We're sort of holding our collective breath right now, aren't we?
Before women were seen as independent souls who could live on their own, before reliable birth control for women, before shame-free access to it (you might not know this, but many doctors asked the woman if her husband gave her permission for it, and if she wasn’t even married? Well.) and before this society admitted in my lifetime that even good women desire sex and have climaxes, there was a ritual that had to be followed.
People were so naive in the previous century. He was taught he had to seduce her. She was taught to say no (but actually also to allow him to think he sometimes won what she also sought, and yes, that’s as messy as it sounds,) and plenty of people, both men and women, knew so little about sex, it boggles the 21st century mind. She had a lot to lose, though, and had to be so careful with whose apartment she might end up in. Yes, there was a whole lot of pretense, but it felt necessary.
Of course, there are still people filled with startling levels of ignorance about sex and relationships, and also of course, people willing to believe every new thing they read without critical reasoning or a healthful amount of skepticism.
Anyway. If you had to talk in code, why not enjoy it? It was a dance, a game, and both sides knew that the woman was still in control of how it played out. That is, both sides with most people, because most people are not awful. And so we have 1940s romantic comedies to sigh over. They show us what ordinary people hoped to be, what they hoped life would be.
(Film noir offered a bleaker view, though.)
We’re hearing so much every day these days about the men who got away with being awful to some degree or another for far too long. They didn’t understand or didn’t/don't even care that the dance has changed or that the music was sometimes only in their own head.
In 2017, we still want to dance, because it makes the walk home more exciting, but we get to set the terms out loud, not through code. If a man thinks her no is a tentative “not yet” or "yeah, keep going," he is hearing a language that hasn’t existed for a long time, but the truth is, it never did quite in the way these creepers think it did.
Even “back then,” the men who are in trouble now for treating women badly were the men Mother warned you about. It wasn’t actually about “nice girls,” at all, but about nice people. A nice mature adult male still knew when no meant no, or at least, “let’s get to know each other better first,” “let me make sure I can trust you with the risk I’ll be taking,” because he would read her body language, her expressions, the tone of her voice. He was also a human who didn’t want to hurt someone he might care about, and he knew she was taking a risk he didn’t fully share. He might push a little, but knew how to recognize a push back. These guys we’re hearing about now never were nice guys, never did care about whether they were being pushy; taking something not freely given, and then tossing it aside when they were done with it.
They were taught, particularly in the era of movie westerns, that men are all head, women are all heart, that men can take what women must give, and that “sensitive men” are weak men. And of course, they are wrong, all wrong. (A sad fact about that is how some of the "sensitive men" thought they had to play a tough or sexist cowboy role that didn't suit them, and it led to a few misunderstandings about who we all are. We are working on fixing that, because it wasn't any good for anybody, and it was bad, bad social science.)
Sadly, though, there are probably always going to be creepers. It’s high time and good that society is starting to root them out; the ones with a little charm or a lot of power were allowed to get away with it for far too long. But they're not going to be exterminated for awhile yet, if ever. There's a lot more education and head smackings to be done.
But, and this is where my thoughts are leading, historical context demands that we don’t confuse them with ordinary hopefulness at the end of a 1949 or 2017 date, which is why I once railed about the misguided ignorant rants over “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Life is complicated, but it has a far, far longer history than you or I, our country, or what we call “modern” civilization. We should keep improving our wheels, but it’s important to remember we didn’t invent them, and the surfaces they run on have changed in every era.
And, we should be so, so glad many of your grandmother's (my mother's) daily struggles are history now, but it's okay to see the good and great in her time, as well; to see it through her eyes, and not only our own. This makes us smarter and better at creating a strong framework for our lives. Then we can exhale again.