The events described in Sylvia Plath’s literary masterpiece “The Bell Jar” take place in the early 1950s, a period contemporary Americans often refer to as “The Good Ol’ Days.” This era is undoubtedly what folks are referring to when they say they want to “Make America Great Again.”
In the 1950s, segregation was the law of the land. The racial superiority of whites was accepted as fact. Blacks were expected to be subservient to their white overlords, and those who strived for more in life often found themselves swinging from the end of a noose.
Immigrants and non-white American citizens were treated poorly as well. Japanese-Americans were forcefully removed from their homes and locked in internment camps during the war, and after their release, they continued to be viewed with suspicion while they tried to pick up the pieces of their broken lives. It was rare, if not unheard of, for minorities to hold public office or obtain a high-ranking position in the workplace.
In Plath’s day, women were also treated as second-class citizens. Girls were taught that their place was in the home serving their fathers and eventually their husbands. If they were allowed to work outside their homes at all, the best they could hope for was a job as a man’s assistant, usually as a secretary or clerk. While no one will ever know for sure, these facts may have contributed to Plath’s depression, and ultimately her death by suicide.
After reading her semi-autobiographical novel last weekend, my heart ached for Sylvia Plath and for her female contemporaries. For a vibrant, creative woman like Plath, the 1950s would have been a stifling, frustrating, and maddening time to be alive. When I look at the life my wife Bethany has made for herself, I can’t help but think about the millions of Sylvia Plaths who weren’t free to follow their own paths to happiness.
Bethany is more than a wife and mother, although those are two of the most demanding and important occupations on earth. She is also a well-respected leader at MU Healthcare, where she is a director of the University’s system of clinics. In Plath’s time, women working in healthcare were nurses, receptionists, and very rarely doctors. It was unheard of for females to occupy positions of authority over men back in “the good ol’ days.”
Today, women and minorities are CEOs of corporations. They are senators and congresswomen. I wonder what Sylvia Plath would make of that.
Yet, as far as we have come as a society, we still have a long way to go before women and minorities are treated as equals to white males. Look no further than the latest attack launched by the president of the United States against his fellow Americans:
“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world…now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
It is important to note that of the freshmen congresswomen he is referring to, only one is an immigrant and all four are American citizens. Notice, Trump did not tell any white males in congress to go back to wherever they came from, although every white male in congress, and in this nation, is a descendant of immigrants.
When Donald Trump and his supporters say they want to make America great again, what they are really saying is that they want to make America controlled by white males again. To them, the 1950s really were the good ol’ days, when women and minorities knew their place.
For my immigrant daughter, I want America to be a place where everyone is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. In Trump’s ideal America, my Chinese-born daughter would not be allowed to run for congress, criticize the president, or try to affect change through legislation. I, for one, am not interested in turning back the clock of progress.
Though Plath used the bell jar as a way to describe her descent into depression, it could also be an analogy for the glass ceiling that white males have used to contain the aspirations of women and minorities. If we as a nation would resolve to shatter the glass ceiling once and for all, then I believe the good ol’ days in America are still to come.