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Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

Advice from the ‘50s: The Reverend whispers of female mancipation

t is very important that women look and behave correctly. We know this because hundreds of magazines exist to educate us on how to succeed at being women and what being a successful woman entails. Since it is vital that women be made aware of these responsibilities, we're lucky that over the years there have been plenty of people who are willing to educate us as to what these are.

One such educator was Dr Harold Shryock, author of the infamous On Becoming a Woman, a book which sought to guide young women of the 1950s through the dangers of having their own opinions, tempting boys into sin through unconscious sexiness and becoming lesbians.

To be fair to Shryock, he was not entirely sexist; he also wrote On Becoming a Man. But then he also advocated "female circumcision" as a reasonable deterrent to masturbation, so I see no reason to be fair to him.

My favourite piece of literature aimed at improving women, however, is one I discovered a few years ago in Delhi's Sunday book market at Daryaganj. It is by the Reverend T.C. Siekmann, and it is titled Girls, You're Important: Instructions for Catholic Girls.

To be fair to the Reverend Siekmann, he's not really a sexist; the Internet reveals that he has also written Advice for Boys: Instructions for Catholic Youths as well as the gender-neutral Come the End: Instructions for Young People on the Last Things.

The book is from the late 1940s (the first edition was published in 1948). Girls, You're Important is divided into very short chapters, each of which deals with some important subject: Boys, Cooking, Television, and the like.

erhaps the most delightful of these are the ones which advocate women having hobbies, lives of their own, and a good education. The chapter titled "The Reading Habit" reminds us that girls who cultivate this habit can learn a lot from magazines (but not, presumably, books?) such as "the latest kinds of furniture and home decorations; she will find delight in discovering new recipes for exciting meals and snacks".

Another chapter encourages acquiring a career, but not for the reasons you might think. "The girl who trained for a career", Siekmann explains, "will often find her knowledge and skill highly useful later on in the home." What about creativity and expressing oneself? "The girl who is rapidly approaching womanhood should have a natural yearning to express herself in preparing food." Though the Reverend reminds us that there "are, of course, many hobbies for girls besides cooking and sewing."

The discussion of interactions with the opposite sex treads familiar ground. Kissing is permitted, if it is chaste, between engaged persons, but even for them "prolonged and passionate" kissing is a bad idea. Among un-engaged teenagers all kissing is forbidden, since even if the act "does not amount to sin" for the girl it might for the boy and she would (a lovely turn of phrase) "become an occasion for his sin". Girls must also remember to be clear-thinking and provide boys with guidance. Also, "[a] girl ought to be beautiful. She should use her beauty to make herself the most nearly perfect girl possible". But she should remember that there are different kinds of beauty, and attractive girls who do not "hesitate to be suggestive" are "nothing short of temptation" and undermine "the virtue of the weak".

A marvellously '50s moment arises in a chapter on awareness, where Siekmann warns his readers of Communism, that "godless movement, a materialistic way of life that cannot stand the doctrines and practices of religion" and "the enemy behind which the enemy of Christ's Church lurks".

One might think that all of this is patronising, conservative and frequently misogynist. But, Siekmann reminds us, "the thoughtful girl will not resent regulations meant to save her. She will accept them in the spirit of genuine kindness in which they are given. She will appreciate liberty by avoiding license." Indeed.

Left of Cool will explore and celebrate the strange and amusing books that — somehow — find themselves in print.

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