The Birth Control In Grandma's Closet


A sepia-toned Vanity Fair profile of Grace Kelly reminds us that the future Princess of Monaco lost her virginity at the tender age of 17. And from polling our own grandmothers, we were surprised at what we learned:

Says the piece,

Grace Kelly, the swan princess in white gloves, was neither a virgin when she married Prince Rainier III of Monaco, in 1956 (she’d lost it at 17, just before she left home for New York City), nor virginal in the way she had conducted her love life up until then. As the truth came out about Grace’s sex life as a single girl, in books ever more salacious in their details, it was a shock, sharply at odds with her pristine screen persona.

In a sense, Kelly is a good stand-in for her times, because she is regarded in the popular imagination as the iconic 1950s woman – refined, ladylike, controlled. Of course, we do realize that people have always had sex, and that human beings, at the end of the day, are human beings. We also realize that pre-birth control and sexual revolution, it was a much dicier proposition, frequently involving serious consequences both societal and physical. (At the very least, a thoroughly embarrassing visit to a progressive doctor, a la the famous “pessary” scene in The Group.) But there’s an assumption amongst some critics that today’s young women are somehow fundamentally wilder than in prior generations – and without the rosy glow of revolution that seems, in the public imagination, to distinguish our exploits from those of our parents’ generation. We’re skeptical. Maybe these revelations about Princess Grace will force people to re-evalutae these one-dimensional perceptions. We did exactly that; an informal poll of our collective grandmothers unearthed the following:

– My own grandparents lived together for several years prior to getting married; during this time, my grandmother got pregnant and decided not to keep the baby. Granted, they were highly progressive (I have my grandma’s “Sadie Stein” Communist Party membership card) and as the first-generation children of Yiddish-speaking immigrants in an old-world neighborhood and life, they were in some ways not as bound by expectations. But it’s a situation one doesn’t much hear about — and not an uncommon one amongst their friends.

– On the other side of the coin, Margaret’s grandmother got pregnant while still in high school and dropped out to have the baby, who was Margaret’s father. And, she adds, “my maternal great-grandmother divorced her husband in the ’30s, which was certainly not the norm in the Ohio coal-mining town where she lived.”

Anna North’s grandmother was a Marine. Irin’s was a serious basketball player. Granted this is a small and varied sampling, but if none of these women conforms to the stereotype of the mid-century Stepford-esque housewife, it’s probably because it’s just that: a stereotype. Did prior generations conform more stringently to expectations? Yes, of course. (Peyton Place wasn’t a bestseller for nothing.) My maternal grandmother hewed a more conventional course than the Communist duo, living at home until her marriage and (almost) certainly only ever sleeping with one man. But it seems like a mistake to assume there was any fundamental difference in these women themselves. If there’s one thing that’s changed, it’s more likely the importance of privacy and tact, both personal and collective. Revelations about Grace Kelly might force us to think, again, that things are not always what they seemed, thanks to the enduring power of discretion.

Grace Kelly’s Forever Look [Vanity Fair]

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