists and put the American bedroom under the microscope.
When authorities weren’t checking under the bed for Communists, they were looking between the sheets for signs of frigidity,
What they purported to find was chilling.
Frigidity in women was so widespread a problem that some psychiatrists claimed “it is the emotional plague.”
In the words of psychiatrist Marie N Robinson, whose 1959 book on women’s sexual frigidity “The Power of Sexual Surrender” sold over a million copies, “no other health problem of our time even approaches this magnitude .” (With polio recently eradicated, they obviously were seeking some other health problem to challenge.)
Concern over woman’s sexual frigidity so consumed mainstream gynecology and psychiatry during the 1940’s through the early 1960’s that even the well-respected Journal of American Medical Association published an article in 1950 which began with the claim:
”Frigidity is one of the most common problems in gynecology. Gynecologists and psychiatrists especially are aware that perhaps 75% of all women derive little or no pleasure from the sexual act.”
The Deep Freeze
Frigidity wasn’t new; it was the definition that changed.
In the 1920’s and ‘30s Female Sexual Anesthesia as frigidity was called, was all too common. Though physicians may have seen women’s sexual frigidity as a serious threat to the stability of families, forcing husbands to seek sex outside marriage which could lead to VD and the break up of the home, the problem was considered normal as “nice” women were considered less hot-blooded than men.
Good girls were told :“Nice men with marriage on their minds do not like girls to discuss sex, to go out all on the subject. Nice girls do not discuss sex, tell off-color jokes. Common sense and good taste forbid this. A man cannot become romantically interested in a girl who dwells on the subject.”
But the term frigidity itself had taken on a new meaning in the more enlightened post-war years.
No longer did frigidity only mean indifference to sex.
Oh Come On!
Now the diagnosis of frigidity included the woman who feels sexually responsive, who was aroused “who enjoys some phases of coitus, even reaching clitoral orgasm during manipulation.”
But that was woefully inadequate.
The new definition classified every woman as frigid if she was incapable of reaching vaginal orgasm during sex. Anything else was second-rate.
Along with her dollies and teddy bears the grown up mature woman was to abandon all childhood attachments including the girlish clitoris in favor of the womanly vaginal orgasm.
A wife’s inability to experience the requisite “mature” climax was a neurotic with “deep rooted psychological problems” that could only be cured with counseling and psychiatrists.
The husband’s skill was not to be blamed.
Defrosting the Frigid Woman
When it came to sexual dysfunction Purex struck a nerve with the “Cold War Woman.”
With great interest Betsy continued reading the article on the show.
Starring a hot Kim Hunter as a frigid woman with Jack Klugman as the husband, the actors “ portray a married couple deeply troubled by the most personal of emotional problems in a dramatization based on case histories, professional reports and taped interviews…today despite the American woman’s privileged status, her club memberships, college degree and kitchen full of appliances a great number of her kind is in distress.”
“The complexities of her new situation, in many cases, have only added to her anxieties. And she may reach a point where she becomes a problem for society-perhaps in a divorce court, a magistrate’s office or an alcoholic ward.”
Fumbling through her purse, Betsy found the crumpled piece of paper with the phone number her gynecologist had given her.
Before she too ended up in divorce court or a hospital ward, Betsy would go see a psychiatrist.
Who was to blame for this epidemic of sexual frigidity? And what could be done about it?
The answer tomorrow.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.