The Warped World of 1950’s Marriage Counselling
(This article was previously written for the closed Yahoo group “Intertel Atheists” on September 27, 2014.)
I am the manager of that Yahoo group, and the author of the article. Rights to articles at Intertel are retained by the author. Information about Intertel is available at intertel-iq.org
aeon.co (history of Paul Popenoe’s column)
Ever wonder where James Dobson of Focus on the Family got his extremely conservative and sexist ideas about marriage and women?
He started his career at an organisation called the American Institute for Family Relations (AIFR, it went out of business in the 1980’s). That organisation was run by one Paul Popenoe (1888-1979), a prominent member of the eugenics movement. (Amongst other things, he was the workhorse behind California’s compulsory sterilisation programme and state eugenics programmes across the USA.) By 1960, his institute was considered the best-known marriage-counselling institute in the world.
Popenoe started his career in eugenics by editing the Journal of Heredity from 1913-1917, with special attention to eugenics and social hygiene. By 1918 he had co-authored his first book on eugenics. In the 1930’s he was a member of the board of directors of the American Eugenics Society and promoted eugenics laws around the country.
As divorce laws changed from the 1880’s to the 1920’s and the country saw a fifteen-fold increase in divorces, Popenoe founded his organisation in 1930 to promote eugenics and social hygiene in marital counselling. By 1960, his organisation was consulting on fifteen thousand marriages annually, with over eighteen hundred counsellors and offices across the USA.
AIFR offered Master’s Degree programmes in marriage counselling and pastoral psychotherapy, though later in its existence leaned heavily on pastoral marital counselling. (Hence, Popenoe has an outsized effect on secular marital counselling and pastoral marital counselling today.)
For over ten years, Popenoe appeared as a regular on Art Linkletter’s television show. In 1953 he started writing the most popular of all time magazine columns for Ladies’ Home Journal called “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” and a book by the same name. The column ran in the magazine from 1953 through the late 1980’s.
James Dobson left Popenoe’s institute to found Focus on the Family in 1977, expanding on the pastoral counselling ideas rooted in eugenics and sexism from Popenoe.
Marital counselling in the 1950’s was almost wholly based on eugenics and sexism in the USA. Domestic violence against women is the wife’s fault. Poor housekeeping is the woman’s fault. Sexual frigidity is caused by women’s delusions. A husband straying is the wife’s fault. Expectations of romance in a marriage are unreasonable. Modern ideas about women in society is one reason for some women’s failure to reproduce. Only “better” couples should be married and should reproduce. Not bearing boy children is the woman’s fault, &c. Sounds a lot like James Dobson’s organisation today.
With the revelation of the Nazi Holocaust at the end of WW2, Popenoe redefined himself as a marital counsellor and left behind the explicit eugenics overtones of his organisation. (The organisation nor Popenoe did not abandon eugenics, however.)
The Ladies’ Home Journal column was wildly successful. It was presented in a three-person format: the wife’s complaint, the husband’s response, and Popenoe’s determination of what was wrong and what needed to be fixed (almost always the woman).
The column continues today at the Website Devine Caroline, without the sexism and eugenics (or James Dobson), divinecaroline.com . (Devine Caroline is owned by Meredith Corporation, also the owner of Ladies’ Home Journal. The column is the longest-running marital advice column in the world today.)
In 1970, a feminist group occupied the offices of Ladies Home Journal demanding its male owner John Mack Carter resign over the column. (Though founded by a woman, the magazine had been run by men since the 1880’s.) A compromise was reached after half a day’s occupation: the feminists were allowed to write anonymously one column of “Can This Marriage Be Saved” in August. They held forth on equal education and equal pay for women, compromise in marriages, respectful treatment of women, &c. Their column, however, ran with a lede damning feminism with faint praise:
“Beneath the shrill accusations and the radical dialectic, our editors heard some convincing truths about the persistence of sexual discrimination in many areas of American life. This new movement may have an impact far beyond its extremist eccentricities. It could even triumph over its man-hating bitterness and indeed win humanist gains for all women – and their men.”—John Mack Carter, Ladies’ Home Journal, August 1970.
Today the Ladies’ Home Journal’s Website (the magazine became a quarterly in April) has copies of the long-running column, but only the latter ones without Popenoe. (The eugenics-and sexism-driven articles that were so popular prior to the 1970’s are not available there.)
That sort of counselling and James Dobson’s screeds are now considered the driving force behind Elliot Rodger’s 140 page manifesto against women entitled “My Twisted World,” sent to television station KEYT and a dozen family members. Immediately after sending it, he launched his killing spree of women at the University of California Santa Barbara in May of this year.
In that manifesto, he notes his mother was a Chinese immigrant, and that his father posted nude photos of her all over his Website (which he blames on his mother). He uploaded a video to YouTube entitled “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution” detailing how he would accomplish the killings, and E-mailed the manifesto one minute later.
The manifesto blames his troubles with women and inability to get a girlfriend on his family. It also blames his anger on women’s failure to acquiesce sexually (a phrase frequently used by Popenoe). It displays his hatred for minorities, sexually-active men, and interracial couples.
He spent two years purchasing weapons and training himself to shoot; several legal experts later noted there was nothing in his past that would have prevented him from buying weapons.
His parents discovered his misogynistic videos minutes after he uploaded the manifesto: they warned the Isla Vista police department. The police stated there were no criteria under which they could hold him.
After the killings, YouTube pulled the video citing its rules against promoting violence. The US House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution condemning the violence; several representatives hoped that the incident would spur action on the stalled gun legislation in the wake of Sandy Hook. It did not, and they cited the stranglehold of the NRA on Congress for the inability to act.
Huffington Post has five examples of Popenoe’s column from the 1950’s culled from Ladies’ Home Journal. They are truly hideous stuff viewed through today’s ideas on the treatment of women. They are the sort of ideas that drove Elliot Rodger.