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.

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