Sex Ed: 5 Things Masters of Sex Teaches Us About the ’50s

William Masters and Virgina Johnson in his office (

William Masters and Virgina Johnson in his office (

Were the ‘50s a golden age of robust economics and strong families, or the end of an incredibly repressive era in American history (for everyone who wasn’t a white man)? Conservatives and liberals regularly recall the decade in starkly different terms.

Showtime’s Golden-globe nominated series Masters of Sex offers its own portrayal of the era, focusing on the original sexperts, William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Unlike PBS’ Call the Midwife, which overlaps subject-wise and is also set in 1957-58, Masters of Sex unfolds in St. Louis, largely at Washington University’s teaching hospital.

When watching period pieces, viewers are likely to compare the images on-screen with their contemporary lives and consider both how the two differ and which seems superior.  So, given what we know historically and what Masters of Sex presents, should we prefer to live in the ‘50s or today?

1. Working Moms Lack Support. Working mothers face challenges today as they strive to balance work and family. However, watching Virginia Johnson as she tried to juggle both without a husband in 1957 takes that complication to a whole new level. She encounters serious disapproval, including from a quitting babysitter who advises that a mother should be working her schedule around her children, not the reverse. There simply wasn’t much societal support for women like Johnson, who clearly loved her children but was also professionally ambitious. Johnson would have more company today.

2. Jews Hide in Plain Sight. It’s only when Masters’ protégé, rising star Ethan Haas, is sampling wedding cakes with his fiancée that we learn through their discussion about circumcision that he is Jewish. She is shocked. Ethan eats bacon, never attends synagogue, and has a Scandinavian-sounding last name that must have been adopted at Ellis Island. There would be no need for such circumspection in today’s America.

3. Women Decline a Woman OB. Dr. Lillian DePaul is Washington University’s first woman obstetrician. She, of course, finds it ironic that a field focused on women’s health is so dominated by men. When she complains to the university’s chancellor that the hospital isn’t helping her build her practice, he practically spits that she has only 12 patients because most women don’t want another woman peeking up their skirt. In the 21st century, women are significantly more gender neutral in picking the best doctor. Further, while male doctors typically out-earn their female counterparts by 30%, in obstetrics the gap is only 14% today.

4. Doctors Endorse Gay Conversion Therapy. After the provost’s wife finally realizes her husband is gay – thanks to a wise prostitute – he considers undergoing gay conversion therapy. He reassures her that he has a well-respected doctor and that the electroshock therapy, which he’s chosen over several other incredibly painful sounding options, should work. Modern viewers will likely shake their heads.

5. Obstetrics is Primitive (and Deadly). Against the infertility odds, Masters’ wife becomes pregnant. She glows as she walks into the provost’s anniversary celebration, incredibly round and nearly full-term. However, she soon begins hemorrhaging and is rushed to the hospital. There are no ultrasounds, no electronic monitors. Her husband, the renowned obstetrician, monitors the baby’s heartbeat with his stethoscope. He subsequently admits that he hears nothing; the baby is lost. Given how far along their baby was, a contemporary major university teaching hospital should have been able to save the baby with an emergency C-section.

In some ways the 1950s sound incredibly appealing. It was a boom period economically, divorce was rare, and most children were still raised by their two biological parents. However, as a mother who enjoys her work, a Jew, and a woman who’s relied on obstetricians, I’m grateful for the advances of the last five decades. In an ideal world, we could keep those advances while also seeking a nationwide recommitment to marriage and strong families. Now, that would be a worthy project for the coming decade.

This article appeared in Acculturated.


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