"Very Dearest Abelard. . . .Do you love me

infinitely more than anyone ever loved his lady?"

--Jessie Ravitch to Luther Bernard, 1922 [1 ]

When Jessie arrived on the campus of the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1920, the postwar party was just beginning. "To Bob--or Not to Bob?" This "tantalizing question" proclaimed the Minnesota Daily, was "causing the greatest discussion American women have ever engaged in."[2] Casting her vote for modernity, Jessie bobbed, and for a time uneasily adopted the protective coloration of the flapper. And short hair, she soon discovered, was only the beginning. The year before she arrived there had been a "corsetless coed" movement. "Women were wearing garter belts to keep their stockings up or just rolling them below the knee," she remembered. Flappers had already replaced the camisole and corset-covers with the brassiere as a symbol of liberation, an irony given the "bra burning" era of four decades later. A flood of new books raised fashion to the level of art. "My tastes were 20th century," Bernard continued, noting that her favorites were Edna St. Vincent Millay, Floyd Dell, and not surprisingly, fellow Minnesotan F. Scott Fitzgerald.[3]

Scholarship was also part of the mix. Although not yet the multiversity of later times, the University of Minnesota numbered some 8600 students in 1920, more than double the enrollment a decade earlier.[4] The faculty had expanded accordingly, as the university took steps to modernize its departments. Headed for an English major, Jessie took classes with some of its most distinguished members, among them Richard Burton, a Hopkins Ph.D. who titillated the students with Jane Austen's comment that no woman over twenty-three could excite affection in the male breast; Elmer E. Stoll, a world-famous Shakespearean scholar, who shocked the class with the announcement that Shylock was a comic character; and one Stanley Rypins, son of a prominent rabbi and a recent Rhodes scholar who scandalized Jewish Minneapolis by marrying outside the faith. In other departments, Jessie also studied with some of the biggest names: Alvin Hansen and N.S.B. Gras in economics; Karl Lashley, in psychology; and Pitirim Sorokin, the distinguished Russian emigre, in sociology. She sometimes joked that she had attended Harvard, since the last four eventually taught there.[5]

Among its faculty, Minnesota also boasted a number of distinguished women: in history, Alice Felt Tyler, later author of the highly regarded Freedom's Ferment (1944); in English, the novelist Mary Ellen Chase, Marjorie Nicholson, Anna H. Phelan ("statuesque and the very archetype of Pallas Athene"), and the venerable Maria Sanford, "the first woman college professor";[6] and in chemistry, Lillian Cohen. Many years later, Bernard saw clearly the barriers these women had faced. Since Tyler was married to another Minnesota professor, nepotism rules kept her a permanently temporary section leader. Nicholson and Chase, sensing a ceiling to their ambitions, soon left for Columbia and Smith respectively. They were "great luminaries," Bernard later remembered: they "dazzled" her.[7]

This memory, however, almost certainly told more about her later convictions than her views at the time. At the University of Minnesota of the early 1920s--to judge from the The Minnesota Daily --the "woman question" had lost much of its prewar urgency. Male students typically recognized the issue only to express vestigial uneasiness in open opposition to the flapper craze or in attempts at light-hearted humor. A particularly vitriolic editorial in the fall of of Jessie's freshman year condemned the wearing of what it called "kindergarten skirts." "No one has to think twice," the editor lectured, "to know that the short skirts worn by the ultra-fashionable group are bringing not only severe criticism upon their wearers, but also sneers and unpleasant remarks from men--men whom these women consider their friends as well as those whose opinions mean nothing." In the same issue a columnist lampooned the new permissiveness: "'It takes cheek to kiss a girl,'" the exchange went. "'Yes, and sometimes the girl is willing to furnish the cheek". "What you you mean 'only sometimes'?'" A month later, a correspondent contributed a sardonic commentary on "Feminine Masculinity". Now that women were equals, he opined, they need expect no special courtesies. Indeed, if "masculine femininity" was to be the rage among women, why not "a husky man playing the part of a coy and demure girl." Since this thought was too awful, perhaps "assertive women" should think twice.[8]

A few women students sporadically attempted to extend women's liberation to campus affairs. "Men Wash Dishes as Fair Sex Seeks [Office] 'Position'" read a headline in October (1920), reporting the fact that women students no longer sought housework to aid them through school, but office jobs. "The psychology of men and that of women are different things," announced the director of the University Employment Agency, with an air of revelation. Women had had enough of dusting and dishwashing, and felt their independence threatened when taking on domestic work while men were quite willing "to try anything once, even polishing the parlor table." [9] Other evidence was more direct, although rare. During Jessie's fourth term, the campus women's organizations rose up to protest the exclusion of females from the Gridiron Banquet, an annual student roast of "tyrant profs." "Girls are mistreated by professors as well as the men," one woman noted, claiming equal right to be in on the fun. (Another plotted with her boyfriend to go disguised in his place, only to be foiled when a sorority sister squealed.) In the fall of Jessie's senior year, the campus Y.W.C.A. and the Women's Student Government Association designated November 21 "Maria Sanford Day," thus honoring past triumphs.

When the issue came up, Jessie also opposed bastions of male privilege. As a member of Kappa Rho, the women's debating society, she was reported in her sophomore year as taking the affirmative in a debate "Resolved, that Men's Literary Societies should be abolished from the Campus."[10] But--to judge from letters and other written work--the issue rarely came up, at least so far as Jessie was concerned. If "dazzled" by her women professors, she made no mention of them at the time, nor remembered taking any specific courses with them. Assuming equality rather than struggling for it, she instead exalted in the liberating, permissive atmosphere of the new environment.

The department that won her heart, intellectually and (as it turned out) romantically, was finally not English but sociology. As a freshman, Jessie first visited the class of Professor Luther Lee Bernard at Stanley Rypins's suggestion, appropriately enough given the problems intermarriage would cause her as it caused him. The outcome was an exhilarating blend of new ideas, new experiences, and apparent liberation from the cloistered world of 11th and Lake Avenue. For four years, without her parents' knowledge, she carried on a clandestine affair with her professor, while embracing the teachings of modern sociology with the passion of the convert, as one by one the apparently outmoded values of her youth crumbled.


For the Jewish community of Minneapolis, the war years had brought dramatic changes. Older neighborhoods were relinquished to blacks, while suburbs further out catered to the newly rich. East Europeans Jews from the South Side invaded the formerly German West Side. "The already well-established young Russian or Roumanian Jews quickly acquired a veneer of breeding which made them quite indistinguishable from the onetime aristocrats of the community," Bernard later wrote in a thinly disguised account of her own relatives and their families. The socially ambitious left Orthodox synagogues for the Reform Temple, while the older generation branded these deserters "Deutsche Yehudi"--the "so-called German Jews." Homes and the people in them were redone so as to hide all traces of the Old World. Women no longer visited but "entertained." "Boyish forms became the rage and everyone dieted," Bernard remembered. Summers were now spent at lakeside resorts. For the women, lacemaking and needlework gave way to mah-jong or bridge. Men pursued fishing, golf and other activities earlier thought to be too frivolous, or worse, too Gentile. [11]

Although the David Ravitches were the poor relations in the eyes of their more successful relatives, Jessie shared this new prosperity vicariously, especially during visits with her rich cousins at their home (a "semi-mansion," she recalled) or at their lakeside retreat. Nor was the Minnesota undergraduate above these things. "I got the dearest little hat today--gray and blue felt," she reported of one new purchase. "It's most becoming too." [12] For her cousin's summer house she had even more lavish praise: "I never in my life have seen such a lovely place. They have a cottage with four bathrooms, eight porches, two fireplaces, accommodations for 14 people, electric stove, hot and cold running water--a gorgeous lawn and beautiful men in the water." [13] More socially active than she had been in high school, she now reported on dances and socials, and the attention of a number of young men, one or more of whom periodically raised her parents' hopes for a marriage. Between times, she read voraciously. Like her sister Clara before her, she invited her favorite professor to the house on several occasions.[14] All in all, her parents had good reason to be proud of their intelligent, industrious third child.

What they did not know was that, by the summer of 1922, Jessie was also living another life. Read in their entirety, her reports of clothes, summer houses, and socials told a further story. "Mother saw today's letter and asked if it were from 'the professor.' I said no, merely an 'ad,'so that you may write again soon, " she began one such letter. The recipient was Luther Lee Bernard, her sociology professor. By this time, she had a relationship with him that would please them not at all. Whether all this liberation would add up to true emancipation and personal fulfillment remained to be seen.


When Jessie arrived, Minnesota's department of sociology was entering its "golden years."[15] F. Stuart Chapin, appointed chairman in 1922, had been director of social work at Smith and was now a major proponent of statistical, quantitative sociology. Departmental restructuring had begun five years earlier with the appointment of Luther L. Bernard, a rising star in social psychology whose study of Instincts (1924) would soon appear. Others included Manuel C. Elmer, a Chicago-trained social surveyist with an interest in the family and delinquency, and later an ally of L.L.B. in battles to reform the American Sociological Society in the 1930s (appointed 1919); Frank Bruno, a Yale Ph.D. and social worker who arrived in 1921 to replace outgoing chairman Arthur J. Todd; and two assistant professors. In Jessie's senior year, Pitirim Sorokin also joined the department. Graduate students included George A. Lundberg, a disciple of L.L.B. who would later outdo the master in the quest for "objective" knowledge.

Although Jessie took her first course with Elmer, he made little impression (student rap, as reported later to L.L.B. by another young woman, was that Elmer was "very funny indeed. . . but we felt he was nothing but a bluff"). [16] Although Chapin interested her in statistical techniques, and was a significant influence on her work in the thirties, he also did not immediately capture her imagination. She also took one course with the departing Todd, "whose first name I can't remember." [17]

But Bernard was another matter. For Jessie, as for the author of the uncharitable comment on Elmer, he was the one sociology professor with whom one really had to study. By the time Jessie discovered him, there was already something of a Bernard cult. Two student fans styled themselves "neo-Bernardians"; another sent him a toy ape in thanks for a lecture on primate behavior.[18] "Every once in a while we come across most amazing specimens of instincts, which we chloroform and collect in bottles, " one of the neo-Bernardians joked with reference to his scholarly hobby.[19] Jessie herself was quite literally swept off her feet. He "enthralled me--literally held me in thrall," she recalled. "He seemed to have all the answers a seventeen-year-old could ask for."[20]

Bernard himself had made it to Minnesota the hard way. As a youth, he grew up in the shabby austerity in several parts of west Texas and the southwest, where his father tried to earn a living by farming. In 1900 he took a B.S degree from the less-than-prestigious Pierce Baptist College in southwestern Missouri and a B.A. from the state university seven years later. At the University of Chicago, where he earned his doctorate in 1910, he was perhaps the most brilliant of his classmates, but also--as he remembered it--consistently the worst dressed. In his final year he led a movement to reform the curriculum, which alienated virtually every member of the sociology faculty. These experiences, in turn, left their mark in a prickly personality, a monumental sensitivity, and an outsized appetite for affection and approval, especially female.

Despite his brilliance, Bernard's prickly personality exiled him to a succession of mediocre positions in the several years after graduation: first at Western Reserve (1910), then the University of Florida (1911-14), and finally the University of Missouri (1914-17). One source of comfort in these trying years was his marriage in 1911 to Frances Fenton, a fellow graduate student, and the birth of a daughter soon after. But on the eve of his offer from Minnesota in 1917, this marriage itself was disintegrating. Falling back on his scholarly work, Bernard resumed the crusade that he had begun in his doctoral thesis: a refutation of "instinct theory" and the elaboration of what he termed "an objective standard of social control." In 1919 he published an important article in the American Journal of Sociology, and five years later Instincts (1924), the study that won him a reputation as a leading proponent of sociological behaviorism. When he first met Jessie in 1921, he was forty, she seventeen.

Among his theories, L.L.B. also had some definite ideas about women. At their root in his case was the stuff of which psychology texts are made: an unhappy home life in his youth; a tyrannical, often abusive father who kept his mother in virtual bondage; a Baptist atmosphere longer on sin than forgiveness. The outcome was a complex of attitudes the twenties would call "puritanical," although "misogynist" would be as accurate. The pattern developed early. On one occasion, when his younger sister, then three or so, appeared in the yard without underpants on a very hot day, Luther ordered his mother to whip her. "She did not whip me," his sister remembered years later, "tho you stormed a great deal about it." Three years after, when this same sister asked the meaning of "the vulgar 4 letter sex word" she had just heard from a friend, Luther staged a repeat performance. "You stormed again, ordered [mother] to whip me and talked REFORM SCHOOL," his sister continued; "you actually did."[21]

During his graduate school years, Luther focused his ire on the "new" woman, much in evidence in Chicago when he arrived in 1907. In one classroom essay, he lamented the "moral motif" of the modern stage as illustrated by a current play which exonerated a woman prostitute and drug addict on the ground that she had been seduced by a "rake." Luther instead blamed the woman entirely. In his doctoral thesis he inveighed against the "modern woman of fashion" who divided her time "between her clothes and fashionable functions or personal and sensuous gratifications." Some years later, his first marriage dissolved in part because he saw some of these qualities in his first wife.[22]

By the twenties, his theory concerning the sexes was appallingly simple: women were either angels or whores, mostly the latter, manipulating and undermining men ("sabotaging" was a favorite term) when not themselves the victims of emotions that assumed crippling proportions one week of every month. "If Jessie fails me there is no use trying to appeal to something finer in another woman," he wrote during a bout of despair three months before they were married. "I shall take them for what they are--slaves and prostitutes--and play their game with them."[23]

Men, in contrast, were the truly sensitive ones."Strange things are men," he wrote Jessie years later, summing up this philosophy: "No wonder women do not understand them or appreciate them. Their loyalty and devotion, their longing, are so foreign to them. They do live in different worlds. Someone will--let us hope--discover the male some day and give him credit for the patient, long suffering devotion he has given women throughout the ages." [24] Imagined disloyalty often drove him to tears. "Why, why can't you control yourself," one young woman exploded when she had had enough of this behavior. "You make me hate those things in you, your crying etc. But when you are a man, well, you're so fine."[25] But in more cases than not, the ploy was apparently unbeatable.


Luther's streak of puritanism did not rule out womanizing on a grand scale. His affairs began even before he arrived in Minnesota. "She is eager sexually, and we struggle for 3 1/2 hours for her to have orgasm, but she fails," he recorded dispassionately of one early conquest. "Neglect supper. Have baths together, then supper."[26] At Minnesota , he played the role of unhappy husband to the hilt (he was not finally divorced until August 1922). Charmingly paunchy, he possessed boyish good looks and piercing blue eyes. Of a potential rival Jessie wrote at the time: "She is crazy about him, as all women are who know him."[27] On campus, Professor Bernard was soon the darling of a coterie of female students and other women whose relations with him apparently ranged from flirtatious to considerably more. In 1920, a rumor that he had "been kicked out of somebody's home, apparently because of immorality with somebody's wife" (a rumor he later repeated but vehemently denied) caused the university temporarily to suspend his salary.[28]

Some time in 1921, he began a semi-permanent relationship with a young woman (here named "Heather")[29] whom he hoped to marry, although scandal over the affair eventually led to his departure from the university. At his insistence, his fiancée, as he called her in one version, signed an agreement to assure, as its prelude stated, "an adjustment which will be as happy and as loyal as possible on both sides." Then followed a list of her major faults: she allowed her family to dominate her; she was "absolute, irritable, irrational, and unjust" in the ten days preceding each menstrual period; she was selfish, fickle, and disloyal. To remedy these shortcomings, she promised to avoid dogmatism, obey him over her parents, and go to Chicago with him the following summer, if he wished![30] The list, as it turned out, was a chilling forecast of later charges against Jessie. "You are acting now like a child," he scolded on one such occasion more than a decade later. "Don't imitate [Heather] so completely."[31]

Bernard's behaviorism and his personal dispositions were not unrelated. More remarkable than the conquests themselves was the careful detail with which he recorded his sexual encounters. For more than a decade, in diaries of varying size, he chronicled dates, times, and places. During his affair with his Minneapolis fiancée , he outdid himself in a journal that described the finest details from dress to undress, arousal to ejaculation. His aim apparently was not to stimulate passion but to reify it. In his developing behaviorist logic, no distinction existed between attitude and act, since the the first was simply the second in the process of becoming. By chronicling guilty behavior, one somehow neutralized it, making it something to be studied and examined as if the action of another.

Although this interpretation is admittedly speculative, Bernard in his way supported it in a revealing letter he wrote to his fiancée at a time when she refused to have intercourse despite claiming she loved him. "It is your love I want," he wrote impatiently. "Of course I don't think one can separate love from the expression of it. You see I'm a behaviorist."[32]

In the meantime, his special blend of vulnerability and sensitivity made him a campus legend. His circle of female admirers--"groupies," Jessie later called them-- discussed their love lives, poured out their souls, and generally gossiped with him. "Mildred. . . and I went to the Trades and Labor Assembly," Jessie reported to Luther of one of their mutual friends. "She says she misses you ever so much [and]. . . wishes you were here where she could talk to you." [33] Offering some "friendly advice," another warned him not to be tricked by an engaged young women ("a flirt and a vamp") whose fiancé was soon to return from big-game hunting in South America and "may not approve of the way she is carrying on in your office." [34] To her sorority sisters, an anonymous coed reported: "If you don't like that man, you don't know what you are missing." [35]

Bernard's derisive attitude toward women, although sometimes an occasion for scolding, was finally only a minor nuisance. "What you say is unfair to women in general, and to the women in your class in particular," began a seven page indictment of his biases from one married student. "Can't you see how unfair, how unmanly, it is to take such advantage of a group of fairly intelligent women?" she demanded. "You had me so angry I was trembling and I had to get out so as not to scream." Yet , six months later, this same student wrote to borrow a copy of Havelock Ellis's Studies in the Psychology of Sex, suggesting seductively that she come to his office on the weekend to pick it up. "Can you help me out? Think it over, will you." Then followed a lament over a miserable marriage and the "vicious violent tempered man" with whom she was forced to live. [36] Another woman student, who by Bernard's own account very much wanted to marry him, did not even try to reform him ."There was an awfully good story in the Saturday Evening Post entitled 'Tyrant Woman'!," she wrote: "I know you would enjoy it immensely . " "You are a woman hater," added another fan. "Always!"[37]

At the start of his relationship with Jessie, as he later recorded the details, Luther was the model of restraint and propriety. She "professed to admire [me] greatly" and soon made "her admiration personal," he remembered. "I was much pleased and flattered by it, but early in 1922 I came to the conclusion that our relationship should not become more personal"--probably alluding to the fact that in May he had concluded an informal "marriage" contract with the fiancée whom he would also call his "common-law" wife. To keep Jessie from visiting his apartment, he refused to tell her his address. In the end, however, she prevailed. "After that," he added, in a gem of understatement, "we maintained a constant friendship."[38]

Just how much an understatement Jessie revealed in letters to her professor the following summer. Her salutations set the tone: "Hello Lover;" "Dearest;" "Very Dearest Abelard."[39] What followed might be read as adolescent fantasy, written but not sent, had Luther not responded to her letters and so carefully preserved each one. She would join him in Chicago (where he was teaching summer school) and be introduced to Jane Addams as "Mrs. Luther Bernard." They would travel abroad for ten years or so--to Europe, Asia, Africa, South America--and then have a son on whom Bernard could conduct his educational experiments. Above all, they would "play." [40]

Yet, on the matter of sex, the object of this reference, Jessie was still largely at sea. In her home,the topic was taboo, at least so far as her mother was concerned. When her first period arrived, it was her grandmother who told her what to expect and what to do, taking as a matter of course the whole world of sex, babies, and birth. Her mother, cut off from the female world of European village life (or so Bernard later explained it), found the whole business distasteful. When neighborhood children explained the facts of life, her reaction was the perennial disbelief of the sheltered middle class child. "Our parents? Our parents?"[41]

But what sort of girl would she herself be in the Jazz Age? As a child she had snuggled in hiding places with boys playing hide-and-seek, and piled body upon body while bobsledding. But her sexual inexperience now left her without an answer. In high school she had not dated at all. When she wore make-up and her sister's tightly fitting dress in the senior class play , the boys looked up. But by Monday morning, she later recalled, their interest had evaporated. For instruction, she turned to one of her sister's textbooks, William McDougall's Social Psychology. Although his description of human reproduction was enough to put anyone off ("It is necessary that the organ of the male shall enter the antechamber of the woman, and that the emission of the sperm cells shall [not] take place until this is accomplished"), Jessie memorized every word. [42] The Saturday afternoon movies offered instruction of a different sort in the form of competing feminine roles: one Mary Pickford, ever "sweet and charming"; the other Theda Bara, the original vamp whose sultry sexuality made her a star overnight following the appearance of A Fool There Was (1915).[43] Pickford was the role the 19th century had automatically assigned nice girls like Jessie. But behind closed doors, before a mirror, she tried out her Theda Bara.[44]

In 1922, Luther gave her a chance to practice the part. Early in their relation, her attitude toward sex was a tangle of convention and calculation that added up to "no" so far as intercourse was concerned. "Women have power over men only through the fact that they have something to bestow which men are willing to work for," she lectured her professor, in the stilted language of convention. "But when women are eager to give it away, men are no longer obliged to work for it."[45] Luther was apparently not satisfied. Her refusal, he charged, was harming his health, physical and mental. Perhaps even causing impotence. Most of all it was making him miserable, an appeal he used with effect on virtually every woman he knew. "I asked for bread and you gave me stones," he lamented.

As the Victorian darkness gave way to the dawn of a twenties-style Aquarius, Jessie struggled to explain her complex feelings. "Your letter this morning was a most painful surprise," she replied: ". . . if I don't give myself completely you know its because I'm scared and not because I don't care. If it weren't for my parents, I'd do anything in the world for you. I'd prove it." Were she living with him, she would feel differently. "But when I come to your apartment, the idea of coming just for that is revolting and offends my sense of the fitness of things." Were she to give herself under present circumstances, she would "never be able to marry anyone." She would, that is, "always feel immoral, unclean and a 'fallen woman'." "I do even now at times with girls who are still uninitiated," she added. The answer, that is, was still no.[46]

Then, in a curious about-face, and with reference to the puzzling remark about initiation, she reminded him that no intercourse did not mean no sex. Oral sex? manual sex? All these would be his if she were "not too bashful." In language as explicit and bold as her previous sentiments were conventional, she detailed promises of how things would be when next they met. If not bread, then "almost bread, say rye bread," she joked. Anything and everything, as she put it, to keep him "healthy, strong, and virile." Only at the close of this extraordinary communication did convention rear its timid head. "I'm too discreet to sign my name," she wrote, "but destroy this letter anyway won't you."[47]

Thus entranced, Jessie quickly lost interest in the young men upon whom her parents pinned their hopes. "Tomorrow I am going on an all day party with a man I've never seen and know I won't like," she wrote Luther, still in August 1922. And of another suitor: "Going out with Henry just ruins my personality. I like the Jessie that you know best of all." [48] Two days later she added: "He is always the soul of propriety. . . [and] doesn't seem to be much of a lover, you know--and rather paternal in his attitude." [49]

The pretended liberation of her contemporaries likewise lost its glitter. "Tonight I'm all powdered up and fixed--You know. I hate it, it isn't Jessie," she wrote. "I went to a Bohemian party the other night, not really Bohemian, you understand--pseudo-so. They'll never really amount to anything, but they like to play with the idea." [50] Even sex-talk seemed stale. "Henry and I went out to Radisson Inn that night," she continued one report: "He bores me. He likes a very sophisticated type of woman--one who is very sex-conscious--one who will flirt with her eyes and attitude but be very naive in her speech. You know the kind. And I hate to do that. He wanted to discuss sex problems but I am so bored with sex--honestly . . . . I'm just plain tired of having it on all sides". To make matters worse, this same Henry had then lectured her on the evil influence of modern novels. "He asked me if I hadn't given myself lots of freedom, that I wouldn't have done had it not been for modern novels," she concluded with obvious sarcasm.[51]

Novels or not, Jessie's resolve had apparently crumbled by the spring of her senior year (1923) . "You have given me more romance in one year than most women have in their whole lives and I love you," she wrote Luther in April. "I would rather have lost half my life than missed the wonderful experience of having had your love and loving you." Several months later, leaving no doubt, she added : "[I] wish we were together on your couch or bed don't you. . . .What an immoral pagan I am, n'est ce pas." To prove her emancipation, she half-seriously suggested that she marry the beau her parents preferred, that Luther marry his mistress, and that they both continue to be lovers.[52] By this time, her letters regularly featured sketches of genitalia and of stick figures making love.[53] Among its benefits, this secret liaison also gave her subtle power over her older sister Clara, who gradually suspected that something was up. "Clara has already discovered that I'm merely your echo," Jessie wrote Luther sometime late in 1923. "Have you had it lately?" she then asked him, with a boldness that escalated with each letter. "I often talk to Clara about it, to see how she reacts to it."[54]

Although events would later reveal that the old-fashioned girl was not dead, Jessie's capitulation provided an early lesson of the power of behavior over conviction, environment over heredity. To behave in one way and think in another, according to Luther, was at best meaningless, at worst a sign of being "maladjusted." The proper and studious "Jess" of her parents, the powdered and painted "Jessie" of her pseudo-bohemian contemporaries, and Luther's "Jessie" each in her way were creatures of environment, to be referred to, as she did often in her letters, as a person apart from an essential self, mired somewhere in the past. For the moment, the new Jessie was neither her parents' Mary Pickford nor her classmates' flapper, but the person Luther had helped create: sexy and brainy, sensual and intellectual.


But did sexual permissiveness mean freedom from sexual stereotypes, or emancipation in any significant sense? For someone determined to find evidences of feminism , Jessie's letters of these years contain hints that she rejected traditional conceptions of woman's domestic no less than sexual role. On vacation in rural Minnesota after graduation, for example, she wrote that the women in the group bored her to tears. "Imagine mature women with nothing more in their minds than [diets and fatness]," she wrote Luther.[55] To such evidences of youthful feminism Bernard herself later added other examples. Her high school teachers, as she remembered, were "staunch feminists." One in particular entertained classes with a story of one antifeminist denouncing woman's suffrage. "Imagine your cook voting," he asked. "I often think of it," his hostess replied. "You see he does."[56] At the university, she took the lesson to heart, refusing to major in home economics, as Clara urged in a moment of discouragement over her own English major.

More importantly, however, she tacitly but unmistakably accepted and even catered to her lover's unflattering view of women. At first it was teasing, almost playful. "I love to be dominated, and bossed, and mastered by the man I love, " she wrote early in their relationship. "Ain't a female a funny animal." And a week later: "You are very selfish and domineering, but I love you anyway in spite of it all."[57] Although several months together taught her that he could be "mean" when he wanted to be, she still wondered provocatively what he might do if he really became angry: "Spank me? or scold me? or just loathe unspeakable things!"[58]

In time, this teasing mood gave way to one of self-accusation and apology. "Wasn't I a villain lots of times last year? she asked in the summer of their second year. "But you forgave me, didn't you beloved? Hereafter I'll trot around like a little puppy dog."[59] "I always seem to be doing things that warrant scolding, don't I?" she wrote sometime after graduation. "I know I'm an irresponsible, lightheaded dumbbell."[60] In early 1925, nine months before their marriage, self-criticism reached a crescendo. "I failed you!" she lamented. "Instead of the wonderful person I used to think myself, I find that I'm a quarrelsome, pampered, self-centered little weakling--without wisdom, power, or ability of any kind."[61] (In short, precisely the things Luther had said about the "new woman" in his doctoral thesis a decade earlier.) Then, on New Year's day a year later: "You will always hate me subconsciously, and I deserve it."[62]

Ultimately, if subtly, similar sentiments shaped Jessie's view of scholarship and science, and of her part in them. Her love for Luther from the start fed as much on ideas as on sex, perhaps even more so. In her letters, protestations of undying love competed with comments on Herbert Spencer, with reports of perusing an entire year of the Reader's Guide for bibliography, and with questions about his career. How was his scholarship going? Would he get a position at the University of Chicago? "In fact," she wrote in late 1924, "one of the reasons I am eager to marry you is. . . to make my brains available."[63] "I love our work," she exalted soon after their marriage. "Books, books, books--we must write dozens. . . .Work is the only thing. Work and you."[64]

But the question was whether, as a woman, she could live up to his demands and to the standard she believed he represented. The earliest signs were innocent enough. "All of which proves," she concluded a letter in August 1922, apropos of nothing, "that when a woman falls in love she loses the calm impartiality necessary to scientific work. I'm your sweetheart before I am a scientist, aren't I." [65] In an attempt to put her own situation in perspective, she decided to write a book on the adolescent girl. At the library, she discovered one study that seemed exactly to describe her situation.[66] :". . . girls who longed to express themselves sexually, but were always restrained by scruples, religious or otherwise." From this same source she also learned that some adolescents fall in love with older men, only to find that such unions are invariably "unfortunate." ("We'll prove contrary, won't we?" she asked Luther nervously). But the fact that someone else had already written the book burst her balloon. To her lover she wrote: "Guess I'll have to content myself with being just your sweetheart." [67] There were also hints of self-sacrifice, of subordinating her career to his ambitions. "I'm not very ambitious for myself anymore," she wrote with reference to the books they would write together. "I could drown my abilities in yours." [68]

These sentiments proved little barrier to academic success in the short run. In 1923, Jessie received her B.A. magna cum laude . The following year she completed an M.A. that won a local prize and its author a place on the program of the American Sociological Society in 1924. But self-criticism, even self-denigration would increase rather than disappear with marriage during a decade or more in which she ploughed through library archives largely for Luther's benefit.


While romance broke the tie of sexual convention, Jessie's marriage to Luther in September 1925 destroyed her relationship with her parents, shattering the nest of associations she had known through her youth. By the time she took her M.A., Luther's situation at the university was precarious to say the least. Since his appointment in 1917, his combative personality and thin skin had brought him into conflict with most of the members of his department. But the coup de grace was a scandal that attended the refusal of Heather to marry him in the summer of 1924, and subsequent pressure from her parents on university officials to prevent Bernard from troubling their daughter.[69]

Since Bernard initially had the support of department chairman F. Stuart Chapin, it appeared that he might weather the storm. But by January 1925, as he wrote in his diary, "it became evident that the president, urged on by the Dean, was determined to be rid of me." Although a temporary appointment at Cornell for September, followed by a fellowship to South America, allowed him to salvage appearances, the circumstances of his departure from Minnesota clouded his career for the rest of the decade.

Jessie, publicly, put a brave front on things, notably in a letter she wrote in April 1925 to a Bernard supporter at Cornell, where gossip threatened his appointment. As his "student and assistant" for five years, as a friend of both Bernard and his lover [!], and as the woman who now planned to marry him, she claimed that she knew the whole story. Although Luther and the young woman had been sincerely devoted to one another, the girl's family and her physician ("without any manifest cause") influenced her to break off the relationship. The physician then announced his engagement to the young lady himself and sought protection from the President of the University against Bernard for them both--an absurd request, as anyone familiar with Bernard's "mild and generous nature" would know. Since the physician's action was "not. . . very ethical," perhaps his action was the product of guilt, she surmised. Certainly, university politics of the shabbiest sort had also played a role.[70]

But in private she apparently began to have second thoughts. Although her early talk of marriage sometimes smacked of fantasy, she was not entirely blind to her lover's psychological quirks. " I don't believe you want to marry me really," she wrote that August (1922), when they were still sparring over their sexual relationship. "You just want me but not as a wife," she continued with more insight than she knew. "You'd rather have me marry someone else and be unfaithful, wouldn't you."[71] She was also vaguely aware of his womanizing even before the affair with the disloyal lover had threatened his career. Juggling the affections of two women strained even Luther's resources, particularly on occasions when Heather would phone the office when Jessie was there. "I couldn't answer clearly," Bernard noted after one such incident: "Jessie was in office and always asks who it is, looking rather troubled."[72] After reading Jung's New Psychology in the spring of 1923, Jessie wondered if Luther agreed that men constantly needed new sources of sexual stimulation. "If you thought I would never find out and if there was no social pressure against it," she asked in a question that should have come back to haunt her, "would you always be seeking new women for satisfaction?" [73]

Jessie's public loyalty during the difficult autumn of 1924 had, in fact, carried a personal price. "I told him of the almost unendurable strain his position had been for me," she wrote in her diary, once Luther's fate was sealed. "It was awful to be tender and sympathetic and consoling to a man who thot of nothing but another woman." To console herself, she imagined "that as soon as he was out of trouble, he would love me again."[74] In self-defense she played up a flirtation with another young man. For several unhappy months during 1925, it was Luther who pressed for marriage while she dragged her feet.

Luther, in the privacy of his journal, not surprisingly had his own version of the proceedings. Only three persons had stood up for him during the crisis, one a colleague, one the most loyal of the Bernard groupies, and the third a fellow who had also once been engaged to the perfidious young lady. "Jessie, whom I had believed to be the perfection of womanhood and loyalty, proved unequal to the situation at best," he continued. Then followed a tortured catalogue of her failings that revealed more about Bernard's neurotic personality and his personal insecurity than anything Jessie had or had not done.

His charges were the now-familiar litany of the faults of the "new woman." Jessie was more interested in finding a comfortable "nesting place" than in helping him fight the battle. Her concern for his career was financial at heart. Fearing the adverse publicity that marriage would bring, she backed away from her promises while clinging "to her chances with other men." As to the latter, he had consoled himself at the time that the would-be rival was "too effeminate" to take seriously.[75] But in retrospect the flirtation was part of the package. "I know women well," he continued, in one of his bitterest denunciations to date: "I know how utterly conscienceless they are about such things--always ready to sell themselves to the highest bidder. But their subconsciousnesses do it for them and save them from realizing consciously what prostitutes they are by nature and training." He concluded: "I didn't want to believe that Jessie was like other women,. . . but slowly and painfully I came to see all this. Still, I couldn't bring myself to let her go in spite of my pride."[76]

Did Luther love Jessie as she obviously did him or was she simply one sexual diversion among several? Did he desperately need her love and loyalty, as he so often insisted, or had he merely a compulsive need to dominate and control women, preferably his juniors? Had the thought of losing her in early 1925 driven him to despair, or had he finally pressed for a marriage he had resisted in order to squelch scandal and rumor that threatened his career? Despite their soap-opera ring, these questions involved serious issues. Love or sex? Dependency or domination? Passion or propriety? Since thought and act were one in his behaviorist scheme of things these questions would have seemed largely meaningless to Luther himself. Taken singly, none really explained him. But together, they described him completely.

Whatever his motives in marrying Jessie (and his first wife, Frances, characterized them as "cold-blooded" without explanation), the union took place under circumstances designed to compound the trauma, and in the process to cut Jessie off from her past irretrievably. For starters, he had her sign a marriage pledge that promised eternal devotion and ruled out separation or divorce. "I asked her to think about this carefully and not to decide for marriage unless she was willing to make it final at all costs," he later explained, underlining all for effect. A second condition, also agreed to by both, was that the ceremony, which took place on September 3 (1925) in upstate New York near Cornell, should be kept secret from her family, at least until the couple was ready to sail to South America the following February.[77]

In the train on the way to the boat in New York, the accumulated tensions of five years--the strain of being torn between parents and lover, convention and liberation-- burst to the surface. She did not love him, Jessie insisted, and wished to remain in the United States. Aghast at her timing (tickets and passports were already in hand, the ever-frugal Luther protested), he finally realized that she really feared telling her parents, who were waiting for them in New York. After discussing the matter, they agreed that she should spend two days with her father, ample time to break the news, while Luther attended to last minute business from a hotel room.

To add to the drama, Jessie in the end almost missed the boat, claiming that she had been delayed by her inability to locate Luther's name on the register of his hotel. But the distraught professor knew better. "I have always believed that she meant to give me the slip," he later wrote," but at the last minute changed her mind." Finally, it was not he but her parents who were betrayed. Not only had Jessie not told them her news, but had given her father the slip, leaving him at a post office while she escaped on the pretext of an errand. Not exactly Nora slamming the door in A Doll's House, but in her own way, she had made her choice.

Or almost. Within a few days at sea, radiograms arrived, and then letters, as one by one the bonds of family snapped. "Father is dying, for God's sake return," Jessie's sister cabled: "Don't throw Tragedies on us. Don't lie more." In a poignant appeal accented by his Roumanian past, her father wrote: "You have made a Old Broken man and shortened 1/2 of the balance of my life." It was signed "Heartbroken and sick".[78] At Barbados they received the message that her father had suffered a stroke ("which he did not, as I surmised," Luther later noted triumphantly). After they arrived in Buenos Aires, they were besieged by a private detective her parents sent to get her home.[79] When Jessie insisted that she must return, Luther forbade her to do so.

When Jessie's family discovered the two had not simply run off but were married, things got even worse. In New York, Luther had drafted a letter to her father, breaking the news, but apparently did not send it.[80] When sister Clara learned the truth early the next summer, she feared it would kill her parents. In a new round of cables, her husband appealed to Luther man to man: "Jessie left without parents' knowledge. They are heartbroken. . . We leave it to you." In a subsequent letter, he described the devastating effect of these events on Clara.[81] Two years later, Clara herself wrote to her sister: "of course you have surmised what a shattered thing our so-called family has become. . . .All my illusions. . . have turned to utter bitterness and hopelessness."[82]

In the confusion in New York, Luther apparently failed to see how serious the matter was. "J. visited folks. Some opposition to going away," he recorded in the opening entry of his travel journal. Jessie also seemed to take things in stride. After a touch of seasickness, she tucked into a steak luncheon the first day at sea. By the summer, however, not only did the family know of their flight, but also a fair proportion of the sociological community, including former chairman Chapin, whom Clara asked to intercede.[83] "Domestic difficulties," Luther scrawled in his journal sometime in July. "March, April, May the darkest moments in my life. . . Dumb powerlessness. . . .Hopelessness."[84] By this time, reputation more than affection was the issue. Luther could see it all: her parents would persuade her to file for divorce and to testify to goodness-knows-what, causing a scandal against which he could not defend himself from South America. Jessie replied that he couldn't stop her from seeking a divorce, and that she could testify as she pleased. "This was my second lesson in the real character of the woman I had married," Bernard observed ruefully.[85]

Although Jessie did not record her feelings at the time, some stories she wrote two years later probably told more than she intended. One favorite theme was the betrayal of fathers who then sought revenge. Two fragments, one a short story, the other a play, dealt with "Joshua March," a patriarch who marries a girl half his age only to have her run out on him and their baby. Although March adopts the child, he seeks revenge on her mother by finally disinheriting the daughter. "Janet March," the daughter in the play version, then defiantly attends a country club dance while her father lies dying, but not before recalling an incident when, as a child, she had slipped naked into his bed only to be thrust out for mentioning her mother. "But I'll get even with you, old Joshua March," she screams at scene's end. "I'll get your money yet."[86]

In another piece of fiction, Jessie revealed how the events of 1926 had affected her relations with her idol Clara. The story was "Little Sister," which began with "Ruthie's" (Jessie) youthful adoration of her sister "Helen"(Clara). As the story unfolds, however, another tale is told. Seeking a career as artist, Ruthie plods unsuccessfully for years while her glamorous sister is married in a lavish ceremony and then pursues her own artistic career. After ten years of trying, Ruthie at last paints a truly beautiful portrait of a young man, only to find that her sister has abandoned art for interior decorating! When on top of this, Helen criticizes her, Ruthie suddenly sees Helen in a new light. She will paint this tarnished sister, she decides. She will call it "A Portrait of Disillusion."[87]

In real life, Jessie sought neither money nor revenge. But these stories suggested how deep had been the break with her past. Although she was soon back on good terms with her sister, contact with her patents ceased completely for half a dozen years. When it resumed it was largely through weekly letters, written, as she confided to Luther, only because they were old and sick, not for anything it "did" for her.[88] In yet another fictional self-portrait, Jessie painted her own situation with devastating clarity, this time in the words of "Vaughan," a biology professor who has lost his university position in circumstances much like Luther's. "No home. No family ties," said Vaughan of "Castel-Leigh," his student mistress. "Practically nothing at all. That's what's the matter with her. That's why she is so restless. Everything knocks her over."[89] Reflecting on the real-life events a decade later, Jessie put the point more directly. "The violence of the break with my past was extremely traumatic," she wrote Luther, "and I suppose I will never really recover from it." [90]



What legacy did the tumultuous twenties leave Bernard's later feminism? Writing of the 1960s, Barbara Ehrenreich, among others, has argued that the sexual permissiveness of this decade worked ultimately against the emancipation of women, as hippies and Playboy readers joined in a "flight from responsibility" leaving women worse off than before.[91] Superficially, something similar might appear to have been the case here. The heady mix of sex, books, and new ideas was certainly freedom of a sort. But from what and to what was less clear. Jessie had traded old-fashioned parents and a Jewish heritage for a behaviorist sociologist and his creed that environment made the person. Although her husband's demands for scholarly assistance may have slowed her career, this same sociology became her ticket to a professional career and a degree of personal autonomy.

But there was a catch. For Luther, their romance was anything but a flight from responsibility, as the forced promise of lifelong fidelity alone attested. A behaviorist Henry Higgins, he was dedicated to converting his Liza to his faith in objectivity and "science." Objectivity in this Bernardian version meant the denial of feeling, emotion, and most other qualities conventionally deemed feminine. In Jessie Bernard's early professional work, this creed would mean a style of sociology more concerned with behavior and control than with intentions and self-fulfillment--a style she would later brand "agentic." In her private life, as she was already discovering, it meant doing more or less what Luther said.

Prepared in HTML by: Robert Bannister ( May differ slightly from published edition. Copyright Rutgers Press, 1991. Latest revision 11/17/98. Send comments or suggestions to Robert Bannister Department of History, Swarthmore