Shanti Emerson: Back in the day |

Shanti Emerson: Back in the day

Shanti Emerson

For those of us who grew up in the ’40s and ’50s, it has been a roller coaster ride! From black phones with party lines to smartphones with Siri, we’ve taken quite a journey.

The ’40s were dominated by World War II and the aftermath, and the ’50s were a time of relative peace, confidence and hopefulness — but also one of extreme conformity, repression, and WMD (white male dominance.) Am I right?

After the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt led with great vision as he brought our country back to economic prosperity. He signed the GI Bill which gave opportunities for higher education and low interest home loans to hundreds of thousands of returning soldiers. This boosted a strong middle class, which has perilously shrunk today.

After World War II, we became the wealthiest most powerful nation in the world. It was so comforting to have as our leader Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom most every American adored and the world respected. I so remember my childlike faith in my country and my president.

Both Democrats and Republicans asked Ike to be their candidate. As you know, he chose the GOP.

Ike was particularly great in his ability to get both political parties to respect and work with each other. He showed them what they had in common — their mutual love of America and her people (Isn’t that the way it is supposed to be?). I’m afraid the children today have no idea of what this would feel like. They see only extreme bipartisanship and angry tweets.

Both political parties had liberals and conservatives. They had to compromise within their own parties first, so finding common ground wasn’t as difficult as it is today.

Was there anything wrong with those years? Yep. There were a lot of people left out of the economic upturn. Segregation was in force. People of color lived in shanties and had little hope of improving their situation. Having a black president and African Americans dominating professional sports was not in anyone’s wildest dreams. Blacks could not go to the same schools, live in the same neighborhoods, drink from the same water fountains, or use the same bathrooms as whites. The success of Oprah, Lester Holt and astronomer Neil Degrasse Tyson could not be imagined (Think of all the talent wasted through those years).

Gay people lived in the shadows for fear of being discovered. They often married straights just to fit into society. Homosexuality was illegal in many states. Famous people “coming out” and the legalization of gay marriage was unthinkable.

Most women did not live up to their potential. They wore dresses, stockings, high heels, girdles and lived to be married and raise children. Have a career? Forget it! Of course, we all knew that men were smarter, stronger, and better than women. The fact that there would be a female presidential candidate who would beat her nearest opponent by nearly 3 million votes would have been a far-fetched notion.

The fiftie ’50s were the beginning of rock ’n’ roll with Bill Haley and the Comets. Then came The King, Elvis. How we girls, in our poodle skirts and black suede loafers, loved to see him swivel and smirk. The internet says Elvis is still the best-selling solo artist of all time. I got the supreme thrill of watching him perform in the Astrodome. I get goosebumps whenever I think of it. Rad.

No one will every forget the gorgeous vulnerable Marilyn Monroe, her marriages and affairs when the sky was clean and sex was dirty. We all watched the Ed Sullivan Show, Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows, and Ozzie and Harriet on TV and Doris Day and Rock Hudson on the big screen. It was the heyday of James Dean, Bogart, Brando, Grace Kelly and Hitchcock films.

There were many important discoveries and inventions from the 1950s: commercial computers, power steering in autos, videotape recorders, heart-lung machines to allow life support during heart surgeries, Holiday Inns, bar codes, radial tires, the Salk vaccine, double helix DNA, Con Tact paper, 3-D movies, solar cells, kidney transplants, fiber optics, AA batteries, hula hoops, stereophonic recorders, snowmobiles, internal pacemakers, microwave ovens (priced at $1,300) and oral contraceptives (although they did not go into common usage until the next decade.) Groovy!

What is the takeaway from these decades? Life can change radically from era to era. That we were a happier country with a strong middle class and more equality in salaries from CEO to worker. That the presidents have a great deal to do with our happiness and peace of mind.

Towards the end of the ’50s, people were beginning to find their voices realizing that life should be better for all Americans. Underneath the placid surface, ferment was brewing and about to explode as the Beatniks predicted.

Yes, right around the corner was a time when the youth and the minorities and women libbers expressed themselves in new ways with radical ideas.

Yes the ’60s!

More about that later.

Shanti Emerson is a Nevada County resident and a member of The Union Editorial Board. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the board or its members. She can be reached at

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