The Thinking 

When Hiring Married Women Was Unacceptable

August 13, 2012


Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard in Mr. and Mrs. Smith


I happened to watch a few old movies this weekend, and after having watched My Man Godfrey, which I highly recommend, I was intrigued to see Carole Lombard in a not-quite-so inane role. Consequently, I watched Mr. and Mrs. Smith with her, Robert Montgomery, Jack Carson and a few others. Interestingly, this movie, a fairly decent but unconventional romantic comedy, was directed by Alfred Hitchcock apparently as a favor to Carole Lombard as the original director abandoned the project. Nonetheless, it’s definitely not standard “Hitch” movie, although he does appear briefly typical fashion in a scene directed by Miss Lombard.

In the movie Montgomery and Lombard play a married couple who each independently are notified that their marriage, some three years after the wedding, was invalid so they are not actually married. What ensues is almost stunning in contrast to today’s post-sexual revolution world.

First, Lombard’s mother is horrified at the scandal that would be caused should she allow her “husband” to return home and be seen to continue co-habiting as it where. She does in fact kick him out that night after she becomes furious when he doesn’t appear to be concerned terribly about the state of their non-marriage.

Then the next day he waits outside the apartment building to accost his non-wife, which he does by entering her taxi where, in exasperation when she refuses to marry him again, he exclaims, “Fine, then I’ll no longer support you! Now, how are going to support yourself?” She retorts something to the effect that she doesn’t need his support as the cab drops her off in front of a department store where she has procured a job. Mr. Smith enters the store and proceeds to make a scene and when asked by the floor manager to leave Miss Krausheimer alone (her maiden name). He states that she is his wife in which the floor manager is horrified, stating the store has a strict policy of not hiring married women. This is taken up with the store manager who restates that it’s the policy of the store NOT to hire married women, at which point they are both removed forcibly from the premises.

More scenes ensue in which Mrs. Smith continues torturing Mr. Smith, and they each take a stab at dating someone else, but really only to torture the other often to comedic effect.

The movie is not without its faults, but it’s almost shocking to see how seriously people took marriage and feared even the hint of impropriety and to consider the portrayal of a major department store, which catered almost exclusively to women, as refusing to hire married women instead of men in 1940.

 Laura writes:

Married women were once supporters of job discrimination. They knew this discrimination would make it easier for 1) Their husbands to find work and 2) Unmarried women and widows to support themselves. Feminists utterly distort this history. They say discrimination was the product of misogyny when in fact it was the result of respect and the assuming of responsibilities on behalf of women.

And as a result of their distortions of history, what do we have? A world in which married women are less able to forgo paid employment and must work a double shift, one at home and one at a job.

—— Comments —–

Jesse Powell writes:

I’m glad Fitzgerald brought up the cultural attitudes prevalent in 1940 as shown in the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith; most particularly the very strong prohibition against cohabitation or “living in sin” and the strong prohibition against married women working. Cohabitation without marriage is wrong because it represents a couple “acting like” a married couple without actually being married, without having made the commitment a marriage entails. Married women working is wrong because it displaces the natural role of the man in a marriage thereby weakening the man’s investment in the marriage and exposing any children to a compromised and damaged home environment where the mother will be putting her focus on making money as opposed to the more important task of caring for the children and the home.

Even though it is clear that in 1940 there was strong condemnation against married women working it should be kept in mind that 1940 represents a weakening of the prohibition against married women working compared to earlier times. In 1890, only 2.2 percent of white married women worked, by 1940 this ratio was more than five times higher at 12.5 percent. See this earlier post on the subject.

Cohabitation  has grown greatly since 1960. Among whites from 2000 to 2010, cohabiting couples went from 7.2 percent of all couples to 9.6 percent. Among Haredi Jews, however, there has been a drive to reduce the already very low level of family problems within their communities during the past decade (from 2000 to 2010). In the five leading Haredi communities (Lakewood, Kiryas Joel, Monsey, New Square, and Kaser) among whites, cohabitation dropped from 1.4 percent of heterosexual partnerships to 0.6 percent; a drop in the ratio of 59 percent. There is hope that through a religious revival American culture can be rebuilt.

Source: 2000 and 2010 Census

Forta leza writes:

To borrow an analogy from F. Roger Devlin, two-income married couples are like people who stand up on their chairs at rock concerts. It benefits them (by improving their view) only if nobody else does it. If everyone does it, then everyone is worse off. Because their view is no better than before but they are at greater risk of falling and hurting themselves.

In the case of married women who work, most of the extra income is soaked up by (1) higher housing prices (which have been bid up by other two-income couples); (2) expensive activities for children (which would be far less necessary if neighborhood kids just entertained themselves after school; and (3) various status competitions.

So yes, married women should ideally support policies which discourage married women from working.

Mary writes:

A word on classic movies: I have a weakness for these types of “remarriage” movies from the old days. Here are a few of my favorites: My Favorite Wife, His Gal Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth. All charming and witty and engaging (and involving Cary Grant). I guess they appeal to my optimistic side. It seems to me they say something good about the deep and unbreakable bonds of marriage, and also remind me of a more innocent time when the differences between men and women were not only acknowledged but embraced, tickling us all the more for the truths they tell. And of course to have a marriage survive a bit of turbulence and come out stronger than ever is the best kind of “happily ever after”. People back in the 30’s and 40’s must have emerged from theatres feeling refreshed and hopeful after viewing these charming screwball comedies. Alas, they could never be made today. The husbands and wives in these old movies, scheming as they do to sabotage each other’s new romances, do so while enjoying the luxury of confidence, confidence in the knowledge that their spouse’s new romance wouldn’t be consummated until the wedding night, leaving the original marriage yet unspoiled and hence worth fighting for, albeit in a madcap and kooky way. My husband and I often turn to old movies for movie nights and now our kids are starting to like them, too. Of course, even in these old flicks there are sometimes hints of improprieties, but they are a whiff on the breeze rather than something graphic. But it does leave me wondering if parents back then didn’t feel about those little hints the same way I feel about less subtle influences in movies today.

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