I grew up in the fifties, when men were men and women were women, at least in the movies, sitcoms, books, and in the minds of the adults I knew.
Reality was a bit different, of course.
Since we didn’t have modern conveniences – for the first few years of my life we didn’t even have running water – just doing “women’s work” was a full time occupation. Still, when you are young and poor, as my parents were, you do what is needed. When we moved to what became the home farm, there were no fences. My mother and I (I was seven) put a fifty pound roll of barbed wire onto a crowbar and walked the quarter mile south boundary unrolling it, five times repeated, while my father set fence posts, tightened the strands with a block and tackle, and stapled up the wires.
Farm women did things like that whenever it was needed, but it wasn’t considered normal. It wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. Men had their work and women had theirs and crossing over was, if not abnormal, at least out of the ordinary.
I grew up. The fifties became the sixties. When women’s lib came along, I bought in 100%, but I still don’t criticize the old ways indiscriminately. They were a part of the way people made a living. Sometimes those customs made life unnecessarily hard on women – or men – but they weren’t without a basis in need.
The division of labor was also there in the books kids read. Boys read the Hardy Boys and girls read Nancy Drew.
The Hardy Boys worked for a living; they were detectives. But it always seemed more like play, and more like fantasy than reality. Tom Swift (Jr.) was worse; ten minutes at the drawing board and he would pass the plans on to the work force of Swift Enterprises. Three weeks later his rocket ship would be done. It felt like a portrayal of work designed for kids who had never worked, and who wouldn’t notice how fake it was. Frank and Joe and Tom weren’t kids at all. They were watered down, unrealistic pseudo-adults.
I’m sure there were plenty of books about kids living kid’s lives, with kid’s concerns, while their parents stayed in the background. I certainly read enough of those books after I became a teacher, but they never crossed my path when I was young. I don’t think they would have interested me if they had.
There was another kind of book that did interest me; fascinated me, in fact. You would not go far wrong if you called it apprenticeship literature. These were stories about young guys, usually in their teens, who wanted to become men. They worked. They learned from adults who knew the jobs the youngsters wanted to learn. They were young auto mechanics, or wipers in the engine room of a steam ship, or kids who did odd jobs at the air field so they could learn how to fly, or starry eyed young rocket engineers learning their trade.
I plan to spend the rest of the week on that kind of book.