Wing to Wing: From Calling to Dating to ??

It’s Monday, which now means we continue with reading Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying. We’re just getting started, and as such, after last week’s overview (click the “courting” link in the sidebar for the collected essays as they develop). This book is an anthology, a collection of essays. We continue with the first reading … and first major section. The first major section of the book is entitled “Where are we now? Assessing our situation”. In the introduction, our editors start out with a stark portrait (in their own admission open to challenge and perhaps overdrawn), yet perhaps too some truth will be seen in comparison with earlier ages. How does this portrait look:

Not so today, Now roughly half the nation goes to college, but very few — women or men — seem to go with the hope or even wish of finding a marriage partner. Many do no even expect to find a path to a career … Sexually active — in many cases, hyperactive — they bounce about from one relationship to another; … On the one hand, they practice strict scrutiny of ordinary speech for taints of sexism, and they rein in even innocent flirtation, which they have trouble distinguishing from sexual harassment; sensitivity training is in many places de rigeur. In addition, their legitimate fears of sexually transmitted disease, as well as their quasi-religious preoccupation with the condition and uses of their bodies, have taken much of the joy and ease out of the courtship dance …. On the other hand, many people are perfectly content to “hook up” for a night with someone they just met, or with whom they have been drinking too much, at a party. The young men, nervous predators, act as if any woman is equally good; they are given not to falling in love with one, but to scoring in bed with many. And in this sporting attitude, they are now matched by some female trophy hunters.

But many of the young, and more particularly many of the women, strike us as sad, lonely and confused. They are, to be sure, very pleased with their new educational and professional opportunities, and with their greater freedom and independence. But in private matters, in relations with men, most of them are, we suspect, hoping for something more. …

So … from that, we proceed to a short historical essay by Beth L. Bailey, entitled From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America. Find a short summary and remarks below the fold.

What is (was!) calling?

One day, the 1920s story goes, a young man asked a city girl if he might call on her. 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 with meaning to early twentieth century Americans. The hat signaled that she expected to leave the house. He came on a “call”, expecting in her families 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.

Calling it turns out was a primary mode of courtship especially in the middle classes. This was taken accounts of a rural ideal. From the excerpt we learn that calling had some of the following features:

  • In the rural setting, a young man from a neighboring farm would “call” on a lady in the evening to spend time sitting on the front porch. He would present his “card” at the house and was then informed if the lady of his choosing “was in”. This practice was elaborated in moving it out of the rural setting
  • One of the key features of “calling” was that it was controlled by women. The women of the house and society determined which days were available for “call”. Who might be received and by whom was determined by the society of women. Although the economic and social status of the man in a household determined their status, unmarried men were subject to this female controlled system when courting and seeking a wife.
  • The rules governing calling were complex. Each of these steps, “measuring steps” was a tactical move to judge suitability, breeding, and background.

Soon however this was supplanted by “dating”. Dating arose from two pressures, one from the wealthy and rich, the other from the poor. The poor working girls especially, couldn’t afford “parlor” and the surroundings. Privileged youngsters keyed on the freedom found in dating, the release from rigor, rule, and restraint. However there are some key points to dating that changed the equation:

  • Dating is in the public sphere it took the equation out of the hand of woman’s society and sovereignty. It was in the public sphere, the “man’s” world so to speak and made it more commercial venture.
  • Men paying for dating put men in control. “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.”
  • “date” was a period term as well, used by prostitutes to describe their trade.
  • Men bought power. Money purchased obligation; money purchased inequity; money purchased control.

The steps taken from “call”, or earlier “bundling” and other formalized courtship praxis in the main might serve to help explain why courtship and marriage are things we as a society shy from thinking much about. There are by and large no customs, few studies, no classes, no careful thinking going on about courtship and marraige. We have high school and Jr high classes to prepare our children to balance checkbooks, shop, find apartments and budget a household. How many on seeking a hand in marraige.Our schools have decided to take from parents the responsibility for teaching much of what was formerly left to concerned parents. Courtship and marraige, training, dating and the ethics of the same. Considerations of how to find a wife or husband, helpmate and partner is left … to none. This is a topic which is amenable and fit for some level of  care and bookishness in study. That kind of training by and large has been abandoned in the home, and left for school. However, schools have not chosen to touch this subject. Why? I wonder. And for that matter, it’s just as well. However, the gap remains to be filled. Who might fill it? Our churches?

It is also interesting how forms and structures set up and followed, which on outward appearance limit and constrain women are actually when considered more carefully … the reverse.

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