Janet Golden

Dr. Benjamin Spock (1903-1998) was a pediatrician and a political activist who published the bestselling book, Baby and Child Care, in 1946. In it, Spock encouraged mothers to trust their own judgment and to eschew overly strict parenting strategies. By the mid-1960s, Baby and Child Care was the top paperback seller of all time cementing Spock’s status as “America’s most famous baby doctor,” a position Spock used to draw public support to political causes including the anti-war and Civil Rights movements. Spock’s philosophy of child rearing, deemed “permissive,” and his political activities, drew the ire of conservative critics who blamed him for a generation of youth engaged in cultural, political, and sexual revolt. Children were “Spocked when they should have been spanked” claimed one angry commentator.

Spock’s fame also led readers in the United States and abroad to send him a flood of correspondence—a notable portion of which dealt with sexual matters—that is now housed in the Syracuse University Special Collection.

Dr Benjamin Spock on a 1970 visit to the UK, holds up a copy of his book, Decent & Indecent. (Getty Images Keystone / Hulton Archive)

When I visited Syracuse University to read Spock’s papers, specifically the letters he exchanged with the public, I was looking to find out what mothers and fathers had to say about their babies. Of course, people wrote to Spock about everything, praising and complaining about his political activities (supporting Kennedy for President, working with SANE on nuclear disarmament, supporting federal aid to education, and supporting Kerr-Mills, the precursor to Medicaid). Many of the letters came in response to his column in the Ladies Home Journal and others dealt with the problems of babies, children, and adolescents. There is some rich material here on disabilities in children and parents, as well as on adoption.

The Spock collection contains a number of letters that may be of interest to scholars working in the history of sexuality. Despite the fact that Spock was known world-wide as a “baby doctor,” women wrote to him for help with problems related to premarital and marital sexuality, babies born outside of marriage, divorce, and for information about birth control. In a few instances, the letters describe disturbing incidents of sexual abuse of children by parents and strangers.

Serendipitously, on June 26, 2015, I found several letters to Spock regarding homosexuality as I sat in the archives toggling back and forth from taking notes on the collection and following the recently announced opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges. It was remarkable to reflect on how public understanding had changed since desperate mothers penned letters to Spock in the late 1950s and early 1960s, seeking his advice and council. I read letters from 1945 to 1963; there may well be more material in the later period.

There is a letter about how a daughter left home with a “butch woman” after graduation from high school, and how she had not been seen since. Another letter detailed how decades earlier, a son revealed his homosexuality and the parents sought help: first, from a psychiatrist who insisted that he would never be a son to them, and then from a religious figure who told them their son had a curable disease—that is, if he could control his impulses. He was not “cured,” and the son’s personality changed, his mother reported, from outgoing to deceitful because of the life he led. And more and more young people, she wrote, were “subscribing to this way of life.”

In another account, a woman with a homosexual husband and four children reported that she had left him after he was fired from two jobs. He had undergone months of psychiatric care but ultimately rejected it, continuing to engage in homosexual behavior that he had begun when he was fifteen. Deeply worried, she wondered whether homosexuality was inherited. Spock responded that it was not. In writing to these mothers and to others, Spock revealed the influence of his training in psychoanalysis. Homosexuality, he believed, was a psychological problem that developed between ages three and six. Other problems of infancy and childhood received similar kinds of analyses.

Because the copyright on these letters belongs to their authors and the copyright on the Spock papers belongs to his widow, Mary Morgan, I cannot print the documents. I do want to encourage those interested in the history of sexuality to spend a few days digging through the letters (currently housed in six boxes). While the collection is still being processed, there is a finding aid. These papers offer an excellent opportunity to think about the interconnections between the histories of sexuality, youth and childhood, family formation, medicine, and postwar politics.

Janet Golden is a Professor of History at Rutgers University where she specializes in the history of medicine, history of childhood, women’s history, and American social history. She is the author or editor of nine books, and the author or co-author of numerous peer-reviewed articles. Her most recent books are Message in a Bottle: The Making of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the co-edited Healing the World’s Children: International and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Child Health in the 20th Century. She co-edits the Critical Issues in Health and Medicine Series at Rutgers University Press and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s public health blog “The Public’s Health.”

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