Well, it may not sound outrageous or far-fetched today, but on 22 January, back in 1939, Carole Lombard, whom past generations may have called feisty without being accused of sexism, floored them with views on the role and future of women in the US. To be sure, Lombard was merely reading the script prepared for her; but there was conviction in her voice when she declared: “You can mark my words, Cary Grant. Some day we’ll have a woman President.” Together with Grant and host Ronald Colman, Lombard was featured on the aforementioned variety program The Circle, whose writers gave the punchline to her male co-star: “She’ll never be father of her country.” Upon which Lombard expounded on the “feminine point of view,” accusing Grant of “deliberately trying to belittle the idea and bemuddle the issue. If there’s anything I hate more than a belittler is a bemuddler, and you’re a bemuddler.”
“I didn’t say a woman couldn’t be President,” Grant protested. “I know how you feel about it,” Lombard countered; by this time, hilarity had given way to some serious pamphleteering. “You’re scared. A woman will only get to be President over your dead body, which might be a very good idea.” “Well, now look, Carole. I can’t answer for the rest of the men. But I’d probably vote for this hypothetical woman,” if only to “see what would happen.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what would happen,” Lombard replied, by now stirred enough to flub her lines:
If [. . .] women ran this world it would be a better world, if you really want to know. It wouldn’t be such a sorry mess of a world. It wouldn’t be the kind of a world that bombs kids in the street and taxes their [. . .] parents to pay for the bombs. It [. . .] wouldn’t be a world where people would starve with surplus of stuff to eat around, and it would be a cleaner place, saner place, and a finer place. Because why? Because women are realists. They wouldn’t permit war because everybody knows nobody can win a war. They wouldn’t permit slums and filth and disease and poverty because those things cost everybody money. Do you know what causes war and poverty? All right, all right, I’ll tell you. Male stupidity, male sentiment and male greed. Oh, I now women are greedy, too, but they know how to get what they want, you know. They don’t let stupid sentimental considerations get in their way. They wouldn’t start a war to get a new trade or raw materials or a swell heads when they know darn well they’ll end up headless and bankrupt. It all comes down to this: men are children and women are realists. Take it or leave it, gents, take it or leave it.
Three years later, very nearly to the day, the star of To Be or Not to Be would give her life in the effort to rally support and funds for the war (as I mentioned here). Was Lombard, a regular in a Circle of male stars (including Groucho and Chico Marx), called upon to reaffirm the nurturing role men assign to the supposedly fairer sex, however vehemently the position was stated? Was she a mouthpiece for isolationists, her speech a product of “[m]ale stupidity, male sentiment and male greed”?
Parody or propaganda, the words Lombard hurled into NBC’s unevenly drawn—and quickly withdrawn—Circle make for one of the most confounding moments in the history of radio entertainment. As to the accuracy of her White House prediction, at least, we may be close to getting an answer.