Don’t sit around and giggle

Jessica Olin

  • College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens and Coeds, Then and Now by Lynn Peril
    Norton, 408 pp, £10.99, October 2006, ISBN 0 393 32715 9

In September 2005, the New York Times published an article about female students at elite colleges who saw futures for themselves as ‘stay-at-home moms’. The author, Louise Story, had conducted a study at Yale in which many of those interviewed said that when they had children, they planned to cut back on work or stop working altogether. While administrators seemed alarmed by the trend, the students shrugged it off. ‘I’ll have a career until I have two kids,’ Angie Ku, at Yale, explained. ‘It doesn’t necessarily matter how far you get. It’s kind of like the experience: I’ve tried what I wanted to do.’ Harvard senior Sarah Currie told Story: ‘A lot of the guys were like, “I think that’s really great.” One of the guys was like, “I think that’s sexy.” Staying at home . . . isn’t as polarising of an issue as I envision it is for women who are in their thirties now.’ In January that year, Lawrence Summers, who was then president of Harvard, caused an uproar by suggesting that innate biological differences might partly explain why women, though increasing numbers of them were doing postgraduate work in science and engineering, had not achieved as much as men in these fields. He also said that women with children are often unwilling or unable to work 80-hour weeks, and that those women who hold the ‘highest ranking places are disproportionately either unmarried or without children’, but that point went unremarked, although the students in Story’s article seem to agree with it.

Lynn Peril’s College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens and Coeds, Then and Now is a jaunty, comprehensive history of the American college girl that draws on ‘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’. Referring to the ‘high level of cultural anxiety’ attending the issue of higher education for women, Peril shows that from the beginning girls who wanted to go to college have had to fight against ‘a mixture of condescension, ridicule and derision’. The Raleigh Register in 1831 ‘mocked the “Refined Female College” with a curriculum that featured “scolding and fretting” and “running your father into debt for finery, cologne water, pomatum and hard soap, dancing and frolicking”’. At the turn of the century, arguments against higher education for women were awash with scientific misinformation: Edward Clarke, author of the bestselling Sex in Education, or A Fair Chance for the Girls (1873), was well in line with mainstream science when he claimed that ‘the rigours of study during the menstrual period would destroy a woman’s reproductive health.’ Another objection was to the possibility of ‘love-making’: ‘Parents worried that a daughter away at college might make an unsuitable match with a young man she met on campus.’ On the other hand, too much education could render a young woman unmarriageable. An 1851 encyclopedia described the bluestocking as a ‘pedantic female’ who sacrificed ‘the characteristic excellences of her sex to learning’. Others called her ‘an unfeminine and arrogant Amazon’, a ‘stiff, stilted, queer literary woman’, the ‘gentleman’s horror’. An 1872 article on the subject of ‘old maids’ stated flatly that women who ‘gave themselves up to literature were happiest single’. College girls fought such stereotypes with humour. Two women’s colleges in Virginia entitled their yearbooks The Spinster (1898) and The Bluestocking (1900). ‘Where singleness is bliss, ’tis folly to be wives,’ The Spinster’s title page proclaimed.

These early schools for women offered a courseload that would make today’s students weep. At North Carolina’s Goldsboro Female College in 1857,

First-year students studied . . . arithmetic, English grammar and composition, US 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 . . . geometry and trigonometry, chemistry, rhetoric, evidences of Christianity, and a class in the US Constitution. Electives included piano, guitar, drawing and painting.

As if that weren’t enough to handle, college life presented a set of unique social challenges. Peril quotes from student handbooks and etiquette guides, whose tone of cheery rebuke will be familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a women’s magazine. The casually intimate You Can Always Tell a Freshman (1949) understands how difficult it can be at first: ‘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.’ To bond with a new roommate, it suggests breaking ‘the ice with a homely gesture . . . It is simply amazing what a little “prepared” cocoa, mixed with some hot water from the bathroom spigot, will do to promote comradery.’ Combating homesickness, however, requires a brisk approach: ‘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?’

Coeds at the University of Maryland in 1940 provide timeless ‘boy-savvy advice’ in That Is the Question, A Social Blue Book of Campus Etiquette: ‘Don’t come to an 8.20 with your eyelashes dripping mascara’; ‘“Don’t sit around and giggle” in the library, and when you get up the nerve to smile at the cute guy in English, “Let him have it right between the eyes.”’ Peril talks about the ‘spread’, an after-hours dormitory feast popular at the turn of the century for its sense of illicit camaraderie, and introduces us to the chafing dish, ‘a forerunner of the fondue pot’ useful for ‘whipping up all sorts of late-night delicacies’. Omelettes, custards and Welsh rarebit were all popular treats, but the ‘undisputed favourite snack’ was fudge. By the 1920s, the spread began to be replaced by off-campus activities involving boys, although references to it can still be found: ‘“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.’

Although early educators attempted to downplay differences in income and class by imposing uniforms or advocating ‘simplicity in dress’, the girls were rather less principled; in the early 1890s more than two hundred seamstresses ‘made their living in just one town near Smith College’. An 1893 letter home from Ruth Nelson, a student at Cornell, ‘on behalf of herself and her sister Gertrude’ warned their mother against proceeding unadvised: ‘I still think you had better not try to make our dress skirts yourself before we come. We want them made in the latest style and would rather wait and decide ourselves how we want them made.’ Another letter from December the same year details the sisters’ joint Christmas list; items included ‘handkerchiefs, purse (very necessary), an evening dress, an otter muff, silver hairpins, iced-wool fascinator, a tray with set of manicure articles, mink muff and a shell hairpiece’. In her chatty way Peril makes these 19th-century girls sound quite contemporary: ‘Five weeks later, Ruth was at it again; this time she needed “slippers and stockings for a ball”, preferably satin.’ File this letter from the ‘College Girl Follies’ section of Good Housekeeping in 1909 under plus ça change:

A mother arrived on a visit to her college daughter on a bitter winter’s day and was met by the girl at the train in low shoes with transparent stockings, a delicate lingerie blouse showing that no warm underwear was beneath, no hat and a light jacket flying open at the throat. ‘I just cried,’ said the mother.

Blue jeans, first worn by ‘farmerettes’ for work in ‘campus victory gardens’ during World War One, had by 1945 become so ubiquitous as to offend Mina Curtiss (Smith, class of 1918), who took pains to point out that, in her day, ‘they were pants, but they didn’t cause us to resemble a cross between an untidy boy and an opéra comique guttersnipe as does today’s college uniform of rolled-up dungarees, flying shirt-tails and dirty saddle shoes.’ ‘Ah, yes; we were cute; you are slobs,’ winks Peril. In fact, students at women’s colleges had long been accused of ‘sloppiness’; but as one student pointed out, context matters: ‘The fluffy ruffles that are admired in the classrooms at Northwestern and Michigan would seem ridiculous at Vassar and Smith. They think we’re sloppy. We think they’re overdressed.’ The New York Times, after publishing ‘Why College Girls Dress That Way’ in 1944, asked the fashion writer Patricia Blake to explain again in 1946. Her conclusion was that ‘campus sloppiness’ allowed college girls the appearance of bohemianism: ‘It’s fun to look like an intellectual, like an artist, or like a pauper – particularly when you’re none of these things. After graduation college girls can cosily settle down to marriage and babies, thinking they’ve run the gamut, lived the full life.’

Rebellion for college girls extended beyond sartorial slumming; prior to the 1920s, one of the most frequently broken rules was the one mandating weekly chapel attendance. In 1926, Vassar made attendance voluntary. Within a year, according to a questionnaire, the majority of students ‘never attended chapel and went to church only about five times between November and May’. Colleges acted in loco parentis: female students were still required to sign out of their dormitories as recently as the 1960s, noting where and with whom they were going, and to observe curfews. Rules designed to minimise sexual goings-on were in place both at men’s and women’s colleges, and students found ingenious ways to observe the letter of the law:

At Columbia (men only until 1983) . . . girls were allowed in men’s dorm rooms from 2 to 5 p.m. on alternate Sundays, as long as the door was left open the ‘width of the book’, which at least one student interpreted as the width of a matchbook. At Brown (men only until 1971), the lights were to be left on and the door open six inches when a girl was visiting, but couples got around those requirements by leaving the ‘lights on in the bathroom and the closet door open’.

When Sarah Gibson Blanding, the president of Vassar, announced in 1962 that premarital sex could be grounds for expulsion, a student interviewed by Newsweek stated the obvious: ‘I don’t think that any girl is going to tell her boyfriend: “I can’t go to bed with you because Miss Blanding said I shouldn’t.”’

Most striking are the lengths to which female administrators have gone to hamper the development and education of women. Although in 1885 Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University, said that it was ‘of the first importance that the education of both sexes be equally full and complete’, his widow, alarmed that women accounted for 40 per cent of the student body by the late 1890s, ‘without consulting anyone at the university . . . amended its charter to limit the number of female students to five hundred at any given time’. Despite the fact that four to five times as many women continued to apply, the quota was not abolished until the 1930s, when, as ever, economic necessity prompted a relaxing of attitudes. In 1899, Senda Berenson, Smith College’s athletic director, betrayed her charges by establishing a set of ‘girls’ rules’ for the wildly popular game of basketball. The new rules, which were aimed at eliminating ‘undue physical exertion’ from the game, restricted players’ movement on the court ‘to one of three assigned zones . . . and forbade any one of them from making more than three dribbles of the ball’. It was suggested that these modifications ‘made the game more psychologically “feminine” by eliminating . . . “star playing” while encouraging “equalisation of team work”’.

The postwar phenomenon of ‘domestic science’ departments for women was another contentious issue. Male students had been pushing for years to supplement the classical curriculum with ‘elective course work . . . to prepare for vocations beyond the law or the pulpit’. Since most female students would become wives and mothers, there should be ‘vocational education’ for them to prepare. Senior Prom magazine summed it up: Marriage was the ‘major occupation of women’, and should be studied as ‘objectively as television, journalism or fashion design’. In a 1947 article, Dorothy Lee argued that psychology, instead of focusing on ‘rats, mazes or . . . double-blind studies’, should give a female student ‘some idea of how a man will act in the confusion of living: celebrating in a night club, or when his car stalls in traffic, or when he loses his job, or when his son wins a prize’.

Proponents of this ‘functional education’ emphasised its practical nature. In 1950 Senior Prom described the marriage course at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri: ‘Vague dreams about marriage sharpen into facts and reality as students discuss with the instructors such vital matters as choosing your husband, courtship and engagement, the wedding and honeymoon.’ Not everyone approved: ‘You are driving women back into the home,’ one Vassar professor argued, ‘the slavery of which education has helped us to escape.’ But not all the blame can be put on college administrators. The Stephens College marriage course was attended by almost 60 per cent of second years. Nor was this phenomenon limited to Southern or second-tier schools. At Barnard, students signed up for ‘The Family’, a class on courtship, marriage and careers, and in the early 1950s, Cornell’s home economics students ‘learned how to properly use and maintain an iron’.

What appears now to have been a backlash against gains made by women, particularly during World War Two, at the time looked to many like evidence of progress. The woman-oriented curriculum of the 1940s and 1950s ‘made feminism seem quaint and outmoded’, Peril writes. ‘Today there is no time for feminism,’ claimed Mrs Chase Going Woodhouse, director of the Institute for Women’s Professional Relations, in 1940: women had ‘passed that stage’. When in 1963 Gerda Lerner offered to teach a course in women’s history at the New School in New York, it didn’t attract even ten students – the minimum number required for the course to be offered. By 1970, however, Newsweek was calling women’s studies ‘one of the hottest new wrinkles in higher education’. How to explain this change? Peril goes for dramatic understatement: ‘Obviously, a lot happened in the interim.’ Having spent 38 pages on ‘The Collegiate Look’ and 52 on campus life, she takes a breezy three and a half pages to sum up these events, name-checking The Feminine Mystique (1963), the foundation of the National Organisation for Women in 1966, the civil rights movement, campus protests, and the birth of women’s studies, first offered at San Diego State College in 1970. Later in the book, she dutifully takes a look at present-day problems such as binge drinking, date rape, and the excesses of spring break, but her commentary lacks the spirit of earlier parts of the book, and she sounds like a bemused observer: ‘Adults inevitably get their granny-sized panties in a bunch when it comes to the sexcapades of the younger generation.’ Moreover, she fails to place these issues in their cultural context as she did her 19th-century material. Her reference to Girls Gone Wild, for example, omits any discussion of the mainstreaming of porn culture, in which girls take ‘Cardio Exotica’ classes at the gym to learn how to move like strippers.

One of the most powerful arguments against sending girls to college has been that it somehow renders women unfit for household duties. ‘Because of my liberal education, I would much rather read a book than cook a meal,’ one female graduate complained in 1952, ‘and I would much prefer to play a Bach fugue than can peaches or scrub the kitchen floor.’ But, as Peril points out, ‘who wouldn’t prefer to do just about anything other than scrubbing the kitchen floor?’ These days, many educated women hire someone else to do these tasks; indeed, one of the reasons to go to college is to get a ‘good’ job and hire someone else to do the dirty work. The problem is that someone has to do these tasks, so instead of all women being stuck doing them, now it’s only the uneducated and undocumented who can’t say no. When the girls in Louise Story’s article talk about being a ‘stay-at-home mom’, their vision inevitably features prenatal yoga classes and time for their writing group, not slaving over the ironing. Whatever they end up doing, girls like Angie Ku – who ‘talks nonchalantly about attending law or business school, having perhaps a ten-year career and then staying home with her children’ – seem not to have acquired any strong sense of vocation.