Flashbacks April 2007

College Girls

Articles from the 1890s through the 1960s explore the academic, social, and sexual debates surrounding women at college

In this month’s Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan reviews College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Coeds, Then and Now, a book chronicling the history of women at college from the 1830s to the present. Through the years, she notes, certain hot-button issues have provoked debate over and over: Should women be steered toward—or away from—certain classes? Are women up to the physical and emotional demands of college? Are academically minded women in danger of educating themselves out of the marriage market? And to what extent should the social and sexual behavior of women at college be regulated? Over the years, these and other questions have provided fodder for lively debates in the pages of The Atlantic.

Also see:

Interviews: "Girls Gone Studious"
Lynn Peril talks about the evolution of girls' college experiences, and her new book, College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-Eds, Then and Now.

In “Sociology in the Higher Education of Women” (November 1892), Samuel A. Dike called for a change in the women’s college curriculum. Concerned that institutions of higher education were not adequately preparing women for their future roles as wives and mothers, he argued that at the college level, a girl’s studies should focus on preparation for “the great profession of being a woman, in her social trinity of wife, mother, and member of society.” He cited two drawbacks to educating women in the same manner as men. First, he claimed, men would not to want to marry them. Second, women with degrees would find themselves discontented with everyday domestic duties and would feel they lacked intellectual fulfillment. To remedy these problems, Dike proposed that women study sociology and the social sciences, for such courses, he argued, would teach young women about the importance of the family in society:

She will see the old familiar social order with new eyes…. She will become inventive, fertile in resources, and wise in plans…. She will find a new interest in the old common round of domestic duties. The educational process, which hitherto has been stimulated almost wholly by pursuits far removed from daily cares, will find powerful incentive in things she must do.

Three and a half decades later, another Atlantic writer advocated a similar curriculum. In “Home-Making and Careers” (September 1926), Louis I. Dublin suggested that colleges should require women to study sociology, health, biological sciences, and practical versions of chemistry and mathematics so as to develop their homemaking abilities. But while Dublin saw marriage and motherhood as a woman’s highest callings, he did not believe that women should necessarily leave the workforce after marrying. Rather, a meaningful life, he contended, should include both a career and a family. He noted that middle- and upper-class communities at the time did not encourage married women to pursue careers outside the home. Dublin saw this as unfortunate. “I insist on constant accommodation to make a combination of professional activity and home-making mutually possible,” he argued.

Dublin commended college as one of the few places that did push girls toward academic and professional life, but he worried that college had become too one-sided, with not enough emphasis on relationships with men or the family. He noted that only half of female college graduates were marrying, and that those who did were having fewer children. He wrote,

To many it has seemed as if our educational system were an effective method of discovering our best stock and then proceeding at once toward sterilizing it. A new order of celibacy is growing up which is rapidly attracting our best people to its ranks.

To counter this, Dublin recommended that women attend coeducational institutions. Young men and women would thereby form friendships; develop understanding, respect, and sympathy for one another; and eventually marry happily.

Four years later, in “Censoring the Conduct of College Women” (April 1930), Mabel Barbee Lee critiqued the longstanding tradition at colleges of closely monitoring and regulating the social behavior of female students. At most colleges, she noted, girls had to sign out in order to leave the dorms in the evening. And many institutions performed a head count at bedtime.

As a general rule, Lee found, it was the dean of each college who had first instituted such regulations. But even later on, when student governments came into being and took control of enforcement, she observed, the rules usually remained unchanged. Lee discovered, however, that most girls were simply ignoring them. For example, many students at one college she visited claimed to have gone to the theater, no matter where they had actually been. When she discreetly mentioned this to the student government president, she was told, matter-of-factly, that all students lied on their sign-out slips. Lee defended this, pointing out that these young women were not lying to cover up bad intentions or misdeeds, but simply to avoid a hassle:

Why should it be right, they ask, and not without reason, to go walking until 8.30 but not until 8.45, to drive until 9.00 but not until 9.20? Why have a chaperone after midnight and not at 11.50? Imagine the hours of valuable time spent in working out these hair-splitting distinctions! In the final analysis does it matter whether a student has gone driving, skating, dancing, or to the theatre, so long as she returns at a reasonable hour?

Ultimately, she pointed out, the intention of a college education is to foster self-reliance and develop the faculty of critical thinking. Giving the students some leeway to make choices—and sometimes mistakes—for themselves, she argued, could only promote that goal.

Young women … should be granted browsing privileges in the field of experience. If their taste has been wisely developed during childhood and early adolescence, which is the obligation of the parents, a bit of nibbling at the weeds when they are older will not give them serious indigestion. One mistake may have more educational value than any number of lectures.

By the 1950s, many of the changes proposed by Dublin and Lee had been put in place; although many women’s colleges continued to thrive, coeducation had become the norm, and curfews and dormitory visiting regulations had diminished. Such newfound social freedoms, however, led to new sets of problems. In “Sex and the College Girl” (November 1957), Nora Johnson expressed concern that contemporary college girls were not well served by the new social dynamics. She explained that, contrary to rumors of rampant promiscuity among college coeds, the new dating convention instead tended to trap girls in unsatisfactory long-term relationships. Johnson described the progression of a relationship as follows: a man and a woman begin dating, they go steady, he gives her his college pin, they have sex, and they become, for all intents and purposes, engaged. According to Johnson, college men were pushing for these long-term serious relationships because they wanted sex, and they did not want to have to go through the process of winning over a woman more than once. Women, on the other hand, were more interested in playing the field and thereby finding the right person. But partly as a result of men’s eagerness to snap them up and partly as a result of their own feelings of ambivalence about physical relationships, they rarely had the opportunity. After all, Johnson argued, the generation going through college in the late 1950s had been raised without a clear set of sexual standards. Wanting to behave “morally” but unsure of what that implied, college girls worried intensely, wondering when was the acceptable moment to “give in”:

Our liberally educated girl is not very likely to be swept away on a tide of passion. With the first feeling of lust, her mind begins working at a furious rate. Should she or shouldn’t she? What are the arguments on both sides? Respect or not? Does she really want to enough?

Johnson feared that these feelings of uncertainty and doubt would spill over from girls’ romantic lives into other areas. “By the end of college,” she wrote, “[a girl] is saddled with enough theories, arguments pro and con, expectations, and conflicting opinions to keep her busy for years. She is in the habit of analyzing everything, wondering why she does things, and trying to lay a pattern for her life.”

Carl Binger, a psychiatric consultant at Harvard University Health Services, writing fifteen months after Johnson, likewise worried about the emotional health of college girls. Female college students, he commented, were often so distressed that they were finding themselves unable to concentrate and were struggling in their classes. Many girls, he contended, were not well prepared for the academic rigors of college. Buckling down and studying would of course help, but in many cases, he noted, the girls were simply too out of sorts to do so:

What is common…in the college girl is a loss of zest, a feeling of apathy or fatigue, and an apparent need for extra hours of sleep, a very much lowered self-esteem, with sensitivity to other people’s opinions and reactions, and, above all, an inability to get work done.… Often the printed page seems to lack meaning; attention, concentration and comprehension are at a low level. Instead, there is brooding, daydreaming, mounting dissatisfaction with self.

Although the education of women has changed considerably since the 1960s, college is still a tumultuous time for many women. College girls (along with their male counterparts) often struggle under an array of academic, social, and romantic pressures. But as Binger pointed out, college can also be a time of profound transformation, a brief period when a young woman's life can change shape—often for the better:

I have no wish to end this article on a negative note, nor to leave the reader with the impression that nothing can be accomplished either by way of preventing these emotional disturbances in young college women or of dealing with them once they have arisen. Exactly the reverse is true. There is probably no segment of the population which appears to be more amenable to treatment than just this group of intelligent, sensitive, idealistic young women with their futures before them.

—Eva Hoffman

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