SETI’s Jill Tarter on Gender Bias in the 1950s: A Clip

[This post originally appeared on October 16, 2009.  The clip in this post is one of my favorite sections of the work in progress. The post is also a fave because of the comments it generated. I love the virtual exchange between artist Jane Deschner and scientist Jill Tarter. I would be thrilled if the comments continued on this post, and that’s the real reason I’m reposting it.] 

Here’s a clip from the sample of Jill Tarter, Director of SETI Research, The SETI Institute. I hope you enjoy it.


My favorite part of this clip is the edit that happens about 1:43 in.

Miss Jenkins:
… you need to know more than just how to run a house or an apartment. You need to know why as well as how.

Cut to

Jill Tarter:
All of this counseling …

The expression on her face–it’s as if she were watching Miss Jenkins dole out that advice–it’s so telling.

How did I find Why Study Home Economics, this educational film made by Lawrence, Kansas’ Centron Productions? (Was this directed by Herk Harvey, director of the cult horror classic Carnival of Souls, who worked for Centron for 25 years?)

Before I get to how I found it, you need to read the unedited transcript from that section of the interview.

Why do you want to take calculus, you’re just going to grow up and have babies. You want to take shop, no you have to take home economics. Oh, you’ve already taken home economics, well I guess you can take shop. All of this… this counseling that was so aimed at making you do what was expected and the norm rather than going off and being an engineer…

You may notice that the clip and the transcript differ. That’s not a big deal, that’s what editing a documentary is all about. But notice what we cut:

You want to take shop, no you have to take home economics. Oh, you’ve already taken home economics, well I guess you can take shop.

In that sentence Tarter tells us about the prevalent attitude of the time.

From the start I’ve always thought there was a place for educational films in A Life’s Work. When Cabot and I were editing, we thought a good place to insert some of it might be here.

I had discovered the Internet Archive when I was searching for stock footage quite a while ago. I went to the site (and I encourage you to do so, too; it’s an amazing site, more interesting and entertaining than YouTube) and I searched “home economics” because those words were planted in my mind by Tarter in the complete interview.

I found Why Study Home Economics and downloaded it. When we watched it, we realized we struck a little gold. That little bit of educational film shows and tells us the attitude of the time. Tarter’s sentence became unnecessary. It is, I think, an efficient, effective, powerful, and amusing edit.

But I would never have dreamed I’d find archival footage that cut in so well with her statement and expression. Never. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Did you like the clip?

Edited by Cabot Philbrick. Cinematography by Andy Bowley and Thomas M. Harting, CSC.

Special thanks to everyone at SETI, especially Jill Tarter, Seth Shostak, Frank Drake, Karen Randall, Cynthia Phillips, Rocco Mancinelli, Chris Neller; Susie Jorgensen and Rick Forster at Hat Creek Radio Observatory; U.S. Park Ranger Steve Zachary; and the students in SETI’s 2008 Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates Program in Astrobiology. More on the students in a future post.

13 Replies to “SETI’s Jill Tarter on Gender Bias in the 1950s: A Clip”

  1. Growing up in the 50s and 60s was confusing for females. There was the attitude in the film, then Wham! came the pill, women’s lib, hippies, anti-war protests, etc., etc. …all kinds of freedoms and obligations that didn’t “fit” with what felt familiar. Now, in what seemed like “all of a sudden,” you were supposed to be something, someone.
    For years, I kept expecting that a time like the 60s and early 70s would happen again…but there has been nothing like those years.
    And, I’m sure you remember, David, that I grew up down the street from Centron.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jane.

    Tarter also mentioned Title 9 as a giant step. All of a sudden, young women had extracurricular activities other than cheerleading and color guard.

    And mentioning Lawrence, Kansas was my very deliberate shout out to you.

  3. I figured you remembered me and Lawrence.

    I was too old for Title 9; already done with school (first time through) and had decided that athletics weren’t for me.

  4. the home ec clip really nails it – that’s what it was like, and i sure didn’t fit in!
    HOWEVER, since i did take home ec, i did learn to sew and i use that skill to this day. my husband’s shirt size is an awkward 15 1/2 / 37 and he loves paisley fabrics, thanks to home ec i can make shirts for him – working with the beautiful fabric is a good antidote to the frustrations of fundraising and dealing with an American public that embraces pseudo-science! and over the years, i suspect his colorful wardrobe has helped a few university students stay more attentive in class. also thanks to home ec, i was able to sew a scale model of the radome covers we use on our Allen Telescope Array antennas and experiment with how to support and attach them. at least it was good enough to take to professional sail makers to give them an idea of what we needed. waste not, want not!

  5. Thanks so much for commenting, Jill.

    I remember you mentioned in the interview that you made your husband’s shirts. (That would be something worth filming!) He’s a lucky man. My mother used to make all of my clothes until I was nine or so and I loved that fact even at that age. I cherish every hand-knitted object that has ever been given to me. And I certainly appreciate a home cooked meal. I would never belittle the skills that are taught in home ec.

    But my hope is that the clip will give the viewers a vibrant snapshot of the mores of the time. Snapshots rarely tell the whole story, I know, but elsewhere in the film another snapshot will tell more. I didn’t know you sewed a cover for an ATA model. That would have been a neat thing to film (if it still exists) and have you talk about. That would have rounded this complex story nicely. Perhaps on my next visit to Northern California.

    Hope all is well.

  6. I really liked reading that an astrophysicist sews shirts for her husband! I tried to fit in, but couldn’t/didn’t. I still try…with varying degrees of success.

    I took Home Ec. in junior high; they never let girls take shop. I learned the basics of sewing and cooking. I did a lot of sewing then, but thinking about it now in the context of some of the art I’m making, what I learned was to love working with my hands.

    My mother was a home ec. major in college. She graduated before WWII and she and my dad were married during the war. During the war she worked, as everyone did. When they got back together after the war ended, he finished his PhD. I was born 9 months after he must have received word that he had his first job at Penn State. I don’t know for sure (because she died in 1961) what her dreams and motivations were, but I extrapolate that they were a family and a home. There were lots of reasons, valid ones, why women in those years found fulfillment in a lifestyle that would shortly be ridiculed and turned upside down.

    For me, it’s been a lifelong “project” to reconcile the kind of family life I’d grown up with (until age 13 anyway) with how young women’s options/expectations changed so radically. (…not to mention the narcissistic step-mother that was thrown into the mix in 1962.) Maybe “understand” is a better word.

    I was done commenting but in reading back through, one other thing struck me. Basically all the art I make now (with old found photos) is about understanding/interpreting/extrapolating from values that existed then and still do.

  7. It’s fascinating how we wind up in later years using the skills and interests we had in younger years. I love the stitching in your work, both the quotes and as binding. And I loved the hats you knitted for the hateful books.

    (You can see some of Jane’s work here:

    A web site, she assures me, is on the way.)

  8. Great clip and now you’ve provided me with a website (internet archive) that will serve as a distraction from the studying I need to do for my Physics midterm tomorrow.

  9. Glad you liked the clip.

    I’m not at all happy about providing you with a distraction from a physics midterm, however. Not happy about that at all. Oh well. I must accept that I’m just putting the work out there. How people use it is beyond my control.

    Good luck.

  10. Thanks for (re)posting this, David. I was not aware of your project in 2009 – now that I’ve seen what you’ve put together I am really enjoying your ongoing posts.

    This section was a memorable one for me and I quite like the additional commentary. I have to say that, after already being thoroughly impressed with Dr. Tarter, I am now equally charmed by the fact that she sewed a scale model radome cover.

    I took, what was called back then, ‘bachelor living’ (as though somehow if you weren’t a bachelor you wouldn’t need the skill set) and, though I could already sew a bit (thanks to my patient mother), I became semi-skilled at stitching things together. I would have so loved to answer the query, ‘what’s that you’re making?’ with ‘it’s a radome cover.’

    1. Thanks, Jamie. I love the “bachelor living” story. Yes, “It’s a radome cover” would have been an awesome response. Perhaps followed by, “I know you don’t know what that is, because you’re not, like me, from the future.” Straight to the principal. Or the counselor. Or nurses office.

      Your comment, and M.E.’s FB share, have made my day.

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