I often wonder what dating and marriage experiences would be more enjoyable: those of Millennials, or of older generations? Many argue it’s so much better now because we are liberated! We need not hold ourselves back in sexual expression. We can do what we want with whomever we want, and only settle down when we are good and ready. Our lives are said to be exponentially happier.
But are they really? I’d like you to meet two young ladies: my grandmother, Alice, who dated during the 1940s, and Sarah, who just turned 21 this year. Both were city girls who came from middle-class families, and while their family experience was different, they both seem confident and determined in their independence.
Men and Women in the 1940s
In the 1940s, Saturday night was date night, and Alice was always being asked out. She loved being admired. She was lively and attractive. She never stayed home on Saturday night. She and her date would go out with a group of friends. Whether it was bowling or dancing, they just had fun.
And she was constantly pushing boundaries. Some of the photographs we have of her from that time include leather jackets, cigarettes, and feisty smiles. She would tell stories of many adventures like when she and her girlfriends skipped school to catch a Frank Sinatra concert in New York City, landing a spot all the way down in the front row.
Her father, a policeman, had his buddies in the force keep an eye out for her at each train station, but it was he who waited up for her. He just wanted to be sure she got home safely.
Her mother had her say into Alice’s love life, as well. After Alice turned down two different marriage proposals, her mother told her, “Stop making those nice boys cry!” Alice dismissed the reprimand, explaining that the latest proposer was “vanilla pudding” and she could never marry someone so boring.
It was her mother who made her accept a date with her future husband. Her best friend had fallen hard for this tall, handsome lifeguard, Robert, but Robert kept calling Alice. Her girlfriend said she’d end their friendship if she went out with him, so Alice refused his calls for six months. Her mother finally said, “Enough! If that young man calls again, you tell him to come over!” She did (and her friend never spoke to her again).
When Alice began dating only Robert, it was quite the commitment from her. Yet, after a year of dating only him without a marriage proposal, she was fed up, and accepted a date with a different young man. When the confused and hurt Robert questioned her, Alice simply said, “I’m not engaged. I don’t have a ring on my finger. So, I can date who I like!” The very next Saturday night, he proposed. That evening, with a ring on her finger, Alice had her very first kiss.
Men and Women Finding Each Other Now
Compare that with Sarah’s experience of dating, life, and parental encouragement of her love life. Sarah was on her way back to Northern Virginia when I met her. She was going to celebrate her twenty-first birthday with her grandpa, boyfriend, and friends. It was her grandfather who actually raised her. Her mother was not a mentally healthy woman.
Sarah’s mother kicked her father out of their life when Sarah was very young. She and her mother lived close to her grandparents so they could help raise her and her three younger brothers, none of whom had the same father as Sarah. No man stuck around long. She explained how she had to grow up fast and even cared for her brothers when her mother disappeared for days at a time.
When Sarah’s grandmother died, her mother left for good; she simply abandoned them. Her grandfather took Sarah in because she was self-sufficient enough, but her brothers were put in foster care. She had tears in her eyes as she explained how she has tried to stay in touch with them, but the youngest two refuse to speak with her anymore. Despite her grandfather’s mood swings and insistence on watching “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” on repeat, she loves him. She recognizes that he and her grandmother were the only ones who really did love her.
She only recently met her father, who lives in Colorado. After graduating high school, she decided to live near him and attend college there. She said she didn’t realize how very expensive it was, so she is taking one semester at a time. She works a semester, then goes to school for a semester, but she is determined to complete her degree and do something important with her life.
Sarah shared how her boyfriend was going to come out to Colorado and move in with her. She wants to do things differently than her mother, and aimed to get her boyfriend to go to church with her. She considered it an important thing to do, even though she admitted to not going frequently herself. She also hoped to get engaged someday, and would want to get married in a church.
Back When Women Had the Relationship Power
“Do you want to hear something crazy?” Sarah said, after sitting up and staring at me. “My grandpa was actually engaged to someone else when he met my grandmother! He then broke off his first engagement just so he could date her. Can you believe that?!”
“Well, life was different then.”
“What do you mean?”
“I remember my grandmother say that she would date five guys at once!”
“What? You’re kidding. Five different guys?! Wait, you’re serious?” Sarah was leaning forward in her airplane seat, eagerly curious. “How could she date so many different guys?”
“It was different back then. The physical stuff just wasn’t a part of the equation. And without that part, I don’t think you feel as emotionally attached. When I’d ask my grandmother about it, she would just wave off the question with her hand, saying, ‘We didn’t do that stuff back then.’ They just went out with friends and had fun. The physical side just wasn’t a part of it.”
Sarah shook her head in disbelief. She sat back in her seat and looked out the window, then turned back to me, and with a sigh said, “Wouldn’t that be nice.”
Sarah’s lament has taunted me ever since, for the question remained: If the sexual revolution meant to liberate us, why are we still longing to be free?