Based on Ch. 1-3 in Solomon; and the Introduction and Ch. 1 in Peril, what new information did you learn? Be specific.
To my parents, Gene and Alice, for making sure I became a college girl
INTRODUCTION: From Bluestockings to Sex Kittens
CHAPTER ONE: The Birth of the College Girl
CHAPTER TWO: New Girl on Campus
CHAPTER THREE: The Collegiate Look
CHAPTER FOUR: In Loco Parentis and Other Campus Rules
CHAPTER FIVE: Book Smart or House Wise? What to Study
CHAPTER SIX: Fit in Mind and Body
CHAPTER SEVEN: Sex Ed and Husband Hunting
CHAPTER EIGHT: Graduation and After
EPILOGUE: Since Then
PERMISSIONS / ILLUSTRATION CREDITS
It took almost as long for me to write this book as it did to get my undergraduate degree. I’m not sure who was more patient during that time: my editor, Alane Mason, or my husband, Johnny Bartlett. I couldn’t have written this book without either one of them.
Shirley Wajda, Mary Ricci, and Mary Ann Irwin read early, embarrassingly bad drafts, sometimes multiple times—thank you, ladies. Comments from Alessandra Bastagli and Vanessa Levine-Smith were also much appreciated.
Faye Bender has been endlessly enthusiastic. I’m looking forward to our next project.
To everybody at W. W. Norton & Company, thanks from the bottom of my heart for making me look so good in print.
Thanks also go to Michael Beller and Janice Braun at Mills College, Browning Brooks and Lucy Patrick at Florida State University, Diane Cantwell, Karen Finlay, Susan Frankel, Beth S. Harris at Hollins University, the Ladies Lit List, David C. Levy, Miriam Linna, the Mills College Fires of Wisdom Oral History Project (especially Suzette Lalime Davidson and Cecile Caterson), John Marr, Jessica Rudin MacGregor, Sharyn November, Kurt and Karen Ohlen, Mimi Pond, Ron and Maria at Kayo Books in San Francisco, Chip Rowe, Scott Sanders at Antiochiana, Morgan Alberts Smith at Mary Baldwin College, J. Peter Wentz, and Michael Zadoorian. I also thank the helpful librarians and archivists at Cornell University, the Mechanic’s Institute Library, San Francisco Public Library (especially in the San Francisco History Room and Photo Collection), Teachers College, Columbia University, and everybody who patted my head when the going got tough.
A pair of Wellesley students practice poise and posture on the way to hygiene class, 1936.
From Bluestockings to Sex Kittens
BLUE STOCKING, a name given to learned and literary ladies, who display their acquirements in a vain and pedantic manner, to the neglect of womanly duties and virtues.
CHAMBERS ENCYCLOPÆDIA, 1872–1873 EDITION
Maybe you know a college freshman like this one: a bright-eyed eighteen-year-old girl who for the past year or so has been caught up in a wealth of glossy brochures and interactive online presentations from giant state universities and small liberal arts colleges. In the 1930s she would have been nicknamed Betty Coed, but we’ll call her Jane Doe. Jane’s visited a campus or two, or talked to an alumna who lives in her hometown. She has spent countless hours worrying that her admission essay about how her summer job as a coffee-shop barista helped her grow as a human being won’t stand out from those of her fellow applicants, all of whom she imagines as having spent their formative years in a combination of volunteerism and philanthropy that would make Mother Teresa look shiftless by comparison. Jane (and her parents) have struggled with financial-aid forms and scholarship applications. The sting of rejection by her first-choice school has been soothed by the balm of fat acceptance packets from numbers two and three. She has carefully considered their degree programs in her intended major, distance from her hometown, tuition costs, and overall reputations for academics versus partying, as well as certain intangible factors—such as whether her brother goes there or how many cute boys or girls she saw when she visited—and come to a decision about which college she will attend.
Then one day in August, she kisses parents, pets, siblings, and perhaps most difficult, boyfriend or girlfriend good-bye, promises to call or e-mail regularly, and
heads off to campus—at long last a college girl. Depending on the rules and facilities at that school, Jane Doe’s home for the next
year or so may be a 12- x 15-foot dormitory room, furnished with a roommate (whom she’s probably never met face to face), bed, desk, chair, and dresser for each of them, and a telephone—though with the ubiquity of cell phones, even that link to the past is becoming obsolete. Jane’s room may be located on an all-female or coed floor or one reserved for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. She can choose to live on a drug- and alcohol-free floor, one devoted to a particular cultural group or healthy lifestyle (the “wellness” floor), or one with extended quiet hours. Her room may not be much bigger than a hermit’s cell, but it is hardly a monastic retreat: it is wired for cable TV and high-speed Internet access, though Jane must rent or purchase a small refrigerator and/or microwave if she wants to have one. At some schools, Jane and her roommate can even order snacks and toiletries, including condoms, from the comfort of their room via Web sites run by enterprising fellow students, who will deliver the items directly to their door.1 The condoms may come in handy. Depending on where she goes to school, Jane might be entitled to have an overnight guest, free of charge, two nights a month—as long as her roommate approves of the arrangement.
Our girl has a better way to spend her evening hours, for once classes start, Jane carries a full load. Comparative Politics, Perspectives in Engineering, Introduction to Feminist History—Jane has a thirst for knowledge and big plans for her future. She wants to test the waters in as many different subjects as she can before she declares a major. If she didn’t bring a laptop with her, the library probably has a twenty-four- hour computer lab, but she might not have to go that far: one may be located in her dormitory. If Jane does have to move around campus after dark, she can call the night escort service to make sure she safely gets where she’s going.
For most of her needs, Jane won’t have to leave the campus. The student union building provides art galleries and performance spaces, pool tables and arcade games, sometimes even a rathskeller or pub where, as soon as they turn twenty-one, Jane and her friends can drown their academic woes with the golden ale. Many schools have athletic centers where Jane can work out, swim, or play racquetball. If she’s not feeling well—physically or mentally—she can stop by the student health center, where she can also get birth control, free or low-cost pregnancy testing, and information about and treatment for STDs (all good reasons to keep a pack of condoms handy, Jane!).
One thing Jane Doe probably won’t notice is the number of young women in her classes or, come graduation day, how many of them are crossing the platform to receive their diplomas alongside her. Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, more women than men have enrolled in college, and as of 2001, 58 percent of those who graduated were women—a record.2 Although Jane and her cohort may not yet sign up for engineering or computer science classes in the same numbers as
men, those who do don’t worry that studying traditionally male subjects will compromise their femininity—or their health.
With the glaring exception of the technology, and some of the social policies, Jane’s campus isn’t vastly different from the one I spent five years at in the early 1980s—backpacks and paper cups of coffee are still ubiquitous. By personal comparison, however, I was much more of a Jane Don’t.
Once upon a time, college seemed so promising. When my friend Ruth and I were ten and eleven years old, we spent slow, sticky Wisconsin summer afternoons playing board games in the basement of her parents’ townhouse. Seated on large cushions scattered around the cool comfort of the floor, we took turns sinking each other’s battleships and pretending we knew how to play chess. These were cheery enough diversions, but we always came back to the Game of Life.
Based on a nineteenth-century game resurrected by the Milton Bradley company for its centennial in 1960, Life started players out with $2,000 and a tiny plastic car (a solitary pink or blue peg in the driver’s seat), then immediately forced them to choose between two different routes along the three-dimensional plastic hills of its game board: one leading “To Business,” the other “To College.” Depending on the choices made, one ended up—car crammed with pink and blue pegs representing spouse and children accumulated along the way—at either Millionaire Acres or the Poor Farm.
Ruth and I always chose college even though going directly into business made for a quicker payday, and the collegiate route was marked with spaces like the one requiring us to “Pay $500 for raccoon coat”—gibberish to a couple of fifth-graders in 1972. Nevertheless, we trusted that the college experience was going to be a bright part of our future, even the beginning of life itself—the real one, not the Milton Bradley version—leading us to our own personal version of Millionaire Acres.
Of course it didn’t turn out that way. One look at the scowling mug on my freshman ID tells the whole story: I did not want to go to college. Not. At. All.
At least part of the attitude I projected was due to a carefully cultivated punk-rock tough-chick persona. Sitting for the school photographer that afternoon in September 1979, I was wearing a purple thrift store T-shirt and black stovepipe jeans from Trash and Vaudeville, a Manhattan store whose mail order department was a godsend to true believers stuck in the flannel shirt and flared jeans wilderness of the Milwaukee suburbs. I was sporting the shortest haircut I’d ever had, a buzz cut anomaly back in the days of Farrah feathering, though twenty-five years later it looks disconcertingly like a mini-mullet. Lots of black eyeliner completed the look and helped emphasize my sullen glare. If I had to be there, at least I looked hip (though it’s questionable whether I would have appreciated any analogy between my punk-rock mufti and the raccoon coats of yore).
The author, September 1979. Bad attitude in a mini-mullet.
Mostly, though, the look on my face reflected turmoil over a bigger problem: I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. A year earlier—when my classmates had been busy filling out early-decision applications and planning what I imagined were successful futures as doctors, attorneys, and engineers—my mother had asked me again and again what career path I wanted to follow. “But you must want to be something,” she finally snapped, exasperated by my silence. I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I simply didn’t have an answer for her.
In my heart of hearts I knew I wasn’t ready for college yet, but in my family there had never been a question about what I would do after high school—and it wasn’t taking a year off to do something so nebulous as “find myself.” College attendance was mandatory—probably because neither of my parents had been able to enroll because of forces beyond their control. My mother’s father died when she was eighteen, and she went to work to help support her mother and five younger siblings. My father spent what would have been his college years on a Navy destroyer fighting World War II in the Pacific. They made sure my brother and I didn’t miss the opportunity for higher education that circumstances had denied them, and they worked long and hard to fund our undergraduate degrees.
This bit of knowledge helped me feel extra guilty as I skulked around the Milwaukee campus of the University of Wisconsin in an unrelenting undergraduate haze of doubt, confusion, and depression. It wasn’t quite a Midwestern punk-rock take
on Sylvia Plath’s classic of college girl alienation, The Bell Jar, but it certainly wasn’t the merry-go-round of proms, parties, and gaiety I read about in books and magazines, or saw at the movies and on television. I wasn’t a cheerleader, I never went to a dance, I didn’t date the Big Man on Campus. I certainly never crammed myself into a phone booth with twenty other crazed students. I didn’t even particularly like the taste of beer. Instead I sulked, stalked into classes late or didn’t go at all, and got shockingly poor grades for a former National Merit Scholarship Finalist. Unless it was a class that interested me (“Feminist Film Criticism and the Golden Age of Hollywood,” for example); then, of course, I got As. I’m positive my commitment to underachievement frustrated more than one professor.
While such behavior may have been flamboyant, it wasn’t anything remotely unusual (except possibly for the part about not liking beer). I was just one of many, many young women (and men, for that matter) on campus struggling with issues of identity and looming adulthood. In other words, I was a normal college girl. I spent little time—OK, no time—thinking about how it came to be, historically speaking, that I was even on campus in the first place. Women always went to college, right? Despite an almost infallible belief (especially where my parents were concerned) in my intellectual superiority, there was in fact a lot I needed to learn.
A “co-educated girl of the west,” circa 1904.
Had I only noticed, college-girl history was all around me. That cluster of dark, vaguely Gothic-looking buildings at a northeast corner of the campus, so different from those of 1960s industrial design where I had my classes? This was the site of the all-women Milwaukee-Downer College, born of an 1895 merger between Downer College (originally the Wisconsin Female College, founded in 1855) and the Milwaukee Female College (founded in 1851 as part of domestic educator Catharine
Beecher’s initiative to train teachers on the western frontier). In 1964, Milwaukee- Downer sold its 43-acre campus to my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin– Milwaukee.3
It wasn’t until much later that I got interested in the college girl. I was researching a chapter on women and work for my first book, Pink Think, when I came across a 1940 Better Homes & Gardens article that queried, “If your daughter goes to college . . . Will she be a better homemaker? Will college make a spinster of her? Should your daughter go to college to get a husband?”4 Fascinated as always by the ideas and attitudes surrounding what constitutes proper female behavior, i.e., the “pink think” adhered to by manufacturers, advice experts, and the public at large particularly during the mid-twentieth century, I started to think about just what it meant to be a “college girl”—the monolithic capital-lettered sort beloved of cultural commentators, advice writers, and authors of pulp fiction. Who knew that higher education was once considered, as writer Wainwright Evans suggested, a potential first step toward a lifetime partnership? “Any girl who lets herself forget the fact that one important use of an education is to help her toward achieving a happy marriage, a home, and a family—the things she really wants—is being a very foolish virgin indeed.”5
Had I been foolish? To me, boy watching was an agreeable by-product of attending class, a pleasing lagniappe provided by a benevolent universe when one made the sacrifice of attending an 8:00 A.M. meeting of Algebra I. It was definitely not an invitation to eternal wedded bliss. I had heard of the fabled MRS. degree, where a girl’s college education was crowned by a wedding ring instead of a diploma, but I wrote it off as a fabled and transparent ploy suggested by only the most fear- mongering advice columnists. As it turned out, meeting men was long considered a very legitimate reason for girls to continue their education. “Many parents send their daughters to college with secret or expressed expectation that the latter will be on the lookout for marriageable young men,” wrote a Kansas professor in 1910. College was “the greatest matrimonial bureau on earth,” where nine out of ten coeds attended classes “only as an aid in securing a husband. . . . Young men, beware,” concluded a psychology professor in the mid-1930s. “Do you want to go where there are only women, or do you want your light so to shine among men that you will perhaps get your MRS. as soon as your B.A.?” asked Calling All Girls, a magazine for preteens, in 1945.6
I was more shocked to discover that “the issue of whether women should stay home or go to college” was the topic debated by the “fellows at Yale and Princeton” as recently as 1961. Teens Today magazine reported that one of Princeton’s arguments to the negative was the hoary old chestnut “A man wants a woman to fill his pipe, not smoke it!”7 The whole issue seemingly belonged in a century filled with hoopskirts and tall beaver hats, not in a modern world with its nascent space race, polio vaccine, and miracle fabrics. Yet there it was, in the pages of a popular magazine, more than a
hundred years after women started attending college.
A tight sweater and a prominent bust dominate the cover of this “revealing report,” 1964.
It was of course naïve of me to think that college girls were any less subject to the strictures of compulsory femininity (to rephrase from Adrienne Rich) than the rest of us. Indeed, the college-educated woman has always left a high level of cultural anxiety in her wake. From her first appearance in the mid-nineteenth century, the college girl has pressed cultural buttons regarding conflicting ideas about women and education, women and work, women and marriage, and at its very core, questions about the nature of womanhood and femininity itself. As a result, she’s been a lightning rod for criticism, advice, and regulation.
This book looks at images of the college girl drawn from a variety of materials: prescriptive literature, fiction, popular works of sociology and guidance, girlie magazines and pulp fiction, as well as student handbooks and the like—a constellation of sources that make up the constant, under-the-conscious-radar flow of ideas that academics refer to as discourse. The college girl I discuss here is mostly conjured of words, woven from ideas. As always, the gap between prescriptive literature—or, heaven forbid, advertising—and human behavior can never be adequately measured.
Likewise, the college girls depicted in books, magazines, and movies may or, more likely, may not resemble those who populated campuses. Obviously, the young women who attended colleges and universities were, from the start, unique individuals with different reasons for pursuing their degrees, who came from different backgrounds, social classes, races, and religions. Mostly, this book looks at what we think about when we’re asked to think about “the college girl”—a mass-mediated vision that often has ignored social realities, to paraphrase historian Mary C. McComb.8 To that end, I’ve stuck for the most part to the locution “girls,” for that is usually how the unmarried young women who attended universities and colleges have been described in both serious public discussions as well as popular culture since the mid-nineteenth century and even past the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.
Perhaps you’re wondering just what any of this has to do with you. Maybe you’re currently in college or are a recent graduate, and you say there are plenty of young women on campus and few of them face discrimination—at least on the basis of gender. It’s true that more than half of today’s college graduates are women, but certain attitudes about women and higher education crop up too frequently to be considered entirely quaint or anachronistic. For example, in 2002, economists at Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies concluded that the increased number of female college graduates would lead to a “marriage gap”—for what woman would want to marry a man with less earning power than herself? This is a modern spin on long-standing fears that higher education is a fast track to spinsterhood—for what man wanted to “marry up” to a women better educated than he?9
Along the same lines, when in 2003 CBS’s 60 Minutes television show interviewed three recent female graduates of the Harvard Business School for a story about career women and infertility, they explained something they called “the H bomb”: they were reluctant to tell guys, even fellow students, where they attended school because it meant the “kiss of death” for future dates. The young women noted that for male students the opposite was true: “all the girls start[ed] falling onto them” as soon as they mentioned Harvard Business School.10
And then there was Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers’s maladroit pronouncement in early 2005 that perhaps fewer women had successful math and science careers because “innate sex differences” made them less capable in these areas of study. Summers himself later characterized his words as “a big mistake” (one that may have contributed to his decision to resign the following year), but they carried with them the echo of nineteenth- and twentieth-century debates over how best to educate women, not to mention earlier debates about whether biological differences in
male and female brains meant women weren’t capable of the type of abstract critical thought integral to a college education. The fall-out from Summers’s statement lasted for months, and played out in news articles, editorials, letters to the editor, and Web logs. Clearly, arguments about nature, nurture, and the quality of female intelligence were far from settled. 11
Hiding one’s brains on a date, questioning the very nature of women’s intellect, scaremongering over “marriage gaps” based on women’s higher education—none of it is new. The question of what makes these ideas so enduring is a bigger one than this book can hope to answer, yet the history recounted here should remind us all not to take women’s right to higher education for granted. I like to think that had I taken the time to find out what those dark brick buildings at the edge of campus were, I might have valued my own five years a little more dearly.
Sketching a nearly naked man in art class was just one of many new experiences provided by a college education at the turn of the twentieth century.
The Birth of the College Girl
It has been proposed to establish a “College for Females,” in several of the manufacturing and producing cities of the Union, in which the following “sciences” are to be taught, by competent “professors:”
“Spinology, Weaveology, and Cookology.” . . . [T]hey will be entitled to receive a regular diploma, with the
honorary degree of “F.F.W.:” “Fit for Wives.”
“EDITOR’S DRAWER,” HARPER’S NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE (MARCH 1854)
On a June day in 1678, before twenty thousand fascinated spectators, Venetian noblewoman Elena Cornaro Piscopia received a degree in philosophy from the University of Padua, Italy. Other women had attended or even given lectures in philosophy, law, rhetoric, and medicine at the Italian universities as early as the twelfth century (the world’s first university, in Bologna, Italy, opened in 1088), and a woman named Bettisia Gozzadini lectured in law at the University of Bologna in 1296, but the thirty-two-year-old Piscopia was the first woman ever to receive a university degree.
Elena Cornaro Piscopia’s singular achievement did not mark the start of new interest and support for the higher education of women. Instead, immediately after her graduation, the rectors at the University of Padua decided they would admit no more women. It would be a half century before Laura Bassi became the second woman in history to receive a college degree (in 1732, in natural philosophy, from the University of Bologna, where she soon accepted a faculty position).1
Bassi, Piscopia, Gozzadini, and the handful of other women who attended European universities prior to the nineteenth century were talented and well-to-do exceptions, who like Piscopia, were probably educated through their fathers’ efforts. As for the vast majority of women, however, the universities provided “neither a formal education nor a license to teach,” to use the words of historian Phyllis Stock.2
When Piscopia received her degree, Harvard had been educating American men for just over four decades. It would be almost another 160 years before an American women stepped over the threshold of a college classroom—closer to two hundred if you count Vassar as the first place for women to get a college education. And it took even longer for attitudes toward women’s education and educated women to change.
The Roots of Women’s Higher Education in America
In Colonial America, writing was a business skill largely reserved for boys, reflected in statistics which suggested that just prior to the Revolution, 80 percent of men in New England could pen a signature while only half of the women could make the same claim. The dictates of religion, however, necessitated that children of both sexes be taught to read at least a few Bible verses if nothing else. If they happened to be the daughters of traders or other well-placed individuals, girls might be taught to write or otherwise benefit by a brother’s education—studying Latin with him, for example. Historian of women’s education Barbara Miller Solomon points out that Bible reading was the wedge by which some young women discovered their intellectual gifts. Yet such study was not meant to lead to independence of thought. When educated, Bible- reading Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643) began holding weekly meetings in her Boston home to discuss sermons as well as her own theological opinions, retribution from the male establishment was swift: she was excommunicated and banished along with her family to the as yet unsettled wilderness, where they were later killed by equally unappreciative Native Americans.3
In short, it was reasoned that girls didn’t need much more than the most rudimentary education because most of them were going to be wives and mothers. However, the pious education of young men in “good letters and manners,” as the founders of the College of William and Mary termed it, was considered an important common goal of the early men’s colleges (including Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth, all founded before the Revolution).4 Thus educated, their students would become learned civic leaders and clergymen, neither of which occupation was deemed fit for females. Not that a college education was readily attainable for every young
man; a bachelor’s degree was a mark of elite status, beyond the social and financial means of most.5
If a girl received any education outside her home, it was most likely at a dame school. These were run by older women who brought neighborhood children of both sexes into their homes to teach them a modicum of literacy, as well as simple sewing skills to the girls. So-called French schools expanded the curriculum in the mid- eighteenth century to include fancy needlework and the French language in addition to reading, arithmetic, and possibly much more, depending on the school’s location and the woman in charge. The French schools laid the foundation for the “finishing” schools that cropped up in the nineteenth century, and typically offered the ornamental accomplishments (French, English, penmanship, plain and fancy needlework among them) that “finished” aristocratic young ladies for a life in society.
Slowly but surely, the idea took hold that it was all right to educate girls and women if they used that education in furtherance of their traditional roles. The Ursuline order of nuns was founded in sixteenth-century Italy and charged by a papal bull of 1598 with the duty “to remedy the ignorance of the children of the people and the corruption of morals.”6 Despite the order’s Italian roots, most Ursuline convents were located in France, and in 1727 the Ursuline Academy of New Orleans opened in what was as yet a French colony. This was probably the first girls’ school in the United States—and after almost 280 years of operation, it’s definitely the longest lived. The core of its curriculum was the catechism, supplemented by instruction in reading, writing, music, fancy needlework, and etiquette. By 1803 the school had 170 boarding students. Within the next decade, two more Catholic schools for girls, Nazareth and Loretta, had opened in Kentucky.7 The Catholic interest in girls’ education had less to do with a deep-seated belief in female literacy than the belief that an educated mother would in turn instruct her children in both the catechism and secular subjects. This was particularly important in relation to boys who might grow into influential church and secular leaders. Writing much later (in 1867), a French clergyman expounded on this: “[I]t is in relation to sons that maternal ignorance has the most fatal results . . . an intelligent, well-informed mother could . . . point out to him good authors and books worth reading, read with him, teach him to reject dangerous writers and bad books, and stimulate his taste for study, by directing it to noble objects.”8
Even though Abigail Adams’s famous request of her statesman husband, John— that he “remember the ladies” when he and the rest of the Continental Congress hammered out what would become the founding documents of the United States—fell ultimately on deaf ears, women were swept up in the fervor of the Revolution. Along with their husbands and brothers, they debated the ideals of freedom and equality as well as a citizen’s duties to the new nation. The concept of what historian Linda Kerber termed “Republican Motherhood” in a seminal 1976 essay charged a mother
with the civic duty of instilling these values in her children, and thus required a further commitment to her own education.9 A wife and mother needed to set the standard for the behavior for both husband and children, especially male children, the heroes and patriots of the future.
Training the mothers of future citizens was important work indeed. Benjamin Rush was a Philadelphia physician who wrote and spoke on the importance of women’s education throughout the 1790s. Because budding statesmen learned their first lessons at their mother’s knee, basic literacy wasn’t enough for girls—nor was the mere instruction of “ornamental accomplishments” taught in the French schools, which Rush deemed decadent and elitist. Rush suggested that girls “be taught the principles of liberty and government,” as well as “the obligations of patriotism.” When the Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia opened in 1787, Rush saw his ideas about female education put into action. Although the Young Ladies’ Academy represented a new commitment to the education of women, it more closely resembled a modern high school than what we would consider a college. Until it closed in the early 1800s due to an outbreak of yellow fever, its curriculum included reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, geography, and religion.10
Despite the innovations of the Young Ladies’ Academy, as historian Jennifer Manion points out, “it was still widely acceptable for people, including advocates of the formal education of women, to believe in women’s fundamental intellectual inferiority.”11 While ideas about female education were changing, it did not mean that the doors of higher education immediately sprang open. In 1783, twelve-year-old Lucinda Foote was found to be “fully qualified, except in regard to sex, to be received as a pupil of the Freshman class of Yale University.”12 Qualified she may have been, but received she wasn’t—even though Yale president Ezra Stiles was much impressed by her skill in Latin.13 Indeed, a young woman in eighteenth-century New England was more likely to have been taught modern, not classical, languages. As John Adams told his daughter, it was “scarcely reputable for young ladies to understand Latin and Greek—French, my dear, French is the language next to English.”14 Latin and Greek were, along with higher mathematics, the foundation of the men’s university curriculum, the purview of church and state. A 1791 poem entitled “To a Lady, Who Expressed a Desire of Seeing an University Established for Women” was blunt in its appraisal of misguided female adventurers like Lucinda who sought educational equity: “Deluded Maid, Thy Claim Forego,” read the poem’s first line.15
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
The publication in 1792 of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman helped move popular discussion of female education into high gear. Among other things, Wollstonecraft called for better educational and professional opportunities for women, in the belief it would help single women and widows better support themselves, as well as help married women become better wives and mothers. Shortly after A Vindication’s appearance in England, excerpts from it appeared in the Ladies Magazine and Massachusetts Magazine in the United States, and a full American edition soon followed.* Even if people didn’t agree with Wollstonecraft’s lifestyle (she bore a child out of wedlock and lived openly with its father), her ideas were heady ones in the new republic. With Wollstonecraft’s words in front of them and the memory of the Revolution fresh in their minds, people were suddenly talking about woman’s right to an education, though the form that education should take was the subject of debate for at least the following century. (Freedom and rights were slippery slopes, of course: “It is a curious fact,” wrote “A Lady” in 1816, “that a republic which avows equality of right as its first principle, persists in an ungenerous exclusion of the female sex from its executive department.”† It remains curious, all these years later.)
† Ibid., 227.
“Deluded” or not, women weren’t willing to forgo their claims to higher education. Beginning in the 1820s, a trio of women opened schools which, while they didn’t rise to the name of “college” just yet, nonetheless offered girls an education above and beyond that offered by other schools, and provided a blueprint for the women’s colleges that followed.
Emma Willard, Catharine Beecher, and Mary Lyon: Three Pioneers of Women’s
Thirty-some years after Lucinda Foote suffered her disappointment at Yale, Emma Willard (1787–1870) was denied permission to sit in on Middlebury College’s entrance examinations.16 But she wasn’t interested in becoming a student—Willard was a teacher who wanted to learn how the university evaluated the education of its male applicants. Knowledge of such methods, she reasoned, would help her create standards for female education, which she found sorely lacking in mathematics and the sciences. Willard herself was an autodidact who enjoyed enriching her mind with unfamiliar subjects like geography and algebra, the latter during early morning constitutionals. When her 1819 Plan for Improving Female Education (which among other things called for state support of a school for girls) was rejected by the New York legislature, influential citizens of the city of Troy promised their financial support if Willard established a school there. The Troy Female Seminary opened in 1821. Calling her school a “seminary” indicated Willard’s seriousness of purpose; male seminaries prepared their students for professional futures, just as the new female seminaries prepared students for teaching and educated motherhood. Ironically, because married women could not yet legally rent property in their own right, Willard’s husband held the lease.17
Emma Willard, formidable founder of the Troy Female Seminary.
With a curriculum that boldly included mathematics and science in addition to more familiar weekly lectures on manners, religion, and the “peculiar duties” of
women, the school was a resounding success—and remains a highly regarded girls’ prep school today. Ninety young women enrolled for its opening session, some coming from as far away as Ohio and Georgia. Although the average student age was seventeen, Willard also welcomed older women, among them teachers who wished to expand their skills and what her biographer referred to as “some young widows who wished to add to their meager education.”18
In a move that had implications for future college girls, student life at Troy was highly regulated. Housed two each in small rooms rather than en masse in large dormitories as was the current fashion, students were responsible for keeping their rooms neat and orderly. Monitors made hourly rounds, and if they found a careless glove forgotten on the bureau top or a book left on a bed, demerits were given. Bed making received special attention; Willard advised girls that a broomstick was useful for smoothing out a coverlet’s most stubborn wrinkles..19
Students rose at 6:30 or 7:00, depending on the season, devoted a half hour to study, another half hour to exercise, and took breakfast at 8:00. Classes commenced thereafter with a noon break for dinner. School was dismissed at 4:00 P.M. with a prayer from Willard. Two hours of free time followed. Supper was at 6:00, after which students gathered for an hour of dance, which Willard approved as both relaxation and exercise, before recommencing their studies. Board was $2.50 a week (boarders were asked to “furnish themselves with a table spoon, a tea spoon, and towels” according to an early catalog), whereas the cost of tuition depended on one’s course of study. Simple dress was required, so that upper-class students (the governors of Vermont, Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia all sent their daughters to Troy) were nearly indistinguishable from the penniless but ambitious girls who contracted to repay their tuition from wages to be earned when they embarked on their teaching careers.20 Indeed, most of the students at Troy became teachers, and carried Willard’s methods and philosophy with them into the world.
There can be no question that Emma Willard was passionately committed to women’s education, but she wasn’t a supporter of women’s political rights. Before the presidential election of 1824, Willard caught wind of a secret meeting at which some students made fiery speeches in support of incumbent John Quincy Adams, while others championed challenger Andrew Jackson. Willard’s response was to lecture her charges on the proper duties of their sex. Men were like oak trees, she explained, while women were like apple trees. Apple trees could never be oak trees (or vice versa), but each was beautiful and useful in its own way. Delving into the world of politics was crossing into oak tree territory, a foreign forest where women didn’t belong. As she wrote in her Plan for Improving Female Education, women “in particular situations, [were meant] to yield obedience to the other sex.” Education did not “mean that our sex should not seek to make themselves agreeable to” men.21
Like Willard, Catharine Beecher (1800–1878) believed that the sexes held clearly
demarcated social roles (a nineteenth-century worldview referred to as “separate spheres ideology” by modern historians). As mothers and teachers, women were entrusted with the most important task of molding the characters of children: “What is the profession of a woman? Is it not to form immortal minds, and to watch, to nurse, and to rear the bodily system, so fearfully and wonderfully made, and upon the order and regulation of which the health and well-being of the mind so greatly depends?”22
How many women, Beecher further asked, devoted time and study in the course of their educations to preparation for these duties? A daughter of one of the most famous families in nineteenth-century America (her father and brothers were ministers, sister Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin , and half-sister Isabella Beecher Hooker fought for woman suffrage), Beecher devoted most of her adult life to teaching domesticity. Ironically, nineteenth-century America’s answer to Martha Stewart was a childless spinster (to use the terminology of the time). Years of experience raising her seven younger siblings following their mother’s death when Catharine was sixteen years old resulted in her theories of domestic economy. In 1823, she and her sister Mary opened the Hartford Female Seminary. Students at Hartford received what Beecher deemed “the most necessary parts of education.”23 In addition to the domestic training she advocated, this meant a rigorous curriculum of English, rhetoric, logic, philosophy (natural and moral), chemistry, history, Latin, and algebra (music and dancing cost extra). Beecher was also an early booster of physical exercise for girls. Students at the Hartford Female Seminary followed Beecher’s own system of exercises involving weights and music, which she later shared with the public in Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families (1856).
After Beecher left the seminary in 1832, she wrote extensively on the subjects dear to her heart. Her major work, A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841), went through fifteen editions, and royalties from it and her other books helped Beecher fund various projects related to the education of women. She worked to establish colleges where women could be trained as nurses, housekeepers, and teachers (who she believed made the best wives). She helped establish the Board of National Popular Education in 1846 and six years later founded the American Women’s Educational Association, organizations that helped recruit and train teachers to serve on the American frontier. This frontier included the wilds of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Female College, which through a series of mergers and moves became the Milwaukee-Downer College, whose buildings in turn became part of my local campus of the University of Wisconsin—the same buildings I barely noticed as I scurried across campus in the early 1980s. Beecher’s advocacy for specialized training for women’s duties eventually led to the discipline of domestic science—which paved the way for the twentieth century’s home economics.
Willard demanded that the education of girls and women be treated with serious regard, whereas Beecher advocated for a curriculum that particularly emphasized
training for women’s specific duties (a recurring theme in women’s education for years to come). At Mount Holyoke Seminary, Mary Lyon (1797–1849) provided students with what most closely resembled a collegiate education. With its emphasis on academics in a highly regulated yet homelike setting, Mount Holyoke was a model for Vassar and Wellesley as well as for the female departments of numerous coeducational colleges. From its wide white piazza, which gave a residential touch to an otherwise rather industrial facade, to the interior layout, which resembled the floor plan of an oversized house, to the faculty members’ motherlike concern for their student-daughters, Mount Holyoke was designed to provided a homelike atmosphere for girls. Discipline was strict. Teachers and students lived on the same floors, lights- out was at 10:00 P.M., and students were required to leave their doors open thereafter. Like Willard and Beecher, Lyon recognized the importance of physical activity; students were required to walk a mile each day in addition to performing calisthenics. By requiring all students to share in housekeeping chores such as cleaning and washing, the expense of hiring maids was avoided and tuition kept low. 24
An unexpected consequence of this policy (which remained in effect until 1914) was the misconception, noted in an 1897 profile of the college, that Mount Holyoke students were “largely occupied in learning domestic accomplishments.”25 Nothing could have been further from the truth. The entrance requirements (another first) included a rigorous lineup of arithmetic, geography, U.S. history, and English grammar. There had been fears before Mount Holyoke opened in 1837 that not enough girls would be able to pass these stringent requirements, but the inaugural class consisted of 116 eager scholars. The next year four hundred young women were turned away—there simply wasn’t enough room for them. From its inception, Mount Holyoke’s fixed three-year course of study more closely resembled the regimen of a men’s college than that of a female seminary (Emma Willard, for example, admitted pupils at any time during the year provided they attended end-of-term examinations).26 Nevertheless, Mount Holyoke’s curriculum still lacked Latin and Greek and some higher mathematics. With the addition of these courses as well as an extra year of required study, Mount Holyoke became a college in 1888, though the word itself wasn’t added to its name for another five years.27
The female seminaries at Troy, Hartford, and Mount Holyoke stand out for their rigorous curricula and their lasting influence, both through the training of teachers steeped in the institutes’ high educational standards as well as through Beecher’s prolific pen. The three educators were aware of and generally supported one another’s work. When Mary Lyon solicited contributions to Mount Holyoke’s endowment (yet another innovation), she mentioned both Willard and Beecher’s successful seminaries. Beecher corresponded with Willard and had unsuccessfully approached a young Mary Lyon to teach at Hartford.28
Even as girls were flocking to these seminaries, experiments in collegiate
education of women were taking place in other regions of the United States. There was Oberlin, a coeducational school with a history of inclusion: founded by abolitionists in 1833, it was also the first college with an interracial student body. Costs were kept low by requiring daily manual labor from students; men did field work, women did kitchen duty and the male students’ laundry. (Nevertheless, when a visitor to the campus in the early 1870s offered $10 to any young woman who could saw a cord of wood, “quite a number” attempted the task, though only one completed it and claimed the prize.) Many historians disparagingly point out that Oberlin offered a special “ladies course” that was less demanding than its collegiate one, but not all women opted for it. Oberlin graduated its first female B.A. from the collegiate course in 1841.29
At first, the notion of higher education for women was treated with a mixture of condescension, ridicule, and derision in differing measures. In 1831, the Raleigh Register mocked the “Refined Female College” with a curriculum that featured “scolding and fretting” and “running your father into debt for finery, cologne water, pomatum [a hair dressing] and hard soap, dancing and frolicking,” among other equally laudatory subjects.30 More merriment resulted when in the spring of 1835, it was announced that Van Doren’s Institution for Young Ladies in Lexington had been granted a charter by the Kentucky legislature and was hence-forth to be known as Van Doren’s College for Young Ladies. This time the torrent of witticism was released in far-off Connecticut. The school’s honorary degree of M.P.L. (“Mistress of Polite Literature”—which, it must be said, strikes the modern ear as rather ludicrous) might stand for “Mistress of Petticoat Literature” advised one newspaper. Not to be outdone, the editor of the Springfield Republican in Massachusetts made the following suggestions for degrees, faculty, and facilities:
M.P.M. (Mistress of Pudding Making), M.D.N. (Mistress of the Darning Needle), M.S.B. (Mistress of the Scrubbing Brush), M.C.S. (Mistress of Common Sense). The Professors should be chosen from farmer’s wives and the Laboratory should be a kitchen. Honorary degrees might include H.W. (Happy Wife), H.H. (Happy Husband) and M.W.R.F. (Mother of a Well Regulated Family).31
When those mocking words were penned in the mid-1830s, the idea of the college- educated woman was still shockingly new—it wasn’t too surprising that the writers couldn’t get their minds out of the kitchen.
Even sympathetic observers had difficulty wrapping their minds around both concept and terminology when it came to college women. In the 1870s, a more serious-minded commentator named Alexander Hyde confessed himself “at a loss to indicate” what degree should be given to female graduates—by then a more recognizable though no less controversial figure in the American landscape. He clearly meant well, yet his suggestion still played on a long-standing female
stereotype: “The term Bachelor is generally supposed to apply to men alone, but by its etymology it signifies babbler, and as women have tongues we see no reason why they may not write their names with the suffix of A.B., for they can babble about arts as well as men.”32
Actually, it was Hyde himself who was babbling: a quick look at the Oxford English Dictionary shows that the roots of “bachelor” and “babbler” have nothing in common. The graduate degree provided fewer linguistic pitfalls for Hyde; the “M” might stand for “mistress” as well as “master,” he said. The confusion extended to some of the new women’s colleges, where administrators weren’t sure what to call their first-year students. “Freshman” seemed wrong where women were concerned, but the alternatives were worse. Elmira College tried “protomathian,” while Rutgers suggested “novian.”33 Luckily, neither term stuck—although another, more pejorative, name did.
Bluestockings Nowadays mostly restricted to the titles of romance novels and the names of feminist bookstores, “bluestocking” was once an epithet “invariably bestowed upon all women who have read much, and who are able to think and act for themselves,” according to a disgruntled young wife in 1850.34 As originally defined, however, the term was less demeaning and more descriptive.
In late-eighteenth-century London, Mrs. Vesey held a popular salon where men and women met to discuss the literary merits and mistakes of the day. Out walking one day, she encountered Benjamin Stillingfleet, the disinherited son of a bishop and “a failure” according to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. Ne’er-do-well he may have been, but Mrs. Vesey urged him to attend one of her “conversations.” Stillingfleet, casually dressed in his worsted wool stockings, begged off, citing a lack of suitable formal garb. Mrs. Vesey, however, was not about to accept such a flimsy excuse. “Don’t mind dress. Come in your blue stockings,” she implored.35
Stillingfleet took her at her word, and he and his unconventional evening wear were such a hit that members of Mrs. Vesey’s salon were alleged to have declared “we can do nothing without the blue stockings.” In time, the entire group became known as bluestockings, and the term was soon “fixed in playful stigma” to its female members in particular.36 Helped along by the strong personality of another celebrated salon holder and writer, Elizabeth Montagu, the so-called Queen of the Blues, the term soon applied to all “literary” women.
The members of Mrs. Vesey’s salon may have recognized the term as a “playful” one, but “bluestocking” soon packed more opprobrium than endearment. Women who
attended literary salons, who expressed their opinions both aloud and in writing, defied long-standing feminine ideals of domesticity and submissiveness. Concurrent with increasing public discussion about the rights and education of women in the mid- nineteenth century, increasingly negative connotations accrued to the word. “Bluestocking” came to represent a certain kind of outspoken or, to use a contemporary and equally negative synonym, “strong-minded” woman. According to a mid-nineteenth-century treatise titled Piety, the True Ornament and Dignity of Woman, such women were said to “unsex and degrade themselves, by their boisterous assumption of man’s prerogatives and responsibilities.”37 An 1851 encyclopedia described the bluestocking as “a pedantic female” who sacrificed “the characteristic excellences of her sex to learning.”38 Thirty years later, magazine articles pinned her as typically “an unfeminine and arrogant Amazon,” a “stiff, stilted, queer literary woman of a dubious age.”39 Whereas the salons of Mrs. Vesey and Mrs. Montagu were known for sparkling intellect and witty discussions, a writer in 1875 desultorily described “a purely bluestocking party, to-day” with its “sponge cake, weak tea, and the dreariest of driveling professional talk.”40
It wasn’t just the “high-toned” nature of female intelligence that allegedly frightened men off. The bluestocking challenged another contemporary (albeit more idealized) image of femininity. As described in both popular and prescriptive literature of the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, the True Woman was submissive to husband and family and content with her domestic sphere of influence. In proving she could study the heretofore exclusively male liberal arts curriculum, the bluestocking–cum–college girl was sometimes portrayed as a “greasy grind” or “drag” who bored her dates or didn’t date at all and was best suited to a future as a spinster or old maid. Woe to the man who dared to marry the “gentleman’s horror,” as she and her ilk were “not the wives in whom men are very happy.”41 Indeed, the author of an 1872 article on the subject of “old maids” opined that women who “gave themselves up to literature [were] happiest single.”42 Of course, many of the “scribbling women” who took up journalism and fiction writing in the nineteenth century (both were considered acceptable professions for women forced by tragic circumstances and/or shiftless husbands to support themselves) were married—which doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t have been happier single.
Mrs. Amelia E. Barr didn’t actually use the word “bluestocking” in an 1893 essay, but it wasn’t difficult to figure out to where her criticism was aimed. She pointed to the “selfishness and self-seeking” at the root of some women’s desire to “attend lectures and take lessons,” and was especially blunt in her assessment of married women who neglected children and husbands in pursuit of education. The world could “do without learned women, but it cannot do without good wives and mothers.” According to Barr, the two were mutually exclusive: female scholars were nothing less than “moral failures, and bad mothers.”43 Barr, an anti-suffragist who penned
numerous essays and books in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, apparently excluded her own writing for publication from the sort of bluestocking activities that in her opinion rocked the very foundations of family life.
One supporter of women’s education framed college as an antidote to bluestockingism. During the ceremonies surrounding the laying of the cornerstone of the women’s building at Cornell in 1873, educator Homer B. Sprague proclaimed that higher education rescued woman “from the possibility of becoming a noisy zealot.” Only the superficially educated woman, Sprague argued, engaged in the sort of loudmouthed pedantry that was associated with the bluestocking. “Increase of modesty comes with increase of knowledge,” argued Sprague, who later became the president of Mills College in Oakland, California, sometimes called the “Wellesley of the West.” Well-educated (and therefore modest) women, he concluded, were unlikely to “parade their intellectual power, or wag their loud sharp tongues.”44
Sweet Girl Graduates The bluestocking was the most widely known (and reviled) stereotype associated with the early college girl, but she was not the only popular-culture image available. Where the bluestocking challenged assumed notions of femininity, the “sweet” girl graduate didn’t rock the boat. Utterly guileless and innocent in her virginal white commencement gown, the sweet girl graduate from either high school or college accepted her role as nurturer of men and children and used her education for the betterment of her future family. The phrase originated in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1847 poem “The Princess,” his comment on the au courant topic of higher education for females. Early in the poem, a group of male students and their young lady friends gather at a house party and imagine how a separatist college for women might look:
And one said smiling “Pretty were the sight If our old halls could change their sex, and flaunt With prudes for proctors, dowagers for deans, And sweet girl-graduates in their golden hair.”
The image of the golden-haired sweet girl graduate was a long way from that of the sharp-tongued, high-toned bluestocking. For example, the sweet girl graduate preferred clothing to politics. In 1894, the New York Times noted that “the sweet girl graduate of this coming June” was as deeply concerned with choosing the appropriate commencement gown “as ever have been any of her predecessors, and even the question of equal suffrage, which has been the theme of school debates the past month, pales before the important one, ‘Shall it be muslin or wool?’ ”45
“The Bluestocking” and “The Spinster”
College girls did their best to maintain a sense of humor by reclaiming the terms others used to insult them: The Bluestocking (first published in 1900) and The Spinster (premiere edition in 1898) were yearbook titles at a pair of Virginia women’s schools—Mary Baldwin College (in Staunton) and Hollins College (now Hollins University, in Roanoke), respectively.
An archivist at Mary Baldwin reports that a later volume of The Bluestocking defined the term this way: “The name ‘Bluestocking’ literally means a learned woman of an aristocratic family . . . In olden days the most blue-blooded of all the puritans were also ‘Bluestockings’ and from that day until this the name has stood for superiority and intelligence.”* It’s an interesting take—and I don’t doubt the grace and smarts of those early college girls—but to date it remains the only source I’ve seen to reflect this definition of the word.
Jean Holzinger, the editor of Hollins magazine, provides several possible explanations for The Spinster’s name. The connection between single women and spinning is an ancient one, an affinity so deep that all the bachelorettes in seventeenth-century England were called “spinsters.” Indeed, The Spinster’s endpapers and cover often featured spinning wheels, and a photo in the first edition shows the yearbook staff seated next to one. Or did the name pay tribute to the fact that for most students, the four years spent at Hollins represented a last period of unfettered pleasure prior to the subordination and drudgery awaiting them after the inevitable marriage? For years, The Spinster’s title page bore the motto “Where singleness is bliss, ’tis folly to be wives” (a clever play on Thomas Gray’s “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”).
Hollins students “were well aware that the word spinster was pejorative,” that a college education not only removed a young woman’s focus from the marriage market for its duration but might in itself make her less attractive in the eyes of potential husbands. However, in the words of Hollins history professor Joe Leedom, “you take the criticism and make it your own badge. What is intended to be an explanation of your error becomes an emblem of your superiority.”†
The Bluestocking and The Spinster continue publication to this day.
*Correspondence to the author, April 29, 2004.
† Jean Holzinger, “What’s in a Name?” Hollins, Spring 2004, 24. This article also supplied all the information regarding the possible origins of The Spinster’s name.
The central character of Mrs. L. T. Meade’s late-nineteenth-century novel for girls, A Sweet Girl Graduate, exemplified the type. Priscilla Peel is plain featured and poor, but proud. She attends St. Benet’s College for Women through the beneficence of a kindly clergyman and the sweat of her terminally ill Aunt Raby’s brow. Prissie loves the classics course, but when she (like many a modern student) realizes that a degree in Greek will render her less employable, she readily agrees to drop her studies in order to best “devote herself to modern languages, and to those accomplishments which are considered more essentially feminine.”46 When her devoted friend, the beautiful, moody, and rich Maggie Oliphant, offers enough money to allow Priscilla to finish her course in Greek and Latin, as well as to support her sisters and aunt, Prissie turns it down, preferring an independent life as a schoolteacher to that of a debt-ridden scholar. Her selfless devotion to family and willingness to self-sacrifice expose her as a True Woman, willing to “put blessedness before happiness—duty before inclination.”47
What Was the First Women’s College? Historians are far from agreeing on which institution first granted meaningful baccalaureate degrees to women. Some argue that while there were many schools that added the fashionable word “college” to their names in the nineteenth century, the courses of study they offered (and thus the degrees they granted) were not on a par with those available to men. Others, particularly Christie Anne Farnham in her study of women’s education in the antebellum South, suggest there is a northeastern bias to much of the research and that too much emphasis has been placed on comparisons with the classics-based curriculum taught at men’s schools of the period.48 Indeed, this seems to be the standard by which modern historians judge a particular early school for its “college worthiness”: did it offer the rigorous classes in Latin, Greek, and higher mathematics which formed the core curriculum at the elite men’s schools?
By the early nineteenth century, however, the curriculum at the men’s colleges was in flux, in part because of student demands that science and modern languages be added or offered through parallel courses of study. In a closely watched experiment in 1824, the University of Virginia, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, allowed students to choose courses from eight different units or schools: ancient or modern languages, mathematics, natural philosophy, history, anatomy and medicine, moral
philosophy, and law. Three years later, the president of Yale called a committee of college fellows to consider the elimination of the “dead languages” from the college curriculum. The so-called Yale Report was released in 1828. Among other things, the report argued against adding professional studies to undergraduate education and suggested instead that the “high intellectual culture” provided by the classics would profit all students.49 Classics remained the benchmark for the time being, and thus became the criterion of contemporary nineteenth-century higher education by which the women’s colleges were judged—and to which the elite schools aspired.
To read the curricula or even the entrance-examination requirements of the early colleges for women (or protocolleges, depending on which historian you’re reading) is a quick shock to the senses of anyone who attended a typical American college in the twentieth century—certainly to at least one slacker in particular who attended a certain public university in the Midwest in the early 1980s. Consider the hefty program offered in 1857 at North Carolina’s Goldsboro Female College. First-year students studied a sophisticated array of courses: arithmetic, English grammar and composition, U.S. history, Latin, French, physiology, and hygiene. The next year they progressed to algebra, natural history, ancient geography, universal history, natural philosophy, botany, and more Latin and French. Upperclassmen added, among other courses, geometry and trigonometry, chemistry, rhetoric, evidences of Christianity, and a class in the U.S. Constitution. Electives included piano, guitar, drawing, and painting.50
Even with its wide-ranging catalog of classes, Goldsboro is by no scholar’s standards a contender for the bragging rights associated with the title of “first college for women.” The Georgia Female College (now Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia) has long claimed that badge of honor: it opened its doors to ninety students in 1839 and granted its first degrees the following year, thanks to the preparatory work done by former students of the Clinton Female Institute who were admitted as juniors. Despite Wesleyan’s claim, many historians argue that the Georgia Female College’s course of study was not rigorous enough for it to be considered the first true college for women. According to Barbara Miller Solomon, the school “resembled a superior academy more than a male college, regularly admitting twelve-year-olds.”51
Another candidate was founded in Winchester, Tennessee, in 1853. Mary Sharp College (formerly the Tennessee and Alabama Female Institute until a monetary gift inspired a name change) offered the first four-year program for women that required Latin, Greek, and higher mathematics and awarded its first three A.B. degrees in 1855. Between 1856 and the school’s closing forty years later (a victim of a financial depression in the 1890s), 4,000 girls attended Mary Sharp College, 350 of whom graduated. Many historians consider Mary Sharp College to be the “nation’s best antebellum candidate for the first women’s college.”52
Yet another school often cited as the first college for women was the Elmira
Female College, which opened in Elmira, New York, in 1855 and graduated its first class four years later. Elmira College went coed in 1969 and today remains a respected liberal arts college. In September 1909, Good Housekeeping magazine published a letter from a reader disappointed that her alma mater was not mentioned in a list of the oldest colleges for women that appeared in a prior issue. “I supposed it was generally known,” she wrote somewhat ruefully, “that Elmira College, Elmira, N.Y., was the first college for women chartered to confer degrees for work equivalent to that offered in colleges for men, and is therefore the oldest.”53
But from its celebrated opening in 1865, Vassar College had two things that Elmira and the other colleges didn’t, two things that helped it burn a place in the public memory as the largest, best, and “first”: big money and vast publicity.
Mr. Vassar’s Memorial Matthew Vassar (1792–1868) was a self-made man, a brewer by trade, who was born in England but spent most of his life near Poughkeepsie, New York. During the course of his career, he amassed a tremendous personal fortune of over $800,000. Vassar built and later endowed the college that bore his name not because he was a lifelong supporter of women’s education, but because he wanted to establish a great public building as a memorial to himself. At the time a women’s college was an unusual choice. Vassar had at first leaned toward the idea of a hospital until a new friend, Milo P. Jewett, a Presbyterian minister and proponent of female education, convinced him of the need for a first-rate endowed college for women. Though Vassar originally held no firm convictions as to women’s education, once his mind was made up he enthusiastically supported the idea to the tune of over $400,000—almost $9,000,000 in 2005 dollars—and that was just for starters.
Matthew Vassar—beer baron and proponent of higher education for women.
The planned curriculum included the magic trinity of Greek, Latin, and higher mathematics presented in a beautifully designed setting, the college’s main building influenced by the Tuileries palace in Paris.54 Rather than allow young women away from their parents to live among the possibly unsavory characters at local boardinghouses, Vassar proposed to house its students and faculty in the college building itself. “In other words, this university undertakes to be an extensive educational restaurant and lodging house, an elaborate and magnificent literary hotel!” crowed an early supporter.55
Even before the ground was broken for what promised to be an extraordinary project, newspapers in New York and Boston followed the story of the man who wanted to endow a women’s college. But the individual who did the most to publicize Vassar (man and college) was an indefatigable champion of women’s education, Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879). Widowed with five children in 1822, Hale first tried unsuccessfully to support her brood with sewing. She then turned to writing, and in the best rags-to-riches tradition her novel Northwood (1827) became an instant sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Within a month of its publication, Hale was asked to edit a new periodical for women, the Ladies’ Magazine. Then, in 1837,
publisher Louis Antoine Godey hired Hale to edit his Godey’s Lady’s Book, a position Hale wielded with authority for the next forty years.
The “magnificent literary hotel” of Poughkeepsie.
As “Lady Editor,” Hale didn’t hesitate to promote her pet causes in the pages of the Lady’s Book, chief among them women’s education. She herself owed her knowledge of Latin and higher mathematics purely to the kindness of her brother, Horatio, who used his vacations from Dartmouth to tutor his younger sister. “He often regretted,” she remembered, “that I could not, like himself, have the privilege of a college education.”56 She sent her own daughters to Emma Willard’s school in Troy. Over the years, Hale wrote countless articles and editorials in both the Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book supporting the education of girls and women. When she got word of Vassar’s project in 1860, she immediately wrote him for further information about his great “plan in order to make it known to the readers of the Lady’s Book.”57 This was a gift indeed, for around that time the magazine reached a peak of 150,000 subscribers—Godey himself estimated readership at half a million. The first article about Vassar’s proposed college appeared in the Lady’s Book in 1861.58
A friendly correspondence thereafter bloomed between Hale and Vassar, who consulted her on all sorts of details. Should there be a student costume, perhaps along the lines of the Bloomer suit, which would blur distinctions between richer and poorer students? Hale quickly disabused him of that idea: “Would it be well to enforce an equality of personal appearance . . . which cannot be found in life?” Besides, dressing students in the mercilessly ridiculed modified skirts would “be a serious injury to the
college.”59 It would be better to merely counsel simplicity in dress. Meanwhile, Hale’s editorials in the Lady’s Book publicly prodded Vassar and the board of trustees to take actions they otherwise might not have—in particular, to hire women teachers.
Hale even talked Vassar into changing the very name of the institution. Vassar Female College opened its doors to some three hundred students in September 1865. But the word “female” rankled Sarah Hale. “Female! What female do you mean?” she asked in a sharply worded letter to Vassar. “Not a female donkey? Must not your reply be, ‘I mean a female woman’? Then . . . why degrade the feminine sex to the level of animals?”60 The offending word was dropped two years after the college opened, thereby setting a standard followed by other “female” academies making the transition to collegiate status.
Vassar was a stunning success, and set the pattern for the large women’s colleges that followed fairly quickly in its wake: Smith (1875), Wellesley (1875), the Harvard Annex (1879; it became Radcliffe College in 1894), Bryn Mawr (1885), and Barnard (1889). (Along with Mount Holyoke, which attained collegiate status in 1888, these rounded out the so-called Seven Sisters.) Matthew Vassar vigorously supported the school until his death at age seventy-seven, when he collapsed while addressing the trustees during their annual meeting. In what might be seen as the last unstinting act of an exceedingly generous man (an obituary termed it “a singular coincidence”), he was wearing a new black suit—the one his family laid him to rest in.61 It is said that he once received a letter from an ungrateful scholarship alumna stating that “A college foundation which is laid in beer will never prosper.” Upon reading this, Vassar startled several student onlookers by shouting, “Well, it was good beer, wasn’t it?” before dissolving in laughter.62
The First Black Women’s College Around the time of Vassar’s inception, the first historically black colleges and universities were opening in the South. Before the Civil War, it was extremely difficult (to say the least) for an African American to get any education. Slaveholders viewed black literacy as a sure route to insurrection, and many southern states made it illegal to teach slaves to read and write. For those African Americans who lived in free states, opportunities remained limited; by one historian’s estimate, only fifteen black men (and no women) attended institutes of higher education prior to 1840.63 Among them were the first two black college graduates in the United States, Edward Jones (Amherst) and John Russwurm (Bowdoin), both of whom graduated in 1826. In 1850, Lucy Ann Stanton became the first black woman to graduate from college (she attended Oberlin’s literary course). The first black woman to receive a bachelor’s degree was Mary Jane Patterson, who graduated from Oberlin’s collegiate program in
1862—three years before Vassar opened.64 Another African-American graduate from Oberlin, Helen Morgan, became a Latin professor at Fisk University in 1869—a post she held for the next thirty-eight years, becoming one of the first women to attain full professorship at a coeducational institution. (It took substantially longer for black women to become faculty members at the nation’s top-ranked and predominantly white universities. Harvard, for example, did not appoint a black woman to a full professorship with tenure until 1975.)65
After the Civil War, white missionaries from the north—members of the American Missionary Association and American Baptist Home Mission Society foremost among them—worked along with black churches and the Freedman’s Bureau to establish colleges for newly liberated slaves in the South. By the late nineteenth century, white benefactors in the north helped fund Fisk (1865), Howard (1867), Atlanta (1867), Tougaloo (1869), and other historically black colleges, in an effort to train teachers.
While the question of coeducation remained a controversial one in white communities, the majority of institutions that became known as the historically black colleges and universities accepted female as well as male students from the start. For one reason, the historically black colleges simply didn’t have the resources to create parallel systems for men and women—coeducation was more economical. Furthermore, while white women were still largely bound by ideals of True Womanhood that made homebound domesticity a woman’s highest achievement, the black community recognized that marriage and work were not incompatible, and that its married women often needed to earn a living. Higher education not only increased a black woman’s income-earning potential, it helped her “uplift” the race, a widespread concern at the time.66
At first, these schools operated under the most primitive conditions. Fisk University was born in an abandoned army barracks in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1866, and other institutions operated out of whatever space was available. There was always the threat of physical violence from the nascent Ku Klux Klan or other whites ill- disposed to the idea of an educated black citizenry. “The higher education of the Negro unfits him for the work that it is intended that he shall do, and cultivates ambitions that can never be realized,” editorialized The New Orleans Times-Democrat at the turn of the century.67 (Similar charges were made by opponents of higher education for white women, who proclaimed that college “unfit” women for their domestic duties.) The need for basic education was great; in the words of historians Susan L. Poulson and Leslie Miller-Bernal, “many of the ‘colleges’ represented their founders’ hopes for the future more than actual institutions of higher education.”68
In 1881, Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, two white teachers from the eastern seaboard, founded the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary under the auspices of the Woman’s American Baptist Home Mission Society. The school held its inaugural classes in a “dark and damp” church basement in Atlanta, Georgia, where the “glass
broken from the windows” and “the floor laid right upon the bare earth.” When it rained, Giles and Packard stood in puddles. Sitting on the “hard seats” (there were no desks) were eleven pupils “of all ages and attainments,” though a decision was quickly made to restrict the student body to those over the age of fifteen.69 Two years later, the seminary moved to a converted Union Army barracks, its original eleven students having multiplied to two hundred. Compared with Vassar (where an early observer noted that the dormitories were heated “even in the severest weather by over 14 miles of steam pipe” and the kitchen supported by “an ice-house of generous capacity”), the environment at the converted barracks was notably less posh: a central room in each dormitory was heated by one stove to save expense, buttermilk was stored in a backyard pit, and white deliverymen refused to deliver groceries to the buildings and threw them over the fence instead.70
None of this stopped the students from coming, but when Packard and Giles met John D. Rockefeller in 1882, the rugged conditions began to change. Rockefeller’s ongoing beneficence eventually led to an 1884 name change to Spelman Seminary in honor of his wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, and her abolitionist parents (eventually there was a Rockefeller Hall on campus too). In 1897 the college department opened and four years later Spelman granted its first two degrees. The name was officially changed to Spelman College in 1924.71
Here Come the Coeds! The idea of young women attending single-sex institutions was bad enough to some conservative minds, but the opponents of female higher education saved much of their vitriol for the specter of coeducation, taking place at progressive white schools such as Oberlin, Antioch (1853), and the Universities of Iowa (1855), Wisconsin (1863), and Michigan (1870). Perhaps the most popular argument against coeducation was medical in nature. Some doctors, most notably Edward H. Clarke in his best-selling Sex in Education, or A Fair Chance for the Girls (1873), claimed that the rigors of study during the menstrual period would destroy a woman’s reproductive health. Of course, this could also happen on a single-sex campus, but Clarke suggested it was more likely to happen where women tried to compete with men. Competition between the sexes was a further blow to the separate spheres, already threatened by college women’s encroachment into the professions.
Another “objection to coeducation to be considered,” wrote an observer in 1905, was “summed up in the word ‘love-making.’ ”72 This was distasteful from several angles. Parents worried that a daughter away at college might make an unsuitable match with a young man she met on campus. Writing shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, a professor at the Kansas State Agricultural College took a realistic
approach to the issue. He recognized that a coeducational college was “necessarily a place of much courting and match-making.” It only became “a matter of serious concern” when girls threw “themselves carelessly into the company of young men of questionable morals in places of doubtful propriety” or when romance crowded out “attention to lessons.” He recommended that schools build enough dormitory space for all women students, so as to keep them out of rooming houses and under direct college supervision, and engage strict matrons to regulate their behavior (or, in his words, “mature mentor[s] . . . to observe the girl’s conduct at close range . . . and give motherly advice”).73 Opponents of women’s education argued that husband-hunting coeds who dropped out to marry before graduation as well as those who married soon after commencement usurped resources needed by men who would go on to head households. Indeed, many early coeds chafed at the oft-made suggestion that their interest in higher education was merely a frivolous attempt to meet men.
The University of Iowa became the first public coeducational college in 1855, when it admitted forty-one women—almost exactly a third of the student body. Iowa was quite the trailblazer when it came to educating women and men together. It opened the first coed medical school in 1870, and its law department granted a J.D. to a woman in 1873. Coeducation really took hold when the Morrill Land Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 opened up funding for the creation of state universities in the west offering agricultural and mechanical arts; the second act specified that the funds be “fairly divided by Negroes and Whites,” which led to interracial student bodies—in theory, at any rate. The acts didn’t specifically refer to women, but because the western states were so sparsely populated, coeducation at the collegiate level was attractive from an economic standpoint. The west also lacked the eastern seaboard’s century-old tradition of private single-sex colleges.
Like several other schools, my own alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, showed its ambivalence to coeducation via a series of fits and starts over the first several decades of women’s attendance. In 1863, thirty women were admitted to the Normal Department (i.e., the teacher training program). With male enrollment down because of the Civil War, the coeds were allowed to attend other classes as well— though they weren’t permitted to sit down until all the men had seats. Four years later, under the auspices of university president Paul A. Chadbourne, segregation by sex was reinstated and a separate Female College opened. During Chadbourne’s administration, men and women took the same courses but recited separately—a philosophy professor, for example, would meet his male students at 1:00 P.M. in Room 203, then go next-door to teach women the following hour. Full coeducation began in 1874 when the previous system “broke down under the weight of its own absurdity,” as a contemporary observer noted. A reactionary rumbling of concern regarding the effect of study on female health was heard in 1877, but this was countered by the university’s new president, John A. Bascom, a strong supporter of coeducation.74
One might imagine that decades of successfully educating men and women together would be the end of the controversy, but this was not the case. Thirty years later, when coeds accounted for 50 percent of the student population and male students showed a 10 percent decline, President Charles Richard Van Hise blamed the seemingly overwhelming numbers of women for “undoubtedly pushing the men out” of the liberal arts. Van Hise’s theory of “sex repulsion” suggested that as soon as one sex tipped the numeric balance in the coed classroom, the other fled in fear of competition (this was reported to occur at other coeducational institutions as well). He advocated a limited return to segregated classes in several disciplines, including psychology and hygiene. The alumni rallied in opposition, however, and with support from Senator Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette (class of 1879), coeducation prevailed.
Wisconsin was not the only state where coeds’ enthusiastic response to the prospect of a college education caused problems. At the first meeting of Stanford University’s board of trustees in 1885, founder Leland Stanford, Sr. “deem[ed] it of the first importance that the education of both sexes be equally full and complete.” Ten years later, there were fifty-one women for every hundred men students, and one commentator proudly wondered whether the university was on its way to becoming “the Vassar of the Pacific Coast.”75 But not everyone shared that enthusiasm. Some grumbled that a series of gridiron losses to the rival University of California might be due to the number of pretty women on campus, who distracted athletes from practice. Others worried about “the increase of power among the women” on campus:
They are voting themselves into all the offices and thereby rendering the institution less desirable to male students than it otherwise would be. A woman edits the Junior annual, another brings out the weekly paper, and still another leads the inter- collegiate debate. Thus there is an alarming tendency apparent toward reducing the University to the level of a “woman’s seminary,” which Mrs. Stanford very much dreads.76
That was Mrs. Leland Stanford, of course, widow of the prominent industrialist, cofounder of the Central Pacific Railroad, and governor of California, and mother of the deceased Leland Stanford, Jr., in whose memory the university was founded. When women reached 40 percent of the student body in the late 1890s, Mrs. Stanford made a decision. Without consulting anyone at the university, she amended its charter to limit the number of female students to five hundred at any given time. It wasn’t that she disliked the presence of women on campus, she told reporters. She confirmed that they received as many honors as the men and noted that “the refining influence of the girls is wonderful.” But she did not want the public to regard Stanford as a university for women. “This was not my husband’s wish, nor is it mine, nor would it have been my son’s,” Mrs. Stanford told the board of trustees in 1899. Flummoxed by the
arbitrary limit, university president David Starr Jordan suggested a more flexible interpretation of the quota or the substitution of a percentage system, but his pleas were met with a deaf ear by Mrs. Stanford (who had also considered, but rejected, eliminating the women entirely). The limit was reached in 1903, though four or more times as many women continued to apply. Despite this interest, the five-hundred rule remained in effect for another thirty years—until Depression-era economics suddenly made the prospect of additional tuition-paying women students much more interesting to the trustees.77
Mrs. Stanford was not the only person to comment on the “refining” nature of the female presence on rough-and-tumble male manners. This was frequently mentioned as an advantage of schooling men and women together, as here in an 1871 article on “The Co-Education of the Sexes”:
Boys accustomed to the use of profane and obscene language among themselves, will never swear in the presence of young ladies, nor indulge in ribaldry. . . . Let a few tidy, genteel young ladies become members of the school, and the effect on dress and manners of boys is magical.78
In real life, however, the magic was less immediately apparent. The first time the University of Michigan’s only coed was called on to read aloud in her Greek class in 1870, she was pointedly given the following passage from Sophocles’s Antigone: “It behooves us in the first place to consider this, that we are by nature women, so not able to contend with men; and in the next place, since we are governed by those stronger than we, it behooves us to admit these things and others still more grievous.”
Evincing much generosity of spirit, Madelon Stockwell always contended the choice of reading matter was an accident, not maliciousness on the part of the professor or her classmates—the same ones who later that day lined up on either side of the campus’s Diagonal Walk to stare at the “She-sophomore” as she passed.79
Olive San Louie Anderson was another pioneering coed at the University of Michigan. Four years after her graduation, she published a thinly fictionalized novel about her undergraduate experiences titled An American Girl and Her Four Years in a Boys’ College (1878). It is the story of Wilhelmine Elliott—called “Will” by friends and family, just as the author was “Louie” to hers—who attends the University of Ortonville as one of nine girls in the freshman class. A plucky tomboy in the mold of Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March, Will faces opposition to her education at a “boys’ school” from her mother, boardinghouse operators, and some professors and administrators, as well as her fellow students. None of it can dampen Will’s desire to get a degree, even when caught in the midst of frenzied freshman-sophomore hazing battles. She is hit in the eye with an apple core while gathered with the rest of the female students before a chapel service, and her nose is bloodied when she is pushed into a stair railing during a bout of rushing (a custom at men’s schools where
sophomores and freshmen tried en masse to push the others off a stairway or path). When a male classmate entreats the others to wait until the girls are out of the way, the only response is a hearty “Damn ’em, they have no business here anyway.” Will resolves to laugh at her bruises and to bear them “bravely, feeling something of that rapture the old martyrs must have felt—for was I not suffering in the cause of co- education?”80 Despite such manhandling, she vastly prefers coeducation and asks a friend who attends Vassar how she can prefer that “old boarding-school, where you don’t see a fellow once a month, and are always watched by some old corridor-spy . . .” to the relative freedoms afforded by coeducation.81
Catholic and Other Denominational Colleges The old corridor-spy was exactly the sort of strict moral arbiter some parents looked for when it came to sending their beloved daughters away to college. In fact, most of the founders and organizers of the women’s colleges were religious men or organizations. Matthew Vassar was a devout Baptist, Bryn Mawr had ties to the Quaker religion. At Wellesley, Henry Fowle Durant was a lay preacher who made it clear the instruction given there would be “Christian in its influence, discipline, and course of instruction.”82 Spelman and the rest of the historically black colleges and universities were associated with white Christian missionaries. These schools and others turned to the Christian gentlewoman as a model for their graduates, an ideal that made a daughter’s college education more palatable to many parents.
For others, only the imprimatur of the Church itself would do. There were 115 Catholic girls’ schools in operation in the United States by 1852, all but three of them directed by religious communities, even though there was a strong resistance to the idea of higher education for Catholic women.83 This was due in part to the church hierarchy’s “traditional but unofficial” belief in the natural inferiority of women. When it came to the question of whether a college education would make women better wives and mothers, historian Edward J. Power pointed out that “to the Catholic priest-professor who could proclaim without any sign of mirth that the best diploma for a woman was always a large family and a happy husband, the answer . . . was unequivocally ‘no.’ ”84
The church’s refusal to countenance collegiate education for women became problematic, however. In 1884, church leaders responded to the rapid development of Protestant-based public schools, and their threat of luring Catholic children away from the true church, by legislating the system of parochial schools that generations of Catholic schoolchildren came to know and love—or hate. Who would fill many of the teaching slots in the proposed schools but laywomen and nuns? Where would they get their training? The established Catholic men’s colleges—of which there were eighty-
four by 1860—didn’t exactly rush into action producing elementary schoolteachers. According to Power, they simply pretended that the legislation of 1884 “was unreal” or otherwise ignored it.85
Yet another decade passed before the first (and historians seem to agree about this) institute of higher learning for Catholic women, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, finally opened in 1896—a full thirty years after Vassar, fifteen after Spelman. It was followed by the College of Saint Elizabeth (Convent Station, New Jersey), Trinity College (Washington, D.C.), St. Joseph’s College (Emmitsburg, Maryland), and the College of New Rochelle (New Rochelle, New York), all of which opened prior to 1905.86
Of these, only Trinity College (1900) was planned from the start as a women’s college (for example, the College of Notre Dame began as a girls’ institute in 1863).87 Its prospectus of 1899 promised an education on a par with the best secular colleges for women, with additional training in
the science of Religion, Domestic Economy, and other branches deemed useful in fitting a woman for her proper sphere in Home and Society. Together with science and religion—knowledge and love of God—love of country will be instilled; a laudable pride in its glorious history and fidelity to its Constitution and laws inculcated at all times.88
Womanhood, citizenship, and religion were thus bound up in one glorious package.
A Priestly View of Higher Education for Catholic Women
Not all members of the church welcomed the opening of the first Catholic women’s colleges. The Catholic Girl’s Guide (1905) was a book of “Counsels and Devotions for Girls” written by a priest. Father Francis X. Lasance warned that the majority of young women stood in danger of becoming “muddled-headed” if forced into higher education by well-meaning parents, with “the baneful results that other more necessary and useful studies” would fall by the wayside. These included housekeeping and household accounting, though the
study of language and literature was acceptable in order to “take part in conversation with husband, father, son or brother who takes an interest in and likes to discuss such topics.” The serious study of theology, however, was a no-no (shades of Anne Hutchinson, at the remove of centuries and Protestantism). Women made “downright poor theologians . . . because not intended or gifted by God for such a study.” A solid knowledge of the catechism was all that was necessary for girls. The future housewife in particular needed practical religious knowledge, not higher education, “to accomplish her lofty task, namely, to cultivate religion in her family, to instruct her children in its truths, and thus to become the priestess of the domestic shrine.”*
In 1909, an eight-week summer school for nuns and laywomen was held at all- male Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; this is considered the first experiment in coeducation in the Catholic colleges. Five years later, DePaul University in Chicago became the first fully coeducational Catholic college.89
Thus for both religious and secular, black and white, the trends all led in one direction —toward greater educational opportunities for women. Despite slurs and stereotypes, questions about her physical and mental abilities, a teenage girl in the late nineteenth century had more hope than ever before of achieving a higher education. By 1870, approximately 70 women’s colleges and 170 coeducational schools enrolled 11,000 young women, who accounted for 21 percent of all college students. By the turn of the twentieth century, 85,000 women made up 36.8 percent of the student population.90 The College Girl had arrived.
Students roll for glory at Bryn Mawr in 1943.
New Girl on Campus
No one cared whether or not I knew anything. Every one asked if I were interested in debating, class banners, class meetings, self- government, sunrise hikes, crew tests, college songs, humorous stunts, the Bird Club, St. Hilda’s Guild.
FRANCES WARFIELD, REMINISCING ABOUT HER TIME AS A COLLEGE GIRL IN THE 1920s1
There is at least one experience that both the pioneering college girls of the 1860s and Jane Doe of today would recognize as largely unadulterated by changes in technology, fashion, and the social status of women. This is the moment when after all the planning, test taking, and nail-biting expectation you find yourself alone on campus—your college campus!—for the very first time. Excitement and apprehension, anticipation and fear are all mixed up with the tantalizing realization that you are at last on your own. At long last, there is no one to tell you to go to bed before 2:00 A.M. or even to go to class the next morning. It’s a heady moment.
For me back in 1979, the exhilaration was muted by raw terror. I yearned to be sophisticated, urbane, and witty. In reality, I was too shy to call the pizza delivery place let alone raise my hand in class. Even offers of friendship scared me. During my first week as a bona fide coed, I walked into the first meeting of French II, sat down, and found myself sitting next to Robby Thayer. I barely recognized him—he was so much older and his voice discernibly lower since the last time I’d seen him when we were eleven. After making small talk, his dark eyes sparkling, he teasingly promised to help me with my homework.
I panicked. Hadn’t he and Candi Baker had what passed for a torrid affair in Mr.
Siegel’s sixth-grade class? Everyone knew they spent time alone together in the bushes at the park across the street from the play-ground. At the time I hadn’t a clue what they might have been doing. Now I had some ideas—and they frightened me. Clearly, there was only one course of action open to me. I immediately dropped the class, never to return to Robby and his teasing brown eyes, never to speak French beyond the first-person present.
Had I only read any of the college girl guidebooks written over the decades, I would have known that a good first impression was the social equivalent of going Phi Beta Kappa. “The coed’s first days at college are full of Opportunities,” counseled a 1949 guide for brand-new college girls. “This is no time to be an ice cube.”2
Getting to Know You: Freshman Initiations Freshman shyness was nothing new. Most schools did their best to help new students out of their shells and into the swing of college life with special activities before or during the first weeks of the semester. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the women’s colleges often paired classes off with one another (freshman with juniors, sophomores with seniors); at most schools, each had traditional responsibilities to perform—be it for their “sister” class or another. These duties usually consisted of hosting dances, receptions, or teas or otherwise providing some sort of service to members of the other class. In 1895, The Century magazine described Smith College’s annual “Freshman Frolic,” the dance by which the sophomore class welcomed incoming freshmen:
Men are not missed, so well are their places filled by the assiduous sophomores. Each new girl is escorted to the gymnasium by her partner, who, in addition to filling out her dancing-card and sending her flowers . . . sees that she meets the right person for each dance, entertains her during refreshments, and escorts her home. . . . You cannot treat it all as a joke when you see the scrupulous politeness of your partner, and the responsible air with which she makes conversation.3
The effect of “seven or eight hundred girls dancing together” was noted to be striking. A similar affair was held at the fictional Gale College in Her College Days (1896). “Oh! Won’t there be any men there?” exclaims a freshman upon hearing of the sophomores’ welcoming reception:
“Men!” said Miss Hewitt, a Sophomore, and therefore an authority on all college matters. “Put aside the thought of men, Miss Arden, until you are a Junior. Juniors and Seniors may invite men to their dances but nobody else.”
“Then I don’t see how you can have any fun,” said Miss Arden, frankly.4
Miss Arden remains incredulous—until she’s had a lovely time at the dance, of course. Contemporary observers often noted that such welcoming dances were a feminine alternative to the often brutal hazing that led to black eyes and broken bones on men’s campuses. Miss Hewitt makes the same observation to her freshman tablemates, noting that the dances were “one of the ways we Sophomores have of rushing you Freshmen . . . a far better way than cane fights and hazing.”5
In place of violence, the nineteenth-century women’s colleges initiated new freshmen with pomp and circumstance—sometimes along with a wee bit of what might be considered gentle hazing. At Bryn Mawr in the 1890s, sophomores presented each new freshman with “a lantern to light her steps through the unknown ways of college life” in a beautiful ceremony which takes place to this day.6 Once the freshmen were officially welcomed, however, the sophomores spent the rest of the evening trying to steal their caps and gowns—which the frosh were required to wear to chapel the following morning. At Wellesley, upperclassmen did their best to uncover the freshman class’s motto, flower, and song before they were officially revealed on Tree Day (another ongoing tradition), when the campus was closed to outsiders and the freshmen planted their class tree. In the nineteenth century, Vassar had a similar tradition of planting class trees, except it was done during sophomore year and it was the freshmen who tried to ferret out the secret information—only to have the wily sophs send them on wild goose chases for their troubles.7
In the twentieth century, the freshman beanie was a popular way to initiate the newcomers at both coed and women’s campuses. Each member of the entering class was expected to wear a beanie in school or class colors for the first week or so on campus. If a girl was caught without the little hat, she had to do the bidding of the upperclassman who apprehended her. Class headwear took on added significance at Mills College, where from the 1930s through the 1960s the cap hunt was an annual fall event. The freshmen hid a box of their class caps somewhere on campus, and the sophomores searched for them. If the sophs didn’t find them by the deadline, freshmen were allowed to keep their caps. Otherwise, they might not receive them until later in the semester. A later twist gave the winners of the traditional pushball contest between the two classes additional rights to withhold or secure the class caps.
Traditions and ceremonies varied in time and from place to place, but they all served to bond new students with their alma mater. Classes took their traditional responsibilities to one another seriously. At Mills in 1933, the round of obligations meant that the freshmen gave a formal dance in honor of the juniors, and put on a wienie roast for the same sophomore class that bedeviled them over their beanies. “In a kinder frame of mind,” the sophomores gave a “Bowery Party” for the freshmen. They also serenaded the seniors at the Pin Dinner, gave a picnic in their honor, and served at the Junior-Senior Breakfast. The junior class was in charge of Freshman Days, gave a campuswide Halloween dance, and put out the yearbook. Seniors were
the big dames on campus: they had the fewest responsibilities to other classes, caught up as they were in the drama of their last year of college, but they still found time to meet the freshmen at a special dinner.8
It was all very organized, but tensions could erupt if a particular class was judged to be shirking its duties. A member of Hood College’s class of 1929 chided incoming freshmen for their “general lack of courtesy and respect for the faculty and upperclassmen” in an anonymous letter to the student newspaper:
It seems to be a great burden to you to even so much as hold the door for those in classes above yours. . . .
The table manners of some of you are disrespectful. . . . You have all been told that you are not to leave the table at dinner time before everyone at that table is ready to leave and the hostess dismisses you. We also think it a matter of courtesy for you to pass the vegetable and other dishes to the head of the table before helping yourself. At noon, you should ask to be excused before rushing off to a class.
Also, when a member of the faculty, a hostess, or an upperclassman speaks to you or enters your room, it would do you no harm to respect them by standing up at least until they are seated.9
Was the freshman class really a bunch of oafs or was the Class of ’29 just feeling their sophomore oats? Ceremonies and traditions designed to bond individuals with class, and classes with alma mater, did occasionally backfire. A 1942 Mills graduate remembered how a tremendously long receiving line of faculty members at the college president’s orientation tea turned introductions into a child’s game of telephone: “I started the receiving line as Jane Cudlip. And in the noise and confusion . . . When I came out the other end, my name was Meredith Appleby.”10 If there was ever a moment for a lonely girl to feel overwhelmed by the size and anonymity of both class and campus, a malfunctioning assembly line of freshmen was surely it. Indeed, all the welcoming dances, orientation teas, wienie roasts, and candlelight ceremonies couldn’t obscure the fact that for most girls, going to college meant leaving home for the very first time.
Homesickness: The Freshman Scourge “I had no idea how hard it was to go away and leave ’em all. It’s terrible,” wrote fifteen-year-old M. Carey Thomas in an 1872 letter to a beloved aunt.11 The future president of Bryn Mawr was then a student at a Quaker academy for girls. As a freshman at Cornell three years later, she was an old hand at living away from home. For those without her boarding-school experience, however, the homesickness experienced during the first weeks or months on campus could be crushing. Nor did
the freshman’s feelings of loneliness and longing for home’s familiarity change much over the generations. “The first days at college are almost sure to be a time of great anxiety and strain” advised The Freshman Girl (1925).12
For some girls, the loneliness and longing for home were assuaged by a familiar presence—that of their mother. Vida Scudder’s mother accompanied her to Smith in the nineteenth century, where she helped set her daughter’s hair every day. Finally her mother realized Vida needed to be thrown on her own hairstyling resources and went home. A 1920s-era college guidebook suggested that the moment of parting between parent and child should be similar to removing a Band-Aid from a scabby knee: quick and clean. The well-meaning mother who accompanied her daughter to school, stayed in her dorm room, and helped her unpack set her up for “an attack of homesickness” after the mother’s departure. It was better for parents to keep their distance until at least Thanksgiving, by which time their child would have become “a real personage, instead of the dazed, uncertain newcomer of a few weeks before. It is more pleasant for all concerned.”13
Homesickness in action at Florida State College for Women, 1941.
College Girl Bookshelf: “Her College Days” (1896), by Mrs. Clark Johnson
Unlike the average freshman away from home for the first time, sweet and innocent Lois Darcy isn’t plagued by homesickness thanks to one simple expedient: she’s brought her widowed mother to college with her. Therein lies the conflict in Her College Days. For, as one of Lois’s well-meaning friends puts it, “A girl can’t get the benefit of being away from home if she has to be hampered with a mother.”* Lois, who at sixteen is a little younger than her classmates and really doesn’t mind living off campus with her unusual roommate, overhears her friends’ conversation and repeats it to Mrs. Darcy. The seeds of doubt are thus sown in her mother’s mind. Meanwhile, Lois meets Mr. Hamilton, a star athlete at Houghton College. Mrs. Darcy acts as an approving chaperone, and the three of them spend many lovely times together.
Despite the whirl of gaiety, Mrs. Darcy worries that Lois would be happier without her cramping presence. She decides she must move back to their hometown of St. Mark’s. Lois is guilt-stricken and tearful at the news, worried that her class schedule and active social life have left her mother lonely. It is a difficult parting, and neither reveals her true thoughts to the other.
Lois keeps her chin up and throws herself into even more campus activities. Meanwhile, back at St. Mark’s, Mrs. Darcy wastes away from illness but refuses to let her friends contact Lois until it is almost too late. Then Lois races back to St. Mark’s—for a short while in the unchaperoned presence of Mr. Hamilton! Of course, Lois’s arrival at home recalls her mother from the brink of death. This is because, as the fully recovered Mrs. Darcy later confesses to her daughter, “it was the idea that you could be happy without me, perhaps happier than with me, that almost killed me.”† Oy.
Despite the copious amount of campus details, Her College Days ends like a typical romance. The doctor prescribes a complete change of air and scene for the convalescent Mrs. Darcy, so she and Lois head to Europe. Gale College is forgotten, mentioned not at all in the last chapter. When Mr. Hamilton, fresh from the Houghton Glee Club’s English tour, shows up on their doorstep, Lois’s fate is sealed: marriage, not a diploma, will be her future.
† Ibid., 332.
The mother who came to college continued to be a leitmotiv for years to come. “The mother who packs all her daughter’s clothes, selects drapes and bedspread . . . and even arranges her dormitory room, is going too far,” reported the New York Times in 1955. “In fact, this mother may be trying to enjoy again through her daughter her own college days” or the ones she never had, the paper suggested in a fit of armchair psychoanalysis. Even in what we like to think of as our own enlightened era, some mothers can’t quite say good-bye. “Dear Abby: I am a 21-year-old college student,” began a letter to the venerable advice columnist in 2002. “This year I’m living with three sorority sisters in a house off campus. We get along fine except for one thing”— that being the mother of one of the roommates who spent “every single weekend” with her daughter. Not only was she “always underfoot,” but she committed the ultimate roommate sin: she never replaced the toilet paper after using the last of it.14
For those who arrived alone on campus, most twentieth-century college advice guides recommended keeping busy as a remedy for homesickness. Partaking of myriad campus activities for freshmen held loneliness at bay and helped a girl forge new relationships. “At home people know that you don’t like onions in your potato salad, and how talented you really are, and how you need to be given lots of encouragement,” commiserated the author of You Can Always Tell a Freshman (1949):
Lock the stable before the horse runs away. . . . If you are the type who waxes sentimental over mood music, guard yourself! Do not linger in the bathtub. Do not take up embroidery. Keep occupied with lots of people. Cultivate the ability to laugh at yourself. Need I say more?15
Needlecrafts and long, relaxing baths were solitary activities that gave girls time to brood over the folks back home. For instead of darling Mom, Dad, and Sis, who knew a girl’s taste in potato salad and other things, there was a roommate, a complete stranger who may or may not have been the sort to give a pat on the head when a girl needed it.
Roommates and Others Meeting one’s roommate was a stressful moment, and guidebooks offered advice on how to act. You Can Always Tell a Freshman suggested taking a proactive role:
Break the ice with a homely gesture. Make some cocoa together the very first night. It is simply amazing what a little “prepared” cocoa, mixed with some hot water from the bathroom spigot, will do to promote comradery. The girl who does not shed her reserve under the influence of such elementary hospitality belongs at Harvard in a
bottle, and sooner or later she will find her way there.16
In addition to the somewhat disturbing suggestion that one’s roommate-to-be might better belong in a scientific specimen jar than a college dormitory, the last sentence implied the possibility of a painful truth: despite cocoa’s convivial powers, some roommates were not destined to be friends. “Socially, my first experiences with college were mostly unpleasant,” reported a freshman in the mid-1950s: “My roommates were quite a group the first semester. One was a genius, I think, but partly neurotic (always crying). Another was failing, a third was foreign and understood very little English, and the fourth had insomnia . . .”17
She certainly didn’t appreciate them at the time, but this student probably still entertains at cocktail parties with stories about the eccentric bunch she lived with freshman year. And she got off easy. An insomniac and someone who cried all the time paled in comparison with the student at the Florida State College for Women who, it was reported by the Florida Flambeau student newspaper in 1942, kept an “extraordinary” collection in her room. Asked by “a pre-med friend of hers” if he could bring her anything on an upcoming visit, the puckish girl responded “Just bring me a finger or an ear”—knowing he was a dental student. “Imagine Jean’s surprise and horror,” the paper blithely continued, “when he took out of his pocket and gave to her there in the parlor a bottle with two preserved human ears in it—one black, and one white.” These were reported to be “perfectly formed” and floating in formaldehyde. Not only did Jean receive her unusual gift with aplomb, she was reported to very much want “a hand or a leg to hang on the light cord in her room.”18 There was no word on what her roommate had to say about such an unusual decorating scheme.
When everything went well, friendships between roommates could last a lifetime. Here, at Bethune-Cookman College, 1943.
As uncomfortable as it could be, meeting people with different viewpoints and habits was (and remains) an important part of the college experience. This was especially true for college girls in the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, when travel was less frequent and local customs hadn’t been all but obliterated by the ubiquity of chain stores and mega-malls. Ideally, the result was a positive one: exposure to a roommate’s thoughts and habits resulted in an expanded worldview while the diminutive dimensions of most dorm rooms ensured a crash course in cooperation. This might have more personal benefits in the future. “A girl who has lived successfully in a dormitory or sorority house should make a better wife some day because of her training,” wrote the author of CO-EDiquette: Poise and Popularity for Every Girl (1936). “For if college teaches her nothing else, it does teach her how to live congenially with somebody else.” The penalty for not making the “fundamental adjustments required for peaceful living with another person” was heavy. “Such failure will lead her [the unsuccessful roommate], when married, to the divorce courts,” reported the dean of Guilford College, Guilford, North Carolina.19
Sometimes the differences were too great. This was frequently the case when roommates or classmates were “others,” foreigners with poor English skills, Jews, or nonwhite students. Racism and anti-Semitism lurked at all the colleges. It took a
forward-thinking, open-minded administration to accept nonwhites or Jews, and the same and more from the student body to make black or Jewish girls really feel at home. While Florida Flambeau didn’t theorize on the presence of the black ear in that jar of formaldehyde, it certainly carried a different cultural punch than that of the white one—especially since there were few, it any, black students at the Florida State College for Women in 1942.
Even at abolitionist Oberlin, race was an issue among the student body. When the college first considered admitting black students two years after its opening in 1833, the white women on campus were “not prepared to embrace it at once,” recalled President James H. Fairchild, in an address before the alumni in 1860:
Young ladies who had come from New England to the school in the wilderness— young ladies of unquestioned refinement and goodness, declared that if colored students were admitted to equal privileges in the Institution, they would return to their homes, if they had to “wade Lake Erie” to accomplish it.20
According to Fairchild, the experience of integrated dorms, dining facilities, and classes changed its white students’ attitudes toward African Americans (who never made up more than 4 or 5 percent of the student body between 1840 and 1860, or for much of the following century). He described how these same young ladies later faced “torrent[s] of abuse and reproach” for their “fearless advocacy of their cause of the oppressed.”21 Fairchild may have been overly optimistic. As abolitionist influences at Oberlin and elsewhere faded in the late nineteenth century, tensions rose between white and black students. In 1882 (while Fairchild was still president), a professor objected to plans for a black student and a white student to share a dormitory room, and despite a committee of six African-American students who pointed out the discrimination to the faculty, they were not allowed to do so. Also during the 1882 school year, white women students living at Ladies Hall refused to eat at the same table with black residents, as had previously been the custom. White student complaints became so numerous that a separate table was established for the black girls. News of this segregated dining brought a flood of protests from black and white alumni, but it was only through “much persuasion” that President Fairchild and the principal of the Women’s Department were able to convince white students to once again sit at dinner with their black counterparts.22
Ten Thou-Shalt-Nots of Dormitory Life from “YOU CAN ALWAYS TELL A FRESHMAN”
Racial tensions also erupted at Cornell when in 1911 two black students, Pauline A. Ray and Rosa A. Vassar, tried to move into Sage College, the women’s dormitory. After an article (penned by a black male student) appeared in the student newspaper describing how the girls had been denied rooms and demanding an official explanation for it, a petition protesting their admission was circulated among the dormitory residents. Two hundred coeds signed, though some of these were what the New York Times called “outsiders” who didn’t actually live in the dorm themselves. Ray and Vassar maintained they were not agitators “seeking social equality,” merely students who desired the convenience of living on campus. They promised that if they
moved into the dorm, they would not take part in their less-than-welcoming neighbors’ social life but would remain “as separate as two fingers on one hand.”23 In the end, Cornell president Jacob Gould Schurman ruled that Sage College had to admit the young women.
It is impossible to know how many light-skinned African-American students tried to avoid the demeaning facts of racial prejudice by “passing” themselves as white, but at least one was turned in by her roommate. When Anita Florence Hemmings applied to Vassar in 1893, she listed her ancestry as French and English. Her classmates described her as an “exotic beauty,” and a Boston newspaper later noted that Anita “could pass anywhere simply as a pronounced brunette of the white race.” Unfortunately, Anita’s roommate had a different assessment of Anita’s appearance, and revealed her suspicions to her father just before graduation in 1897. The father then hired a private investigator to track down Anita’s parents in Boston. “We know our daughter went to Vassar as a white girl and stayed there as such,” Anita’s janitor father told the newspapers. “As long as she conducted herself as a lady she never thought it necessary to proclaim the fact that her parents were mulattoes.” In the end, a “crestfallen” Anita—an excellent student and a soloist in the college choir— appealed to Vassar president James Monroe Taylor to be allowed to graduate with her class. Her request was granted, but it would be another forty years before Vassar knowingly accepted another African-American student.24
A somewhat similar issue arose in 1913, when Smith unknowingly accepted the application of a young black woman. Carrie Lee did not try to pass as white—she simply did not list herself as black. When she met her new roommate from Tennessee, the result was not a harmonious expectation-defying friendship. Instead, Lee was barred from student housing after the roommate complained. She turned to the college-approved boardinghouses but was told she would have to enter and exit by the backdoor along with the servants. After the NAACP intervened, she lived with a sympathetic professor. During the fracas, Smith polled its Seven Sisters about their racial policies. Among them, only Wellesley stated that it did not discriminate against African Americans when it came to admissions and housing. However enlightened the college’s administrative practices, its white students still “parodied Negro dialect and sang ‘Coon songs’ on their mandolins and banjos.”25
In 1926, activist and educator W. E. B. DuBois summed up the situation at the women’s colleges: “Vassar has graduated but one Negro student and did not know it at the time. Bryn Mawr and Barnard have tried desperately to exclude them. Radcliffe, Wellesley, and Smith have treated them with tolerance and even cordiality. Many small institutions or institutions with one or two Negro students have been gracious and kind toward them, particularly in the Middle West. But on the whole, the attitude of northern institutions is one which varies from tolerance to active hostility.”26
This could also be said of the attitude toward Jews. In addition to being almost
entirely white during the nineteenth century, colleges were also almost entirely Protestant. Catholic and Jewish girls were allowed to enter the women’s colleges “by ones and twos” later in the century, as long as they didn’t rock the boat.27 When in 1898 a Bryn Mawr student and her mother complained that the girl’s roommate was Jewish, M. Carey Thomas’s response was unequivocal. She wrote the student’s mother and told her that her daughter’s roommate would not be asked to move. Rather than take part in a “religious controversy,” Thomas expressed the college’s “great desire . . . to show the strictest impartiality” among students. She then moved them both. Tolerance was the official policy at Bryn Mawr, but Thomas’s private feelings were less laudatory. The president of Bryn Mawr was a remarkable woman, ahead of her time in many respects, yet even she was unable to fully rise above the anti- Semitism and racism of her times. In a letter to a close friend, she vowed that “Never again shall we put a Jew and Christian together” as roommates. Despite having hired a German Jewish physiology professor in 1891—a daring move—Thomas later worked behind the scenes to prevent other Jews from joining the faculty. “It is much more satisfactory to have a faculty made up as far as possible of our own good Anglo- Saxon stock,” she wrote to a professor who recommended a candidate in 1906.28
During the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth, Jews formed only a small part of the student population, but in the 1920s, the children of those who arrived in the big waves of Jewish immigration from eastern Europe at and just before the turn of the century began applying to college. Many schools responded with quota systems. These were rarely made public, though applicants and students long had their suspicions. An application form question like “What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father?” weeded out Browns who entered Ellis Island as Brownsteins. Some schools employed “psychological tests.” As part of one such procedure, a student who applied to the medical school at New York University in the early 1920s appeared before a faculty panel and “among the many questions asked him were how often he attended synagogue, was he very religious, etc. He was not admitted.”29
As part of her research on the history of women’s higher education in the United States, historian Barbara Miller Solomon came across a file folder in Radcliffe’s archives labeled “Admissions, the Jewish Problem.” It showed that, in the fall of 1937, five of the Seven Sisters exchanged information on the number of Jewish students admitted over the past several years. Bryn Mawr bluntly stated it had “no Jewish problem—of this year’s freshman class, 6.0 percent are Jewish.” Not coincidentally this was the lowest percentage given by the five reporting institutions for 1937–1938 (Radcliffe had the highest at 16.5 percent). More than a decade later, the president of Sarah Lawrence assailed both higher and elementary education for catering to the “white, gentile, and wealthy”—even though an alumna writing in the 1980s suggested that the school maintained its own quotas into the mid-1950s (a
charge the school denied).30
The rise of Hitler and his anti-Semitic policies in Nazi Germany, as well as America’s entry into World War II, helped students (if not administrators) on some campuses accept their Jewish classmates more fully. It was “only fair and democratic,” suggested a 1942 editorial in the Florida Flambeau, that the Jewish and Catholic faiths be included in the school’s upcoming “Religious Emphasis” week (just after a Christian Youth Conference was held on campus). The editorial even advocated inviting the occasional non-Protestant speaker. There was more: the editorialist noted how her Jewish classmates had to take cuts for classes missed during the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, whereas Christians enjoyed holidays at Easter and Christmas. It was, she concluded, “another way the rights of a religious minority on our campus have been ignored.”31
The Spread: Making Friends in the Midnight Hour
Few things assuaged homesickness better than letters and packages from home, but most early colleges and prep schools requested that parents refrain from including foodstuffs in those packages. The Connecticut Literary Institution, a coed academy located in Suffield, laid down the law in its 1870–1871 catalog:
Boxes of confectionary, cake, etc., sent to students, so far from being the kindness intended, are a positive source of evil. Their contents, eaten, as is generally the case, irregularly and late at night, produce sickness and impair scholarship, perhaps more than any other single cause. Unless parents and friends heed this remark, we shall be obliged to make the reception of such boxes and parcels by the pupils ground for animadversion.32
“Animadversion” was just the sort of word to put the fear of God into parents and students caught without a dictionary at the ready. In reality, it merely meant that an “adverse comment” might be made—in other words, receiving a forbidden box of cookies from home might go down on one’s permanent record.
Between-meal and midnight snacking was problematic in light of contemporary wisdom regarding how the human body worked. Influenced in the 1840s by new developments in physics, specifically theories concerning the conservation of energy, the medical establishment viewed the human body (male or female) as a closed system with a limited amount of resources to devote to any particular function at a given time. “Brain-work and stomach-work,” for example, interfered with one another and made an after-dinner nap a foolhardy venture. “The experiment of trying to digest
a hearty supper, and to sleep during the process,” reported a medical man, “has sometimes cost the careless experimenter his life.”33 These arguments were long lasting. A 1925 essay titled “How to Study” warned college girls against hitting the books after a hearty meal “since there cannot be a proper supply of blood in both places at the same time.” The explanation was the same as in the previous century: either digestive organs or brain would suffer—though the modern consequences were held to be merely indigestion or poor schoolwork, not sudden death.34
Chafing Dish Dainties
The chafing dish was useful for whipping up all sorts of late-night delicacies, though a purloined Bunsen burner worked well in a pinch too. Omelets, custards, and Welsh rarebit—a creamy cheese sauce served on toast or crackers—were reliable standards in the college girl’s repertoire. At eastern colleges, oysters and lobster Newberg were also popular. Cocoa was both inexpensive and easy to make, qualities that made it a prized recipe in dormitories the country over. (One didn’t even need the chafing dish: a recipe from 1904 called for one heaping teaspoon of cocoa and one generous tablespoon of condensed milk to be mixed to a paste in a cup; boiling water was added and stirred “until the unseemly mess is transformed into a cupful of fragrant, creamy chocolate.”)*
The undisputed favorite snack among college girls, however, was fudge. Whereas cooking a rarebit required little more culinary skill than the ability to melt cheese, making fudge in a chafing dish was an undertaking that required luck as well as kitchen finesse. It wasn’t easy to gauge the exact moment to remove the candy from the heat—most college cooks were familiar with what Mademoiselle called “the dormitory horrors of fudge that turns to sugar or goo.”† Some factors were beyond the cook’s control: atmospheric humidity also played a role in the success or failure of a particular batch.
For intrepid individuals who would like to try to re-create the taste of spreads gone by, fire up your chafing dish and try this old-fashioned caramel-like recipe for fudge from Midnight Feasts:
Put into the blazer two tablespoonfuls of butter, one cupful of dark brown sugar, half a cupful of milk, two cupfuls of New Orleans molasses and four squares of grated chocolate. Light the lamps and stir the mixture constantly, until it will form a rather hard ball when dropped in to ice water. [A candy thermometer will register 242–248° F.] Put out the light; add a teaspoonful of vanilla [be careful, it may splatter], pour into a buttered pan and check off in even squares while soft.‡
If you don’t have a chafing dish at hand, a heavy saucepan will work just fine.
† “Eat and Run,” Mademoiselle, August 1940, 82.
‡ May E. Southworth, Midnight Feasts: Two Hundred and Two Salads and Chafing Dish Recipes (San Francisco: Paul Elder & Co., 1914), 134.
A champion of “scientific” cooking with its emphasis on nutrition and sanitation, Sarah Tyson Rorer described the link between college breakdowns and snack foods in an anti-pastry diatribe entitled “Why I Am Opposed to Pies” (1900):
Who does not look pityingly upon the boy or girl who, under brilliant auspices, enters college, and at the end of the first or second year is returned home a broken- down wreck with nervous prostration—not because of overwork, but . . . over- feeding as far as bulk is concerned and under-feeding from true food standpoint? They have consumed all the blood necessary for good brain work in the digestion of their food.35
The biggest enemies of good brain work were just the sort of sweet, heavy treats that came in food boxes from home. The founder of Wellesley, Henry Fowle Durant, promised that “pies, lies, and doughnuts” would never find a place at his school and forbade students from having any foodstuffs other than fresh fruit in their rooms.36 The administration of Mills College concurred. Parents might send fruit to their daughters, but a table “abundantly supplied with good food renders [other] such additions unnecessary,” its 1908 catalog firmly suggested.37 (Of course, school food could prove unappetizing. The anonymous author of the waggish “Sonnet to a Turkey” that appeared in the 1904 Vassarion yearbook penned its first line with the authority that came from sad experience: “Oh! Bird of Strange and Undetermined Parts.”)
On most campuses, however, the rules against food boxes were noted only in the breach. “Boxes from home are welcomed with joy,” the New York Times observed in 1903. Indeed, the arrival of delicacies from home often signaled the opportunity for a
girl to put on a “spread”—a picnic-like dorm room feast. The lucky recipient of a package from home invited friends to sample the goodies, and perhaps bring their own recently received treats. Certainly not all spreads took place under the cover of darkness, but breaking dormitory lights-out rules by meeting at midnight added an extra fillip of excitement and provided a way for well-bred college women to flout authority.
“There are few social relaxations that are pleasanter than midnight suppers,” wrote the author of Midnight Feasts: Two Hundred and Two Salads and Chafing Dish Recipes (1914).38 In addition to sharing cakes and cookies sent from home at these clandestine gatherings, girls did their fair share of in-room cooking at spreads. This was made possible by the use of a chafing dish—a forerunner of the fondue pot that consisted of an alcohol-fueled burner and two shallow pans, a configuration that allowed the dormitory chef to use the chafing dish as a double boiler by filling the bottom pan with water or to place a single pan directly over the heat of the flame. Popularized by Boston Cooking School doyenne Fannie Farmer in her Chafing Dish Possibilities (1898), the “blue flame and copper kettle” was shortly thereafter a popular “departing gift” to girls headed off to college.39
Whether it held fudge or Welsh rarebit, the chafing dish stood at the center of the spread (circa 1904).
Spreads cemented peer culture at the turn of the century, and for decades thereafter they were a reliable source of fun and friendship. The late-night repast was “the very
soul” of college girls’ “good fellowship,” an occasion on which they lavished not only “the very best of their friendship, but the very best of their wit and brains,” according to cookbook author May Southworth. Spreads shared the fascinating allure of all forbidden pastimes and were tailor-made for young women “fond of fun, laughter and a good deal of nonsense,” especially “those whose digestions are in good working order . . .”40
The Ladies Home Journal frequently described the fun and danger of midnight feasts. “I remember while at college receiving a box of home goodies, the chief dainty being a large molasses cake carefully packed in wax paper,” began an anecdote from 1900. The invitation goes out for a get-together after lights-out. Just as the supper is set, there is a knock at the door. The pickles go under the bed, the girls into the closet. But what to do with the cake? It is safely hidden away under a pile of cushions on the couch when a professor in search of a toothache remedy enters the room. But the toothache drops are in the closet with the hidden girls! Comedy ensues when—you guessed it—the prof sits on the buried pastry. When she is hastened out the door, the giggling girls emerge from hiding and hold “an autopsy on the molasses cake. They find it to have forever lost its form and comeliness, but by no means its entire charm, as evinced by the few crumbs that were smuggled out with the pickle-bottle in the morning.”41
Despite their basic rule-breaking nature, spreads could bring students and faculty closer together. At least that was the contention of the award-winning Christmas- related prank chosen by the Ladies Home Journal in 1906. A group of students sequestered over the holidays at a “small Eastern sectarian” college planned a dazzling spread for December 24. Boldly, a senior suggests they invite the remaining faculty, even though “spreads were forbidden and the halls were vigorously patrolled for the suppression of them.” A little shyly, given the prohibition against midnight feasts, the dean and the faculty arrive at the designated dorm room. The “laughter was a little quavering and the jokes a little forced,” but a good time is had by all until, just as the singing begins, “there was a sharp knock at the door and a sternly familiar voice called, ‘Young ladies, lights are out.’ ” It is the maid, who is usually accompanied by the junior professor—who at this precise moment is enjoying a moment of role reversal:
From sheer force of habit, with smothered exclamations, the girls dashed for their accustomed cover. Into the closet, under the bed, they disappeared like rats into their holes, and the Senior with one practiced hand upon the gas-jet was about to reduce all to darkness when she realized that the dreaded Junior professor was rocking to and fro on her sofapillow in helpless laughter, an olive held aloft impaled upon a hatpin.
Even the Dean was laughing . . .42
An even happier ending comes the following day, when girls and teachers enjoy “a
real Christmas of plum pudding and friendly gifts.” With the great influx of students in the 1920s, the authority-flouting nature of
spreads was diluted when they became less spontaneous and more codified. Etiquette at College (1925) explained the ins and outs of spreads in a manner previously unthinkable:
Girls usually wear their best lounging robes to a spread of any importance. Lingerie and night-clothes without a heavier covering are not only rather unpleasant apparel for a gathering, but are too apt to catch fire from candles or the flame of a chafing- dish, if it burns alcohol.
It is high treason to interfere with cooking candy or a dish that the hostess is preparing from her own recipe, unless one is asked to stir it or pour it out.
One may make remarks on the implements used in cooking and eating, but it is not good form to show aversion when one maiden eats tomato soup out of a powder dish and while another marks the fudge into luscious squares with a nail-file.43
Who (other than presumably middle-aged advice writers) complained about divvying up a pan of fudge with a nail file, when such freewheeling spontaneity was exactly what traditionally made spreads so appealing—especially to generations of college girls beset by regulations and restrictions on almost their every movement?
Historian Margaret Lowe suggests that during the 1910s–1930s the spread—a girls-only event with homemade food that took place within dormitory walls—began to be replaced by “largely mixed-sex off-campus gatherings,” i.e., group dating with a focus on commercially prepared victuals. At Smith, “batting” became the rage: students and their boyfriends picnicked together in the countryside. (According to Lowe, at Smith in the 1910s “batting” was popular slang for an outdoor picnic. It stemmed from an early definition of “bat”: “to go or move; to wander, to potter.”)44
The spread didn’t up and die out, of course. “Remember all the mid nite feasts? (Mum’s the word, eh?)” read a sassy inscription in a 1928 copy of the Westmoorland College Wand yearbook. But the heyday of the spread was clearly over. Snacking was still “considered one of the major activities at all accredited seats of learning,” Mademoiselle observed in 1940, but the new processed foods it introduced to readers in its “Eat and Run” column took the tradition out of an old favorite: “Human nature being what it is, a freshman is a lot more likely to succeed if she comes to college knowing about such things as a 4-minute Prepared Fudge Mix, and how to grill a divine cheeseburger.”45
Fudge from a box? What about ye olde chafing dish? You certainly couldn’t grill a cheeseburger in one of those. But this was just one sign of the spread’s slide into decrepitude. The 1947 edition of Stephens College’s Within the Ivy student handbook called the spread “one of the joys of college life,” then proved without a doubt that its authority-flouting nature was deader than a doorknob: “Special permissions for
spreads are obtained from the hall counselor.”46 Special permission? Had those larking turn-of-the-century College Girls asked for permission before breaking out the chafing dish and fudge pan? Not on your life!
Sororities and Clubs There were other, officially organized ways for girls to make friends on campus. When coeds first arrived on the scene at the state universities, there were no women’s dormitories. Girls turned to boardinghouses and private families who rented rooms to students, although this too could be a tricky proposition. At first, coeds looking for rooms were viewed with suspicion. In An American Girl and Her Four Years in a Boy’s College, Will is turned away from several boardinghouses by proprietors who “could not think of taking a lady-student, it’s so odd.” (The coeds have the last laugh; a year later, Will notes that some of the same houses are advertising for girls, having heard that they don’t smoke, drin
We value our customers, and so ensure that our papers are 100 percent original. Our Team of professionals does not miss the mark; they ensure that step by step each paper is written uniquely. We never duplicate or work as we compare papers rest assured. We deliver our work a day before time to ensure that you don’t miss your deadlines. It is not only doing the work but delivering it at the right time. We capture the consequences of late remittances. .
We value customer satisfaction here at popularessaywriters.com and make sure that you get the best value for your Money. It happens that sometimes you can pay twice for your order or may want to cancel it, or you feel that it doesn’t meet your requirements; our money back guarantee will give you the opportunity to get back your money. We will also refund 100% of money paid double. In case your paper does not satisfy your requirements , we request that you notify us via writing within 2 days otherwise on the third day we will assume that you have been satisfied. Do all your correspondences through our email address email@example.com.Read more
At popularessaywriters.com, our professional writers know the consequence plagiarism does for our clients. We have updated software’s such as article checker and copyscape to check for originality of the custom papers before submission of the final paper to the you. Our guarantee to the customer is that we will write 100% original papers for them that are quality, timely and of low cost. We have experienced professional and competent PhD writers who will write quality custom papers for you..Read more
. At popularessaywriters.com, we are proud to provide top-quality Essay writing service to our esteemed customers. We are ready to take up that challenging academic assignment that is giving you sleepless nights and simplify it for you according to your desired requirements. We are willing to revise your paper if it does not meet your requirements. At popularessaywriters.com, we do not compromise with quality; thus, we offer unlimited free revisions until the customer is satisfied with their custom paper. Our unlimited free revision services are provided under the following terms:.. .Read more
Popularessawriters.com knows that client’s information is an essential tool for our company. It means that whatever the client requests from our service is kept strictly confidential. It means that whoever writes for this company understands the terms and conditions hence you should not be worried because you will never see your work somewhere else...Read more
Rest assured that we will always be attentive to your needs and requirements. We belief in the phrase treat your neighbour as you would want them to treat you. We leave nothing to chance and always look forward to a good interaction with each other.. .Read more