dating by beth l bailey

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Read “Dating” by Beth L. Bailey and submit a summary. Summarize it in 2 pages or less (typed, double-spaced, using 12-point Times New Roman font with standard APA margins). This means the discussion you present is more than one page and not over 2 pages in length. ****Excerpted from Reading Critically, Writing Well—A Reader and Guide, 5th edition. 1999. Axelrod, Rise B., and Cooper, Charles R. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. pp. 194-203.

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Beth L. Bailey
Beth L. Bailey (b 1957) is a sociology professor in the Women’s Studies Program at the University of New Mexico. She studies nineteenth- and twentieth-century American culture and has written several books, including From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (1988) and The First Strange Place (1992). “Dating” comes from Bailey’s first book, a history of American courtship. Bailey tells us that she first became interested in studying courtship attitudes and behaviors when, as a college senior, she appeared on a television talk show to defend co-ed dorms, which were then new and controversial. Surprisingly, many people in the audience objected to co-ed dorms, not on the basis of moral grounds, but because they feared too much intimacy between young men and women would hasten “the dissolution of the dating system and the death of romance.” Before reading Bailey’s sociological explanation of dating, think about the attitudes and behaviors of people your own age in regard to courtship and romance.
One day, the 1920s story goes, a young man asked a city girl if he might call on her (Black, 1924, p. 340). We know nothing else about the man or the girl—only that, when he arrived, she had her hat on. Not much of a story to us, but any American born before 1910 would have gotten the punch line. “She had her hat on”: those five words were rich in meaning to early twentieth century Americans. The hat signaled that she expected to leave the house. He came on a “call,” expecting to be received in her family’s parlor, to talk, to meet her mother, perhaps to have some refreshments or to listen to her play the piano. She expected a “date,” to be taken “out” somewhere and entertained. He ended up spending four weeks’ savings fulfilling her expectations.
In the early twentieth century this new style of courtship, dating, had begun to supplant the old. Born primarily of the limits and opportunities of urban life, dating had almost completely replaced the old system of calling by the mid-1920s—and, in so doing, had transformed American courtship. Dating moving courtship in the public world, relocating it from family parlors and community events to restaurants, theaters, and dance halls. At the same time, it removed couples from the implied supervision of the private sphere—from the watchful eyes of family and local community—to the anonymity of the public sphere. Courtship among strangers offered couples new freedom. But access to the public world of the city required money. One had to buy entertainment, or even access to a place to sit and talk. Money—men’s money—became the basis of the dating system and, thus, of courtship. This new dating system, as it shifted courtship from the private to the public square, fundamentally altered the balance of power between men and women in courtship.
The transition from calling to dating was as complete as it was fundamental. By the 1950s and 1960s, social scientists who studied American courtship found it necessary to remind the American public that dating was a “recent American innovation and not a traditional or universal custom.” (Cavin, as cited in “Some,” 1961, p. 125). Some of the many commentators who wrote about courtship believed dating was the best thing that had every happened to relations between the sexes; others blamed the dating system for all the problems of American youth and American marriage. But virtually everyone portrayed the system dating replaced as infinitely simpler, sweeter, more innocent, and more graceful. Hardheaded social scientists waxed sentimental about the “horse-and buggy days,” when a young man’s offer of a ride home from church was tantamount to a proposal and when young men came calling in the evenings and courtship took place safely within the warm bosom of the family. “The courtship which grew out of the sturdy social roots [of the nineteenth century]” one author wrote, “comes through to us for what it was—a gracious ritual, with clearly defined roles for man and woman, in which everyone knew the measured music and the steps” (Moss, 1963, p. 151).
The call itself was a complicated event. A myriad of rules governed everything: the proper amount of time between invitation and visit (a fortnight or less); whether or not refreshments should be served (not if one belonged to a fashionable or semi-fashionable circle, but outside of “smart” groups in cities like New York and Boston, girls might serve iced drinks with little cakes or tiny cups of coffee or hot chocolate and sandwiches); chaperonage (the first call must be made on mother and daughter, but excessive chaperonage would indicate to the man that his attentions were unwelcome); appropriate topics of conversation (the man’s interests, but never too personal); how leave should be taken (on no account should the woman “accompany [her caller] to the door nor stand talking while he struggles into his coat”) (“Lady,” 1904, p. 255).
Each of these “measured steps,” as the mid-twentieth century author nostalgically called them, was a test of suitability, breeding, and background. Advice columns and etiquette books emphasized that these were the manners of any “well-bred” person—and conversely implied that deviations revealed a lack of breeding. However, around the turn of the century, many people who did lack this narrow “breeding” aspired to politeness. Advice columns regularly printed questions from “Country Girl” and “Ignoramus” on the fine points of calling etiquette. Young men must have felt the pressure of girls’ expectations, for they wrote to the same advisors with questions about calling. In 1907, Harper’s Bazaar ran a major article titled “Etiquette for Men,” explaining the ins and outs of the calling system (Hall, 1907, pp. 1095-97). In the first decade of the twentieth century, this rigid system of calling was the convention not only of the “respectable” but also of those who aspired to respectability.
At the same time, however, the new system of dating was emerging. By the mid-1910s, the word date had entered the vocabulary of the middle class public. In 1914, the Ladies Home Journal, a bastion of middle-class respectability, used the term (safely enclosed in quotation marks but with no explanation of its meaning) several times. The word was always spoken by that exotica, the college sorority girl—a character marginal in her exoticness but nevertheless a solid product of the middle class. “One beautiful evening of the spring term,” one such article begins, “when I was a college girl of eighteen, the boy whom, because of his popularity in every phase of college life, I had been proud gradually to allow the monopoly of my ‘dates,’ took me unexpectedly into his arms. As he kissed me impetuously I was glad, from the bottom of my heart, for the training of that mother who had taught me to hold myself aloof from all personal familiarities of boys and men.” (“How,” 1914, p. 9).
Sugarcoated with a tribute to motherhood and virtue, the dates—and the kiss—were unmistakably presented for a middle-class audience. By 1924, ten years later, when the story of the unfortunate young man who went to call on the city girl was current, dating had essentially replaced calling in middle-class culture. The knowing smiles of the story’s listeners had probably started with the word call—and not every hearer would have been sympathetic to the man’s plight. By 1924, he really should have known better.
Dating, which to the privileged and protected would seem a system of increased freedom and possibility, stemmed originally from the lack of opportunities. Calling, or even just visiting, was not a practicable system for young people whose families lived crowded into one or two rooms. For even the more established or independent working-class girls, the parlor and the piano often simply didn’t exist. Some “factory girls” struggled to find a way to receive callers. The Ladies’ Home Journal approvingly reported the case of six girls, workers in a box factory, who had formed a club and pooled part of their wages to pay the “janitress of a tenement house” to let them use her front room two evenings a week. It had a piano. One of the girls explained their system: “We ask the boys to come when they like and spend the evening. We haven’t any place at home to see them, and I hate seeing them on the street” (Preston, 1907, p. 31).
Many other working girls, however, couldn’t have done this even if they had wanted to. They had no extra wages to pool, or they had no notions of middle-class respectability. Some, especially girls of ethnic families, were kept secluded—chaperoned according to the customs of the old country. But many others fled the squalor, drabness, and crowdedness of their homes to seek amusement and intimacy elsewhere. And a “good time” increasingly became identified with public places and commercial amusements, making young women whose wages would not even cover the necessities of life dependent on men’s “treats” (Peiss, 1986, pp. 75, 51-52). Still, many poor and working-class couples did not so much escape from the home as they were pushed from it.
These couples courted on the streets, sometimes at cheap dance halls or eventually at the movies. These were not respectable places, and women could enter them only so far as they, themselves, were not considered respectable. Respectable young women did, of course, enter the public world, but their excursions into the public were cushioned. Public courtship of middle-class and upper-class youth was at least supposed to be chaperoned; those with the money and social position went to private dances with carefully controlled guest lists, to theater parties where they were a private group within the public. As rebels would soon complain, the supervision of society made the private parlor seem almost free by contrast. Women who were not respectable did have relative freedom of action—but the trade-off was not necessarily a happy one for them.
The negative factors were important, but dating rose equally from the possibilities offered by urban life. Privileged youth, as Lewis Erenberg shows in his study of New York nightlife, came to see the possibility of privacy in the anonymous public, in the excitement and freedom the city offered (1981, pp. 60-87, 139-42). They looked to lower-class models of freedom—to those beyond the constraints of respectability. As a society girl informed the readers of the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1914: “Nowadays it is considered ‘smart’ to go to the low order of dance halls, and not only be a looker-on, but also to dance among all sorts and conditions of men and women…. Nowadays when we enter a restaurant and dance place it is hard to know who is who” (“A Girl,” 1914, p. 7). In 1907, the same magazine had warned unmarried women never to go alone to a “public restaurant” with any man, even a relative. There was no impropriety in the act, the advisor had conceded, but it still “lays [women] open to misunderstanding and to being classed with women of undesirable reputation by the strangers present” (Kingsland, May 1907, p. 48). Rebellious and adventurous young people sought that confusion, and the gradual loosening of proprieties they engendered helped to change courtship. Young men and women went out into the world together, enjoying a new kind of companionship and the intimacy of a new kind of freedom from adult supervision.
The new freedom that led to dating came from other sources as well. Many more serious (and certainly respectable) young women were taking advantage of opportunities to enter the public world—going to college, taking jobs, entering and creating new urban professions. Women who belonged to the public world by day began to demand fuller access to the public world in general.
Between 1890 and 1925, dating—in practice and in name—had gradually, almost imperceptibly, become a universal custom in America. By the 1930s it had transcended its origins: Middle America associated dating with neither upper-class rebellion nor the urban lower classes. The rise of dating was usually explained, quite simply, by the invention of the automobile. Cars had given youth mobility and privacy, and so had brought about the system. This explanation—perhaps not consciously but definitely not coincidentally—revised history. The automobile certainly contributed to the rise of dating as a national practice, especially in rural and suburban areas, but it was simply accelerating and extending a process already well under way. Once its origins were located firmly in Middle America, however, and not in the extremes of urban upper- and lower-class life, dating had become an American institution.
Dating not only transformed the outward modes and conventions of American courtship, it also changed the distribution of control and power in the courtship. One change was generational: the dating system lessened parental control and gave young men and women more freedom. The dating system also shifted power from women to men. Calling, either as a simple visit or as the elaborate late nineteenth-century ritual, gave women a large portion of control. First of all, courtship took place within the girl’s home—in women’s “sphere,” as it was called in the nineteenth century—or at entertainments largely devised and presided over by women. Dating moving courtship out of the home and into men’s sphere—the world outside the home. Female controls and conventions lost much of their power outside women’s sphere. And while many of the conventions of female propriety were restrictive and repressive, they had allowed women (young women and their mothers) a great deal of control of immediate control over courtship. The transfer of spheres thoroughly undercut that control.
Second, in the calling system, the woman took the initiative. Etiquette books and columns were adamant on that point: it was the “girl’s privilege” to ask a young man to call. Furthermore, it was highly improper for the man to take the initiative. In 1909 a young man wrote to the Ladies’ Home Journal advisor asking, “May I call upon a young woman whom I greatly admire, although she had not given me the permission? Would she be flattered at my eagerness, even to the setting aside of conventions, or would she think me impertinent?” Mrs. Kingsland replied: “I think that you would risk her just displeasure and frustrate your effort of finding favor with her.” Softening the prohibition, she then suggested and invitation might be secured through a mutual friend (Kingsland, 1909, p. 58).
Contrast these strictures with advice on dating etiquette from the 1940s and 1950s: An advice book for men and women warns that “girls who [try] to usurp the right of boys to choose their own dates” will “ruin a good dating career…. Fair or not, it is the way of life. From the Stone Age, when men chased and captured their women, comes the yen of a boy to do the pursuing. You will control your impatience, therefore, and respect the time-honored custom of boys to take the first step” (Richmond, 1958, p. 11).
This absolute reversal of roles almost necessarily accompanied courtship’s move from women’s sphere to man’s sphere. Although the convention-setters commended the custom of woman’s initiative because it allowed greater exclusivity (it might be “difficult for a girl to refuse the permission to call, no matter how unwelcome or unsuitable an acquaintance of the man might be”), the custom was based on a broader principle of etiquette (Hart and Brown, 1944, p. 89). The host or hostess issued any invitation; the guest did not invite himself or herself. An invitation to call was an invitation to visit in a woman’s home.
An invitation to go out on a date, on the other hand, was an invitation into man’s world—not simply because dating took place in the public sphere (commonly defined as belonging to men), though that was part of it, but because dating moved courtship into the world of the economy. Money—men’s money—was at the center of the dating system. Thus, on two counts, men became the hosts and assumed the control that came with that position.
There was some confusion caused by this reversal of initiative, especially during the twenty years or so when going out and calling coexisted as systems. (The unfortunate young man in the apocryphal story, for example, had asked the city girl if he might call on her, so perhaps she was conventionally correct to assume he meant to play the host.) Confusions generally were sorted out around the issue of money. One young woman, “Henrietta L.,” wrote to the Ladies’ Home Journal to inquire whether a girl might “suggest to a friend going to any entertainment or place of amusement where there will be any expense to the young man.” The reply: “Never, under any circumstances.” The advisor explained that the invitation to go out must “always” come from the man, for he was the one “responsible for the expense” (Kingsland, Oct. 1907, p. 60). This same advisor insisted that the woman must “always” invite the man to call; clearly she realized that money was the central issue.
The centrality of money in dating had serious implications for courtship. Not only did money shift control and initiative to men by making them the “hosts,” it led contemporaries to see dating as a system of exchange best understood through economic analogies or as an economic system pure and simple. Of course, people did recognize in marriage a similar economic dimension—the man undertakes to support his wife in exchange for her filling various roles important to him—but marriage was a permanent relationship. Dating was situational, with no long-term commitments implied, and when a man, in a highly visible ritual, spent money on a woman in public, it seemed much more clearly an economic act.
Dating, like prostitution, made access to women directly dependent on money. In dating, though, the exchange was less direct and less clear than in prostitution. One author, in 1924, made sense of it this way. In dating, he reasoned, a man is responsible for all expenses. The woman is responsible for nothing—she contributes only her company. Of course, the man contributes his company, too, but since he must “add money to balance the bargain” his company must be worth less than hers. Thus, according to this economic understanding, she is selling her company to him. In his eyes, dating didn’t even involve an exchange; it was a direct purchase. The moral “subtleties” of a woman’s position in dating, the author concluded, were complicated even further by the fact that young men, “discovering that she must be bought, [like] to buy her when [they happen] to have the money” (Black, 1924, p. 342).
Yet another young man, the same year, publicly called a halt to such “promiscuous buying.” Writing anonymously (for good reason) in American Magazine, the author declared a “one-man buyer’s strike.” This man estimated that, as a “buyer of feminine companionship” for the previous five years, he had “invested” about $20 a week—a grand total of over $5,000. Finally, he wrote, he had realized that “there is a point at which any commodity—even such a delightful commodity as feminine companionship—costs more than it is worth” (“Too-high,” 1924, pp. 27, 145-50). The commodity he had bought with his $5,000 had been priced beyond its “real value” and he had had enough. The man said “enough” not out of principle, not because he rejected the implications of the economic model of courtship, but because he felt he wasn’t receiving value for money.
In these economic analyses, the men are complaining about the new dating system, lamenting the passing of the mythic good old days when “a man without a quarter in his pocket could call on a girl and not be embarrassed,” the days before a woman had to be “bought” (“Too-high,” 1924, pp. 145-50). In recognizing so clearly the economic model on which dating operated, they also clearly saw that the model was a bad one—in purely economic terms. The exchange was not equitable; the commodity was overpriced. Men were operating at a loss.
Here, however, they didn’t understand their model completely. True, the equation (male companionship plus money equals female companionship) was imbalanced. But what men were buying in the dating system was not just female companionship, not just entertainment—but power. Money purchased obligation; money purchased inequality; money purchased control.
The conventions that grew up to govern dating codified women’s inequality and ratified men’s power. Men asked women out; women were condemned as “aggressive” if they expressed interest in a man too directly. Men paid for everything, but often with the implication that women “owed” sexual favors in return. The dating system required men always to assume control, and women to act as men’s dependents.
Yet women were not without power in the system, and they were willing to contest men with their “feminine” power. Much of the public discourse on courtship in twentieth-century America was concerned with this contestation. Thousands of sources chronicled the struggles of, and between, men and women—struggles mediated by the “experts” and arbiters of convention—to create a balance of power, to gain or retain control of the dating system. These struggles, played out most clearly in the fields of sex, science, and etiquette, made ever more explicit the complicated relations between men and women in a changing society.
A Girl. (1914, July). Believe me. Ladies’ Home Journal, 7.
Black, A. (1924, August). Is the young person coming back? Harper’s, 340, 342.
Erenberg, L. (1981). Steppin’ out. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Hall, F. H. (1907, November). Etiquette for men. Harper’s Bazaar, 1095-97.
Hart, S. & Brown, L. (1944). How to get your man and hold him. New York: New Power Publications.
How may a girl know? (1914, January). Ladies’ Home Journal, 9.
Kingsland. (1907, May). Ladies’ Home Journal, 48.
——-. (1907, October). Ladies’ Home Journal, 60.
——-. (1909, May). Ladies’ Home Journal, 58.
Lady from Philadelphia. (1904, February). Ladies’ Home Journal, 255.
Moss, A. (1963, April). Whatever happened to courtship? Mademoiselle, 151.
Peiss, K. (1986). Cheap amusements: Working women and leisure in turn-of-the-century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Preston, A. (1907, February). After business hours—what? Ladies’ Home Journal, 31.
Richmond, C. (1958). Handbook of dating. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
Some expert opinions on dating. (1924, September). American Magazine, 27, 145-50.

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