Interviews April 2007

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.
book cover

College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-Eds, Then and Now
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Lynn Peril
W. W. Norton
352 pages

Step onto the typical college campus, and it’s hard to imagine that not so long ago women wouldn’t have been allowed to study there. These days, nearly sixty percent of all undergraduates are women; not only are most colleges coed, but dorms and even bathrooms are too.  In College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Coeds, Then and Now, a cultural history of women’s higher education, Lynn Peril emphasizes how something that we mostly take for granted today—that women should have the same education as men—was a hotly contested notion even as recently as the 1950s.

In the mid-nineteenth century, when the first women’s colleges were founded, arguments raged over whether women should study such difficult subjects as advanced mathematics, Greek, and Latin. Many argued that there was no point, since such courses would simply overeducate a woman for her true calling as wife and mother. Peril quotes an 1830s newspaper editorial in which, upon the opening of a new women’s college, the author sarcastically suggested the following degrees: “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).” Even after colleges offering women a rigorous education were well established, obstacles continued to crop up. Doctors suggested that studying made women too masculine and threatened their ability to bear children. Certain educators pushed a curriculum of “domestic sciences” instead of advanced subjects; Columbia University even had its own laundry “laboratory.” After World War II, some began to promote the ideal of a separate “woman’s curriculum” that would, in the words of one college president, help a female college graduate “foster the intellectual and emotional life of her family and community.” Even now, Peril writes, one can hear the echoes of these debates—for example, when Lawrence Summers publicly wonders whether women have less aptitude for the sciences than men; when scholars ponder whether women learn differently; and when commentators wring their hands over an alleged “marriage gap” for educated women.

Also see:

Flashbacks: "College Girls" (March 6, 2007)
Articles from the 1890s through the 1960s explore the academic, social, and sexual debates surrounding women at college.

Though the issues Peril addresses are weighty, College Girls is hardly a ponderous tome; the book is peppered with such pop culture documents (or “femoribilia,” as Peril  calls them) as advertisements, photographs,  and articles from Ladies Home Journal, Mademoiselle, and the like—all of which both entertain and offer a keen sense of how cultural attitudes toward women have evolved over time. Highlighting how important it once was for college women to downplay their intelligence in favor of their appearance, Peril quotes a nail polish ad from the 1940s: “Don’t entertain a new boyfriend by reading William James out loud to him. Do beautify your fingernails with that wonderful long-lasting, gem-hard Dura-Gloss.” The quote Peril chooses from Vassar College’s 1865 prospectus, shows a different sort of cultural bias:

[The Vassar woman] should be as intelligent as a man, as broad in the range of her information, as alert and facile (if less robust) in the use of her faculties, more delicate and pure in her tastes; her moral aims should be equally definite, her moral tone equally high; but her methods should be all her own, always and only womanly.

Through the lens of popular culture, Peril gives a sense of the delicate line early women’s educators walked—trying to argue that women deserved an education similar to that of men, while offering assurances that women’s femininity would in no way be compromised.

Peril is also the author of Pink Think: How to Become a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons. She lives in Oakland, California.

We spoke by phone on February 14.

Katie Bacon

Author photo
Lynn Peril

You write, “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.” Would you say that college women are still lightning rods to some degree?

To some degree, yes. Obviously it’s nothing like it was in the nineteenth century. But there are these little cobweb-y ideas that seem to hang around us forever. With the comments by Lawrence Summers about there being so few women in engineering and the sciences perhaps due to their intrinsic aptitude, there still seems to be this idea that women’s brains are different, or that women are just not able to think in the same way men are. And now that about 58 percent of undergraduates are female, in some quarters a fear is being expressed that men are going to be run out of colleges because women are taking over. Again, this harks back to previous attitudes. I think it was at the University of Wisconsin in the nineteenth century that there was a professor who discussed what he called his theory of sex repulsion, where if too many female undergraduates came in they would push the men out of the liberal arts. It was the sort of scare tactic idea that we see with so much sexism and racism; that there’s somehow not enough of a given commodity like education for everybody out there—so there has to be one group of people who’s entitled. And then there’s the ongoing marriage gap idea. Originally it was said that men wouldn’t want to marry an overeducated woman. Now it’s been twisted around to say that women don’t want to marry down. But there’s always this idea that if you get too educated, suddenly you’re unmarriagable.

You also talk about how there was the idea that a college education somehow “unfit” women for housework—and that this criticism lasted all the way until the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. It was really surprising to me that this criticism had traction for so long; was it surprising to you?

There is so much in this book that was absolutely shocking to me. The idea of women being “unfitted” for housework just blew my mind. I found a hilarious article in Ladies Home Journal by a young woman who said she had gone through college taking the same types of courses as her brother, and as a result, when she came out, she could not bake a loaf of bread; that kind of knowledge had been driven out from her mind. So again, it’s the same sort of idea — that your brain can’t hold both an understanding of higher mathematics and an understanding of basic bread baking. And then, of course, later on, this changes into the argument that you see around the 1960s, with Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique—that women who went to college but ended up staying home to take care of their kids wasted their educations. The idea is that you can have either a domestic education or an academic/liberal arts education, and the two just don’t combine. We still deal with the essence of that with the whole mommy wars.

Could you talk about the argument that college was too physically demanding for women? Where do you think that came from? Was it men looking for an excuse to keep women out?

From the archives:

"The Weaker Sex: A Scientific Ramble" (April 1926)
"Whatever success [women] may have obtained in the realization of their political demands, the facts continue to be, or seem to be, against their claim of mental equality." By James H. Leuba

"Glandular Activity and Feminine Talent: A Reply to Dr. Leuba" (June 1926)
"The progress of man has never been impeded by preconceived ideas regarding his abilities, his proper interests, and his appropriate activities. Woman has always been so hampered." By Faith Fairfield

I think at the beginning that’s definitely what it was. This medical argument really started showing up in the 1870s, with Dr. Edward Clarke and his book Sex and Education, or, A Fair Chance for the Girls. He made the argument that if you’re studying during the time when you should be menstruating, your brain draws away the necessary blood and completely messes up your system. Part of that came from medical theory at the time, which believed that there was only so much energy to go around and that whenever your body was performing a certain function—digestion, say—all your blood ran there, so even studying and trying to digest at the same time could cause your brain to overload and make you collapse. But the idea that women physically couldn’t study was a convenient argument against coeducation, which women were fighting for at around that time. Of course, women had been attending college for almost fifty years at that point, and there was a huge backlash to this book.

Presented by

Katie Bacon, formerly the executive editor of The Atlantic Online, is now a freelance editor and writer living outside of Boston.

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