© Jerry F. Couch
Ahhhhh, the sixties…some of the best years our country has ever known. But the sixties were also the decade of The Reputation. In those days The Reputation was a kind of moral barometer that charted the behavior of single women and young girls. Its status was frequently consulted and updated – especially by people who were incapable of minding their own business. Of course, older folks had Reputations, too. But the rules they applied to themselves were sometimes different. MUCH different. We’ll have more to say about that in a moment.
The Reputation was a component of the Cult of Female Virginity which existed at that time. It was accepted as fact that girls who “waited” improved their chances of marrying upwardly mobile young men. On her wedding day, the bride of Good Reputation wore a white dress with a tightly-fitted waist. This totem silently proclaimed the bride’s non-impregnated status. After the honeymoon, the Virtuous Girl blossomed into a Virtuous Woman. She lived happily ever after as a Stepford Wife, eventually giving birth to 2.4 children.
Girls who Got in Trouble were automatically downgraded from Class A contenders in the Marriage Sweepstakes. Sort-of like a business that had squandered its capital and took on too much unsecured debt. Meanwhile, tongue-wagging local matrons denounced these girls as Sluts and Tramps. If Unwed Mothers remained unmarried, they graduated through gossip to the classification of Fallen Women. As such, they could look forward to an ordeal of knowing winks, covert groping, and unwanted phone calls from predatory Happily Married Males.
It was a form of tribal banishment – except no one left. And no one was ever, ever allowed to forget. Seventy-five years later, at her funeral, someone would piously whisper, “Beulah Belle was a fine, upstanding woman…except for that time she got herself pregnant back in high school.” Herself? Who ever heard of a girl becoming pregnant by herself?
In an ironic contrast, male virginity was as despised as female virginity was idealized. Boys were expected to slough off their virginity as soon as possible. Well, it takes TWO people to do that. If an unplanned pregnancy occurred, the unwed father was not judged by the same harsh standard as his female counterpart. In a male-dominated culture, his behavior was excused this way: He “lost control” after being provoked by female lasciviousness. Good Girls were expected to be the front-line defenders of moral restraint. It was their duty.
Some children born Out of Wedlock could count on being made to feel dirty or less-than. Their playmates could and did emulate their parents’ unwholesome values by jeering “You ain’t got no daddy,” or “You’re a Bastard.” To avoid such nightmarish consequences, pregnant girls were sometimes shunted off to Homes for Unwed Mothers. Do such places even exist today? There, the girls remained in seclusion until their babies were delivered and surrendered for adoption. This convoluted solution further validated the primitive concept of community control over private behavior. It was an outgrowth of social conventions that exalted motherhood in theory, but degraded it in practice. And herein we find another paradox. Under law, juveniles cannot legally consent to sex because they aren’t mature enough to understand the consequences. But what about the life-changing consequences of the extremely adult decision to surrender their infant for adoption? In a more supportive climate, many of these girls would have kept their babies.
The Reputation was governed by a treacherous maze of totems and taboos. Let’s review some of them one last time then forget them forever:
Good girls do not wear heavy makeup. Good girl’s clothing must not be too tight, too bright, or too short. Good girls do not display cleavage. Good girls wear complex foundation garments to prevent provocative jiggling. Good girls keep their knees clamped tightly together when seated. Good girls are bubbly and enthusiastic about almost everything - except sex. Good girls say “yes” to almost everything - except sex. Good girls must make good grades in school but avoid obvious displays of intelligence. Good girls do not form or express controversial ideas or strong opinions. Good girls do not permit public displays of affection. Good girls do not smoke cigarettes or drink beer. Good girls do not call boys first. Some parents attempted to safeguard their daughters’ Reputations by permitting dating only during daytime hours. This reasoning was inherently flawed. It is a known fact you can do most everything in the daytime you can do in the dark - AND see what you are doing while you are doing it. Now let’s talk about The Reputation as it applied to older folks. It’s true there were many people in the 60’s who lived moral and upright lives, and not just for show. They worked hard, took good care of their families, kept their homes neat and clean, attended church regularly, were members of the PTA, didn't have messy extramarital affairs, and actually minded their own business to the extent such a thing was possible. Those who fell short of these ideals were at least discreet. Well, sort-of. Maybe. Sometimes. Some people of Good Reputation happened to be alcoholics. But they didn’t do their drinking in beer joints or shot houses. They purchased their alcohol at the state ABC store and drank it at home. If you saw them furtively slinking out of the ABC store with a death grip on a brown bag, you’d have thought they were smuggling diamonds. If neighbors heard loud arguments, screams, or breaking glass on Saturday evening, they were tactful enough not to mention it the following morning at church. For some, alcoholism was the elephant in the living room. For some, it still is. The offspring of these train wrecks suffered greatly. Spinsters and old bachelors were viewed as sexual suspects. It became imperative that these people marry someone - anyone. The social pressure was unrelenting. In such cases, those whom God hadn't joined were often rent asunder. And their friends and neighbors never recognized their own complicity. In 1968, a new song by Jeannie C. Riley entitled “Harper Valley PTA” began to receive radio airplay. It was an immediate smash hit. Predictably, the song was soon denounced by so-called moral authorities across America, who labeled it “indecent.” This was true, but not in the way its detractors intended. The song was about hypocrisy, which is a component of moral indecency. When I was a child, my grandmother once told me, "All the world's problems are caused by people who don't mind their own business." I am 68 years of age and have yet to see a case where that does not apply. NOTE: The featured image for this article is Grant Wood's 1932 painting, "Daughters of Revolution."