Thursday, January 28, 2010


AND THEN THERE WERE FOUR -- Back to the Future -- Shirley Dlugasch Zussman ‘34

An invitation came from Smith College to attend the 75th Reunion of my class. Images of my college years floated in my mind. I wanted to be in that time zone again. Never mind that I was 95 years old. I arrived in Northampton in May, 2009, eighty years after my first arrival in the fall of 1930. The campus had that unreal quality for me of a dream state.

I was joined by three other members of my class--fit and energetic – No wheelchairs, no walkers, no dementia, yet! All of us over 95, our lives had spanned almost a hundred years. We related to each other as if no time had passed. We were very much in the present moment. Forty-seven other members of our class still survive. Only a century ago, women died at the age of 48. Today, many women are starting a new life at that age in a burst of what Margaret Mead called menopausal zest.

Women’s lifespan today is almost 80 years. Longevity is one of the dramatic changes achieved by women in this century. In the future, it is likely more women will attend their 75th Reunion, even their 100th. More women are going to college today and now outnumber men in both private and public colleges in this country. Another achievement!

How different today’s curriculum is than in our time! Today, Smith women are being prepared to take their place in the worlds of engineering, government, medicine, computer science, and economics—wherever their dreams take them. Our curriculum, with its emphasis on literature, music and art, was shaped to meet the expectations of women to become educated wives and mothers; however, despite the limited career expectations of the class of 1934, many went on to successful careers in many different fields, their early expectations greatly enhanced by women’s changing role in society and the opportunities it provided. Julia Child, our glorious classmate, provides a perfect example of having started out with a domestic skill and elevating it to a professional and world-famous level.

“What was it like to be here way back then?” That was a question asked us by current students who served as our guides throughout the reunion. They thought of us belonging to the Victorian Age. Not so! That age ended at the beginning of the century followed by the Roaring Twenties, the first emergence of the emancipated woman. World War I had brought women out of the house to work in offices and factories and given them a new freedom. The harsh sexual repression of the Victorian Age had begun to subside. It was against this background that the class of 1934 began its college experience. The excess of the 20s was somewhat diminished by the Great Depression which had begun 1929. But the new freedom for women was relished by the students. Smoking was common, its dangers still unknown. Drinking was seen as part of the new freedom, even though Prohibition was the law until 1933.
Our young guides found it hard to believe that some students had sex lives. They knew I was a pioneer in the field of sex therapy--and of them had read my blog—and wanted to know my ideas about women’s sexual feelings and experiences at that time. As I look back, we were not knowledgeable about our sexual selves--about what we needed and wanted. We thought men were the sexual experts and that pleasing our partners was what it was all about. We read books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, probably reading these more fervently than our assigned reading.

The sexual revolution had yet to come and the pill had not yet appeared on the scene, although diaphragms and condoms were in use. The great contribution to female sexuality came from the works of Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson. These researchers forever eliminated the Victorian concept of women as frigid – they presented scientifically validated evidence that women were equal to men in their capacity for sexual response and they even reported that aging had little effect on female sexuality.

Although we still have much to learn about our sexuality and its role in our lives, as women we are more comfortable today with ourselves as sexual beings, freer to give and receive pleasure.

So here I am writing this piece on my computer—95 years old—my journey back in time is over—so many changes—so much we owe to the combined efforts of so many women to enhance our lives, to overcome “the feminine mystique.” There will be others in the next one hundred years to carry on the mission in a world that even our fantasies cannot construct. But carry on they will!

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