A Summer in Italy, 1929 (Part 10)

IIIF Manifest

Article about the Binkleys’ book "What is Right with Marriage" in the Women’s Section of the New York World, 1 Dec. 1929.

Bob and Frances

When Frances arrived in New York aboard the Saturnia on November 16, Bob came down from Northampton to meet her on the dock. She had warned him to “look for an excited woman carrying a baby dressed in red” 1 They stayed in the city with their friends at their old place at 49 Morton St., where Frances was interviewed by the New York World about What is Right with Marriage. They found they had sold the article which they had co-written in Rome – the debate between the two of them on romance in marriage – to Forum. After three days they left New York for Northampton, where Frances finally saw their new apartment, with which she was pleased. Social and academic life started up at once:

People began calling on us the second day I was here: Bob invited one of his classes here for the evening on the sixth day after I came; there is a book review that is already somewhat overdue, and so on.2

The baby was seen by a doctor and pronounced healthy, vindicating the experiment of giving birth in Italy. The Binkleys requested an appointment at Margaret Sanger’s birth control clinic to arrange for contraception.3 Life returned to normal. The collapse of the stock market on Black Tuesday in late October, as Frances prepared for the voyage home, went unmentioned in the their letters.

The nine weeks between Sept. 12 when Bob left Rome and Nov. 16 when Frances arrived in New York was the first long separation of their marriage, and the first extended exchange of letters between them. “It is almost worth having you away for a while in order to get love letters, for I have never had any before”, Frances wrote.4 The letters give us a glimpse of the balance of their relationship, though the timing is not at all fair: we catch Bob at a moment of freedom, the beginning of new projects, recognition and reward, while Frances is dealing with depression, social isolation, a difficult baby and domestic friction with the Nanni family. Bob is brash, energetic and somewhat condescending to others and even patronizing to Frances; Frances sometimes comes across as dependent and lacking in self-confidence.

No doubt feeling guilty for leaving Frances to cope alone, Bob wrote frequently, starting on the train directly after his departure. Two days later, and presumably continuing a conversation that started before he left, Bob wrote:

As a matter of fact, with our colossal audacity in planning things & then doing them, are we not, in your words, living & loving greatly & beautifully rather than reasonably & comfortably? I think we are, and I feel a real admiration for your own high courage – for that is just what it is.5

And the next day (already on his eleventh letter):

In the train, right after I wrote you the last line of letter #10, a young Princeton Cub appeared with vague ideas about immortality, ardreologity[?], & the supreme merit of Christianity – really a very simpatico type, but the only way I could keep from being bored with him was by regarding him as an object for my educating activities. This is what it is to grow up, I guess. And how absurd it would be for you to stay a child, for it would break up companionship! This is the final answer to that dread of becoming middle aged which sometimes brings you almost to tears. Did you ever think of this before in quite this way? Strange that I didn’t.6


I bow to your compliment on my courage – which is not courage, really but only a sort of capacity to decide without considering troublesome details, – so that having got myself into a scrape I must later get out again. But thank you just the same.

And it is comforting to know that I am to be allowed to grow old. But one may grow old faster than one grows out of childishness – that is a thing to guard against. It always comes to me as a sort of joyous surprise when you seem to be taking me into account in your life, like a first kiss all over again, or something like that. I do wish I were frightfully intelligent, so we could have more of this companionship you speak of – especially since it looks as if in the next five years I would have to be left out of camping trips and such diversions – but we always have the coffee habit and our mutual superiority to other people as a meeting ground.7

She expresses her emotional dependence on him, but she also reserves the right to critique his interpretation of their relationship (“this companionship you speak of”), and at the end she defines it as fundamentally a meeting of equals on a common ground.

These letters introduce a major theme of their correspondence: Bob’s respect for Frances’ intellectual independence. This went back to the beginning of their marriage. When they were newlyweds, Frances wrote to her mother:

Mary Ada [Frances’ sister] had doubts about Bob, but he is really all right. While he won’t wipe dishes, he gets up and starts breakfast, and is quite remarkably fair about trying to see that I have some time of my own and some prejudices of my own, uncorrupted by matrimonial bonds.8

The major question arising from this was how to find a forum in which Frances could do intellectual work.

Wives and their Jobs

The discussion in their letters and the life they established at Smith College give us a glimpse of the boundaries of the feminism that Bob and Frances professed. Frances considered that the opportunity to earn a salary after marriage defined the generation gap between herself and her mother, and was essential to a modern woman’s happiness. When her younger sister Rachael mentioned that she was working on her hope chest that summer, Frances wrote to her:

I hope you aren’t going and falling for some nice young man and marrying him before you finish college and get started in whatever work you have picked out to do. Once you are married there are so many new responsibilities, and so many things that happen, that it is terribly hard to get on with your own work, unless you are fairly well started in it to begin with. I speak from experience as well as from observation.

The danger is that if you marry without some definite work and plans of your own, you muddle along for ten or fifteen years, and then find that while your husband has advanced professionally and knows lots of clever people and is considered a person of importance you are stuck on the shelf as a mere wife, with no special ability or reputation of your own. This is hard on your self respect and hard on your marriage, because you really can’t blame a man for turning to the more interesting women who have been accomplishing things, for companionship. I have seen this sort of thing happen a lot, and it is rather pathetic to see the women of forty who have had no experience or training, starting out to do something that will make them into persons instead of the nonentity that they have become.

The change that has come about is a funny thing. When Mother was a girl it was unusual and I suppose rather shocking for a wife to work. But people had more children in those days, and had more housework to do, and women weren’t supposed to be very interesting anyway. Now-a-days, among the people I know at least, it is embarrassing if the wife doesn’t do something. People ask Bob what he does, and then ask me what I do – my work has been so broken up since I have been married that if I don’t accomplish something soon I will begin to feel frightfully dumb and inferior when they ask me. Of course, having a baby is a good excuse temporarily for not doing anything of importance, but it won’t last forever.9

This must be her “dread of becoming middle aged” that Bob mentioned. She goes on to list two dozen couples they knew in academic circles, in which almost all of the wives worked or intended to return to work, and concludes: “For myself, I think it certainly must be much more pleasant and a thousand times more interesting to be a wife now than it was a generation ago.” The modern wife had freed herself from the placid and boring domesticity of the previous generation, but had taken on new obligations to her husband and to her social circle: to be at least moderately successful, and above all to be interesting.

During the first three years of their marriage, while Bob worked in the Hoover War Library and finished his Ph.D., Frances had taken secretarial jobs at Stanford. When they moved to New York in 1927 she wanted something more substantial. She wrote to her parents a few months later:

I began looking for a job, because I had a feeling I was scarcely contributing my share by doing the housework in our tiny apartment. I think I was degenerating mentally. I took a statistical job, but it turned out to be lacking in the opportunities I had expected, and I gave it up last week. Next week I begin on another one, which has no opportunities at all, but leaves me free after two o’clock every afternoon, and in that free time I hope to develop some interesting work. It is terribly hard to break away from secretarial work into anything offering real advancement, particularly as we want to have some children as soon as we can afford it, and that will mean an interruption before I have scarcely begun working up. I want to develop some sort of work that I can carry on in a part-time way when I do have children. It is becoming more and more clear that it is much more satisfactory for me to earn the money to pay a washerwoman than to do the washing myself, and this applies to most of the other housework.10

The work she wanted to develop was writing. She placed two articles with their agent, Natalie Davison, by May 1930, but neither of them was published despite some positive comments. One of them was a description of the experience of having a baby in Italy; the other, “Wives and their Jobs”, was a discussion of the changing nature of women’s work outside the home. She argued for exactly the freedom she described to her parents, to exchange housework for employment that covered the cost of domestic help.

Through her salary the wife with a job is enabled to contribute her share to the economic upkeep of the family in a way that has been impossible since the removal of productive household occupations from the home to the factory. Cooking and sewing and the care of children she comes to treat, not as a personal labor of love, but as duties which can be performed by any adequately trained employee. She exchanges these domestic occupations for other more remunerative or congenial work outside the home. Does the family lose more than it gains in this exchange? …

One who observes some of the modern marriages where the wife has a job, is likely to entertain certain sentimental regrets for the oldfashioned home. The housekeeping of an unsupervised maid is often a dismal affair. A husband who must buy the groceries and help wash windows on Saturday afternoons is a sad spectacle. But, on the other hand, the stimulus of her work may make of the wife an alert and interesting comrade instead of a sentimental drudge. There is compensation for much in the fact that a self-supporting wife is not the dead weight of responsibility that a helpless “home body” may be.11

Wives and their Jobs - article by Frances Binkley, as circulated to publishers.

Frances was able to put this system into practice during the year at Smith College (1929-30). The shipboard acquaintance that the Binkleys had formed in May with Henry S. Canby, editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, now paid off. When Bob called on him in New York, Canby promised to send books on the war for Bob to review and books on marriage for Frances. Bob wrote, “A moderate income from book reviews seems to be about to be assured to you.”12 In late October, not knowing that Frances was still in Rome, Canby sent her Woman and Society (Meyrick Booth), Let’s be Normal (Fritz Künkel) and Marriage and Morals (Bertrand Russell), suggesting a single review of 1000 words or an extended review of Russell and notes on the other two13 Bob, thinking the job was urgent, considered writing the reviews himself under Frances’ name to keep her in Canby’s good graces, but ultimately wrote to Canby explaining the situation and offering to write the reviews or wait for Frances as Canby preferred.14 Canby compromised: “Go ahead and do the books. They are quite important I think, regarded as a group and as we cannot publish for two or three weeks you can show your copy to Mrs. Binkley.”15 Bob evidently did not get the job done, for Frances submitted a review of Russell and four other books in early December, and was happy when Canby sent her more books in the new year. She wrote to her mother:

I am very much pleased today, because Canby of the Saturday Review has sent me another book to review. This means that he liked the first one enough to ask for more. Anyway I’ve earned enough to pay a half-time maid, so far this winter. I don’t know how we would have managed it if we hadn’t sold some articles, this winter.16

Bob’s anxiety to keep Frances’ options open must have felt to her as pressure to succeed; and his confidence that he could dash off reviews good enough to satisfy Canby would not have reinforced Frances’ own confidence. Nevertheless Frances published three reviews in the Saturday Review that year, while caring for a baby.17

Their conversation about the balance of women’s intellectual fulfillment, careers and family life would continue. By the time of their next separation in the fall of 1930, when their letters allow us to pick up the thread of their relationship, Bob and Frances planned to develop the discussion into a book they called Style of Life. Only some scattered notes survive, but Bob gave a sense of its scope in a letter to Frances written shortly after he arrived in Cleveland in the fall of 1930. At that point he had taught a year at Smith College, and was shocked at the pressure on the College for Women at Western Reserve to move away from the liberal arts curriculum and shunt women into teaching and nursing. This framed the old discussion of the value of a liberal arts education in the context of women’s intellectual life.

I have been out to dinner once, to breakfast once, and find that Cleveland is like any other place in that lower middle class tries to act like upper middle class and so forth. The problem of Style of Life is here. It is especially notable here because of the educational problem of the College for Women. There is a tendency to turn the College toward professional school work. The School of Education is pressing the C[ollege] F[or] W[omen] enrollment very hard. So is the Nursing School. Dean Smith, in something approaching despair, is wondering whether we must install professional courses. But no one has thought the thing through even as far as you and I have. The professional course for women is not the thing to be decided on its own merits alone, but in connection with the problem of woman, profession and marriage. Can a liberal arts college offer its students something deep enough to be so worth while that it will be time better spent than in professional education. Incredibly, one finds here that thoughts which we were wont to develop in conversation have practical meaning because they affect the future policies of the school.18

He still presents their relationship in terms of the intellectual companionship which Frances doubted her ability to keep up. I expect it continued to be an unequal balance. Bob always had new ideas and new projects, and was in a position to put them into action and be rewarded with applause and position; Frances never had the same opportunity to spread her wings, and found some satisfaction in collaboration with Bob while being anchored to the home. She gained more freedom a few years later, after her parents had moved in with them and had taken over some of the childcare and housework. After young Binks developed ear problems and needed to escape the damp cold of Ohio, the two boys and Frances’ parents spent two winters in Florida, freeing Bob and Frances from childcare duties for months at a time. Frances collaborated on Bob’s WPA projects and on the Style of Life research, and then launched into her own career in portrait photography. Bob’s sudden death in 1940 forced her to take up a conventional career as a librarian. For the last two decades of her life she was a professional, homeowner, breadwinner. After she was established in Colorado, she wrote of Luther Evans (then Chief Assistant Librarian of Congress):

I was sorry not to be in his library – he knows as much as anyone, I suppose, of the things Bob was working toward. But it seemed to me I could not ever overcome the disadvantage of being suspected of having the job handed to me for something aside from ability. I make my own way here, so far as I go.19

In the fall of 1929, as Bob and Frances settled in at Smith College, the future looked simple. Frances would care for the baby, fulfill the expectations of a faculty wife, and write; Bob would teach, publish as an academic and public intellectual, speak, and advocate for action on the problem of perishable paper.

  1. Doc. 779: FWB to RCB, 1929-10-31.↩︎

  2. Doc. 117: FWB to her mother, 1929-11-27.↩︎

  3. Doc. 1905: RCB to Margaret Sanger, 1929-10-27.↩︎

  4. Doc. 825: FWB to RCB, 1929-09-27.↩︎

  5. Doc. 335: 1929-09-14.↩︎

  6. Doc. 337: 1929-09-15.↩︎

  7. Doc. 829: 1929-09-23.↩︎

  8. Doc. 274: FWB to her mother, 1924-10-15.↩︎

  9. Doc. 2047: FWB to Rachael Williams, 1929-08-12.↩︎

  10. Doc. 182: FWB to her parents, 1928-02-07.↩︎

  11. They had developed the same theme in What is Right with Marriage (p.98):

    A debate is now in progress in the Western world as to whether housekeeping is properly and intimate domestic service, or whether it is rather to be regarded as an article of commerce. If it is regarded as an intimate service, then any scheme by which a husband pays a wife for her housekeeping is merely a convenient device for budgeting time or money, for keeping accounts or fixing responsibility within the household organization, and does not make of the wife’s duties an article of commerce in the outside market. But if housekeeping is not regarded as an intimate domestic service, then a wife who finds that she can make more money as a sales manager than it would cost to hire her housework done may seek outside employment as freely as she might look for a better apartment or change her milkman.↩︎

  12. Doc. 367: RCB to FWB, 1929-10-14.↩︎

  13. Doc. 1041: Canby to FWB, 1929-10-18.↩︎

  14. Doc. 358: RCB to FWB, 1929-10-21; Doc. 1055: RCB to Canby, 1929-10-24.↩︎

  15. Doc. 1040: Canby to RCB, 1929-10-31.↩︎

  16. Doc. 3131: FWB to Harriet Williams, 1930-03-01.↩︎

  17. Frances Williams Binkley, “Love and Marriage.The Saturday Review (January 25, 1930): 671; “The Logic of Marriage.ibid. (May 3, 1930): 1012; “Sex and Its Cure.ibid. (May 31, 1930): 1090.↩︎

  18. Doc. 2727: RCB to FWB, 1930-10-13.↩︎

  19. Doc. 8033: FWB to Max Fisch, 1942-01-31.↩︎