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The gradual shift from calling to dating mirrored much of the change from rural to urban life in the early 20th century. In urban settings, not all respectable young women had a parlor in their homes. Many worried that this new urban system would make it harder for youths to navigate the end goal of courtship: marriage. Yet, dating became the dominant mode of American courtship. Dating was not about marriage and families, however, according to Beth L. Bailey, historian and author of From the Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in 20th Century America. Dating was about competition.
In the first two thirds of the 20th century, American youth did fall in love, marry, and raise families. But dating was competitive. Margaret Mead defined dating in the interwar years as a “competitive game” and a way for young men and women to “demonstrate their popularity.” Sociologist Willard Waller’s study of American dating in 1937 defined the competitive system as “the campus rating complex.” In his study of Penn State, Waller found that women’s popularity depended on being seen with popular men in the right places and cultivating the impression that they were greatly in demand. Last minute dates would be turned down, indignantly. At the University of Michigan, women rated men as BMOC (Big Men on Campus) according to their ‘dating value’ as “A – smooth, B—OK, C—pass in a crowd, D—semigoon, or E –spook.” (!!!) These codification of male ratings helped women to conform to peer judgments of prescribed dating values. Historian Paula Fass studied American youth in the 1920s and concluded that youth and youth institutions were a separate culture that lasted only a few years. Thus these competitive dating strategies were viewed as having little significant long term risk for 1920s youth. The conformity learned in competitive dating was a “self-contained, self-regulating, self-limiting system” and that was seen as a training ground for the world outside of college.
After World War II, a 180 degree reversal quickly occurred. Popularity and social success based on strenuous competition gave way to locking down a long-term partner as soon as possible. In the 1920s, going ‘steady’ meant being stuck and unpopular. But in the late 1940s and 1950s, going steady became the goal, due to the scarcity of “marriageable men.” The competition around dating remained, but shifted toward early marriage. Despite the high number of men on college campuses due to the GI Bill and the high marriage rates, the perception was of a scarcity of men. This early marriage ideal changed college life and made ‘going steady’ as the standard of popularity.
As someone who works on a college campus, I observe many 21st century rituals of dating and courtship. As someone who works on a small Christian college campus, I observe even more complexities and nuance of dating and courtship. Many students on a small Christian college campus claim to feel pressure to date and marry quickly, and see dating primarily as a function leading to marriage. At more secular college campuses, hook up culture dominates the dating scene. Hookup culture prioritizes physical and sexual encounters divorced from intimacy, feelings, or commitment. Hookup culture participants praise popularity, as defined by the number and desirability or ‘hotness’ of a partners, and punishes those who develop feelings or real interest in said partners.
The meanings of marriage and commitment have shifted, but the 21st century world of dating and courtship is still centered on competition. Is it better, worse, harder or easier for today’s youth?
Beth L. Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America, (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).
Lisa Wade, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2017).