“Naomi’s Advice” Be Grateful and Don’t Expect Too Much
By Christina Simmons
The Guide’s 1940s column “Naomi’s Advice” addressed mostly her majority of young single female readers, but Naomi did offer words of wisdom to married women as well. While her advice to the single could be quite critical of men, her advice to the married demonstrated her more conventional side: Once married, except in cases of non-support or abuse, she told women to accept their lot and not ask too much.
Naomi worked with the concept of “modern marriage” that had evolved in the first few decades of the century. The man was still supposed to provide economic support and the women ideally be home-makers within a marriage based on love. But “modern marriage” called for more emotional and sexual expressiveness within that love. The married people who wrote to Naomi were writing because they were unhappy about something–and often it was about the lack of that emotionally warm love.
Some women complained of men’s alternating rages and emotional coolness or a generally unpleasant atmosphere in the home. But even without such drama, some wanted more. One woman, for example, wrote that a boarder in their home had fallen in love with her and wanted her to divorce her husband. She told Naomi, “My husband works hard and takes care of me, but sometimes I wonder if he loves me.” She seems to have been looking for something beyond the basics.
Naomi was not very sympathetic to such complaints and seemed to feel that wanting that kind of expressive love was an unnecessary extra in marriage, particularly for women. She told wives to examine their own behavior first and correct their own faults – to be kind, not waste money, not nag, and be accommodating to men’s needs. The basics were for the man to provide financial support and not be abusive, for which a wife should be grateful. She told one reader that economic providing WAS love.
Naomi was supportive of her readers’ concerns about one condition that supported modern marriage-living in a nuclear family and having some privacy to cultivate that intensive love. A significant minority of married letter writers complained about the interference of relatives in their marriages – a problem likely increased during wartime housing shortages that forced many people to move in with relatives.
Many African-Americans had traditionally relied on the extended family, given the poverty and racism they faced, so this issue probably stirred strong feelings for many. Naomi definitely took sides against extended family intrusion: She especially condemned men’s mothers who, she said, “have nothing to do but sit around and make life miserable for their sons’ wives.”
However, by far the largest number of complaints from married women involved men’s greater social freedom. Sometimes women complained about their husbands refusing to let them go out, even with girlfriends, while the men went out on their own. One described the shocking difference from before marriage, when her boyfriend had taken her out to clubs and shows, and afterwards, when he went out by himself.
A number of letters lamented how men could go out on the town, “run around,” or carry on extramarital affairs that violated the intensive love expected in modern marriage and could cause a lot of emotional pain. One woman, who called herself the “unhappiest woman in my home town,” recounted to Naomi how her “husband never has time to give me any time or special care. I have seen him with other women, and it hurts me to my heart.”
But, just as Naomi often dismissed women’s wish for more loving relationships, she also tended not to sympathize with women whose husbands were “running around.” Women were supposed to adjust, repress their feelings, and live with the situation, or clean up their own act and work indirectly to entice husbands back with feminine allure. Naomi accepted the double standard and was fatalistic about men, telling readers, “There is nothing you can do, I’m afraid, except to continue to be loving and patient. It would take a Solomon to explain why men want to run around and yet want their wives to remain at home.” “Marriage … depends on the woman,” she said, and women could not run around the same way: “A man thinks he should be able to do what he wishes, but his girl or wife must be above all suspicion.” Of course, some women did also have affairs, sometimes in response to the husbands who ran around, but Naomi condemned them, urging women always to be faithful.
So, as interesting as Naomi’s views were in supporting single women especially and allowing an outlet for women’s anger about men, over all she was biased toward upholding marriage and giving women greater responsibility for that. She was not a feminist in the late twentieth-century sense of criticizing the entire system of male dominance.
However, on one important issue aside from emotions and sex, Naomi’s perspective forecast the future. She implicitly recognized the well-known fact that Black wives held paid employment much more often than white wives in this era. (In 1940 only 14 percent of white wives were in the labor force, vs. 32 percent of Black wives.) Writing to one of her high school correspondents, whose fiancé did not want her to take a job after marriage, Naomi said, “No doubt, it is a lovely thought that you will not have to work after marriage, but … [f]ew men make enough to support their wives in the manner in which the wives themselves would like to be supported. Many wives find that they help themselves no end when they are able to add a weekly wage to the family income.” Today, wives’ wage-earning is standard for most families.
“Naomi’s Advice” was a fascinating and long-lived column in the Guide, and it would be wonderful to learn the author’s actual identity.
On a past research trip to Norfolk some community members I met suggested she might have been a Naomi Powell Ballard, a local socialite to whom younger women looked up. This Naomi was born about 1907 and at least by 1933 was married to Clifton R. Ballard, a dentist. They lived at B125 E. Berkley Ave.
So far I have found no definitive evidence for this theory, but a recent search of the Guide’s issues for the period raised some intriguing information. Naomi Ballard was often mentioned in the Guide’s “Social Whirl” column. She played bridge and seems to have been involved with several clubs – the Baker’s Dozen, the Toujours, the Krazy Kats, and the Tidewater Tuskegee Club. She continued to be mentioned into the late 1970s, though at mixed-gender events in later years she seemed always to be without her husband.
I found the explanation for that in a dramatic front-page story in the Guide on Nov. 28, 1953: “Dentist Expires As His Bride-to-Be Looks On.” Clifton and Naomi Ballard’s divorce had been final for only three weeks when Dr. Ballard died suddenly at age 50 in Elizabeth City, NC, while getting a marriage license to marry a Miss Gladys Thomas.
The final “Naomi’s Advice” column had been published two years prior, on Oct. 20, 1951. If Naomi Ballard was the writer, did she stop writing because her marriage was falling apart? Again, so far there is no direct evidence of this. But if anyone reading these stories knows any more about her or about any other possible “Naomi,” please write to the Guide at email@example.com and Christina Simmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christina Simmons is a retired professor of history and women’s and gender studies from the University of Windsor in Canada During her teaching career she taught primarily American and Canadian women’s history and African-American/Canadian history. Her book, Making Marriage Modern: Women’s Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II, addresses white and African-American efforts to refashion marriage in the early 20th century.