Back Into The Weeds

It’s time again for some library collection weeding — the Reference section, this time — and that means it is also time for another round of Weird Stuff I Found In The Collection. Yay!

This week’s theme: Vintage Sexism (It’s Still A Thing)!

Once upon a time in 1949, prolific editor/compiler of books of quotations, toasts and anecdotes Lewis C. Henry (variously published as L.C. Henry, Lewis Copeland, Lewis Copeland Henry, etc.) published a handy little volume called Toasts for All Occasions. It’s a small collection of brief remarks, some attributed to famous authors, some treated as general or common knowledge, and some plainly written by Henry himself. The content is divided by themes or occasions, and it’s the sort of text one imagines old Toastmasters members would keep around as a handy resource. Its tone is all avuncular bonhomie of a sort that might conceivably help a nervous public speaker project confidence.

It is also a snapshot of its time, as one might expect. In the section devoted to toasts appropriate for the Army (a very small selection), for example, we discover the following two bits of sentimental sexism:

The parallel constructions here are clever, and one can easily imagine a man speaking to other men in this way in 1949 and getting enthusiastic responses. What jars reading it now (and perhaps also then, from a woman’s point of view) is the comfortable sense of entitlement underlying both toasts — as if it were women’s duty to get it on with men who serve (ignoring, of course, all of the women who also serve), as if sex and its related comforts were the reward properly owed as “recompense” for service. The transactional romance here rankles (and stands as yet another data point for any ongoing chronicle of how certain contemporary sex and gender norms developed).

There is also a competing antipathy for the relationships that the military romance transaction appears to commend:

This (again, rather clever and nicely written) toast is actually in a section devoted to “Bachelors and Spinsters”, which includes mostly pitying comments on single women of a certain age and the usual parson’s mousetrap/ball and chain gags about marriage as a form of bondage for men (even as it is posed as a necessary fulfillment of women’s nature). Antipathy and desire are presented in constant tension, naturally, as a sort of joke (I am reminded, oddly, of Hannah Gadsby’s discussion of comedy and tension in Nanette…).

Obviously, this is not a revolutionary text. It tidily reinforces norms that have always been in tension with each other. The same relationships that are owed are also scorned, a payment that is also a trap. It’s sort of a horrifying way to think about other people, honestly, and it speaks to what makes some approaches to masculinity so toxic. What’s worst, though, is that it is genuinely a charming little book. Reading it is a bit like spending time with a friendly old reprobate, someone who is both personally rather fun to be around and also intensely off-putting.

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About L. M. Bernhardt

Deaccessioned philosopher. Occasional Musician. Academic librarian, in original dust jacket. Working to keep my dogs in the lavish manner to which they have become accustomed.
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