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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Ways women found power despite society's gender structures

In Birmingham society, single women had little direct control over their social standing. Instead, they had to find ways to be popular with the men their age by playing the single men off each other because neither money, education, nor beauty ensured popularity.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

You see, liking men was supposed to be quite a sin in those days. Any woman that was considered fast or painted her face or was too . . . there was a very beautiful woman in Birmingham named Mrs. Barrett, who had been married three or four times and was a very handsome woman and the Whisper was that she liked men, which meant that she was a fast woman and that was a terrible sin. I remember that when I was a little older, Zelda Sayre, she was the most beautiful of all, of course, and the most popular, but the whisper was that she liked men. You see, liking men meant that you were fast, that you were . . . you were supposed to be "chased and chaste," if you know what I mean. You were supposed to be totally pure and be terribly attractive to men, but not give them an inch. Because if you did, that might involve your ruin, I suppose and then you would be banished, packed off to New Jersey. (laughter) Can you see by this time the inhibitions that had been built up in us and the class barriers and the sex barriers and the idea marrying and marrying well was the only fate that you could possibly have.
SUE THRASHER:
You're not talking about any kind of . . . of other . . .
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Any girls in my class or my group, they're the only ones that I knew.
SUE THRASHER:
No, you're not saying anything about your objection to it. I'm surprised that you weren't a little more . . . .
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Not at this time, not at this time. See, my great fear was that I wouldn't be popular. Cliff says that I had a superiority complex, but he's wrong, I didn't. I had been told from my infancy that I was too big, too raw-boned, near-sighted, that I asked too many questions and I never was given the image, except by my mother who adored me and she always said, "Now dear, if you will just do this or that, you will be beautiful and you will be charming." Then, I wasn't any great belle, you see. I had a few boys that came around, but they . . . .
CLIFFORD DURR:
Well, you were certainly no wall flower.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
This was when I was in my teens, not after I got older. Then, I was more popular, but the thing was that in my teens, I really wasn't one of the more popular girls. We had the most awful system then, good God, it was enough to scare you to death. If you got invited to a party or a dance, the hostess even, not just a fraternity or a club, they would put the girls' names on a list at a drugstore and then the boys would check your name. It was a display, the list of girls was on the cigar counter, I think . . . (laughter) so, no matter what you were invited to, whether it was a buffet supper or a picnic or anything, the boys would check the names. The boys were totally in control of the social system. So, if you didn't get checked, you never went. Even if it was a private party, you didn't go, because if you weren't checked, then the horrible and frantic efforts of the hostess in trying to make some boy bring you! All the calling around, "Will you bring somebody?" So you see, we were just in a state of absolute terror all the time because you were totally dependent on the will or the popularity of the boys. If they didn't check your name, you were disgraced. There your name was and nobody had checked you. So, what some of the girls did, if they could get a steady boyfriend, then they always knew that they had a chance to go. So, a lot of the girls just had one steady boyfriend. Well, I had some times when I wasn't checked. So, my mother had a friend, Mrs. Cataniss, who was a worthy old lady and very fashionable and she knew that my mother was worried about me. This was before I went off to New York and I was only fifteen then, you see, but my mother was worried about me because I wasn't so popular. I had a few beaus, but not enough to make me a belle at all. One of them was much shorter than I was and he wouldn't take me to a dance because he came up to my elbow and the other one couldn't dance. So, Mrs. Cataniss said, "Now Virginia, men are like sheep. If they see a lot of men around a girl, they will always be attracted because they follow the crowd. Now, the thing for you to do if you want to be popular is to be nice to all the drips", the dull boys and the ugly boys and the boys that couldn't dance well and the shy boys and the boys that weren't with it much, "Now, you just start being nice to all the drips and then no matter who they are," the dashing boys, the SAEs, (who were the big drunks, that fraternity that Cliff belonged to,) "and they will see you being surrounded by all these boys and being broken in on and they'll want to know what that girl has got, she must have something, you know, or she wouldn't be so surrounded." So, I made an absolute, desperate effort to be nice to all the drips. So, I collected around myself some of the drippiest drips that you've ever had. (laughter) As I look back on it, I really blush to think how false and hypocritical I was, the short boys I'd go with and the tall boys I'd go with and the shy boys; some of them were the nicest of course, because if I could make them feel at ease, they were o.k. But lots of the boys that were rather dull . . . oh, what I suffered, the boredom that I would have to put up with. But I got to be fairly popular through this means.
SUE THRASHER:
It worked.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
It worked o.k. I would be broken in on at the country club and I would get checked for the dances and so I finally got so where I was o.k. But I was always a little anxious, I never had that feeling of being irrisistable that the belles had.
SUE THRASHER:
Did the fact that you had gone away to New York and to the Cathedral School give you status?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Honey, nothing gave you status in those days but being popular with the boys. I mean, you could be beautiful, you could be rich, you could go to Paris to school. If you weren't popular with the boys . . . look, I know some of the girls in Birmingham whose families were the richest, who went to Foxcroft, who had thousands of dollars spent on their clothes and they would invite the boys to dinner and give them fillet mignon or three or eight courses and they never got checked for the dances. You see, the boys absolutely ruled the social life. They were the ones that determined whether a girl was or was not popular. Because you see, the thing was that marriage being our only outlet or the only thing that we could do, the boys had to ask us. We were totally at their mercy and attracting men and being attractive to men and getting a nice beau and the best marriage that you could was our only ambition and our only future, our only career. So, naturally, the boys were in total command of the situation, they were the ones that asked us. It was only the girls that were so popular that they could play one man off against another who had power. Now there was a girl who lived across the street from me who got engaged, I think, to seven men at the same time. Maybe just only five, I can't remember . . . (laughter) But she would play one man against the other and they were all angling for her. And the same thing was true of my sister, she had all these men trying to marry her and she was totally in control of that situation. Of course, Sister being so tender-hearted, she was always crying because she couldn't marry them all, you know and she was afraid to break their hearts, but that's a hard thing to do, as you may know, to break a man's heart. (laughter) But she was very tender hearted. The only thing that gave you status, being richand having lovely clothes and giving beautiful parties might help, but the thing that counted was being popular with the boys.