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.

Once women could choose between coed and single-sex colleges, what were the arguments for choosing one over the other?

One set of articles about this that I came across was from Better Homes and Gardens. They were taking up the question, Should your daughter go to college, and if so, should she choose coed or single sex? The idea was that if she went single sex she could get this great education, but if she went coed she could meet a husband. That was seen as a very positive thing about coeducation. At single sex schools, on the other hand, there was a concern that you were going to be off the marriage market for four important years of your life.

You point out that Emma Willard, one of the early proponents of rigorous education for women, was not a supporter of women’s political rights. This makes me think of Booker T. Washington’s arguments that blacks shouldn’t push too hard too soon for full integration. Was there a feeling among women that they might do themselves a disservice by pushing for rights too aggressively?

There was definitely that stream of thought at the time. There was a feeling that women who went to college got radicalized. In the book I quote this great early-twentieth-century letter in The New York Times from a father who wrote that his daughter had come home from school a suffragist, and he was not going to let any of his other daughters go to school because they might get ideas about wanting the vote.

Could you talk about the different educational paths for black women and white women? Why did the historically black colleges have an easier time going coed than the historically white colleges?

The historically black colleges sprang up right after the Civil War, and there was the idea that everyone needed to get educated. Black men and women worked side by side in the fields and they were going to need to work side by side vocationally, and for that they needed an education. So black men and women were educated side by side, with the idea that women were going to have to go out and work to support their families. But the white Christian gentlewoman had a different role in life prescribed for her. She was not going to be working side by side with men, so why should she be educated with them?

Could you talk a bit about the domestic science movement, where colleges started incorporating things like the science of laundry into their curricula? Was this a backlash against serious education for women?

From the archives:

"One View of Domestic Science" (October 1911)
"The idea that every woman needs practical instruction in housekeeping as a part of her education is as absurd as would be the claim that every man needs to be taught in school to plant corn or milk a cow." By Mary Leal Harkness

When I started looking into it, I realized that the domestic science movement has a pretty amazing history. I was in junior high school in 1973, and I was in the last group of sex-segregated home economics classes. The year after me both boys and girls did both shop and home-ec. I was raised to think of home-ec as this really goofy thing. It was the type of enforced femininity that made my skin crawl when I was growing up. But then I started studying more about the movement and reading how it happened. The domestic science movement, which later turns into home economics, that whole movement basically began with a woman named Ellen Swallow Richards, who was the first female student to graduate from MIT. Her idea was that domestic science would raise domesticity to the level of a science. It would still be women’s work—she wasn’t about melding a woman’s role and a man’s—but the idea was that if you made a woman’s role into something very important, it would have the same status and respect as outside office jobs. That was shocking to me, because I’m used to thinking of home economics as some kind of plot to shove women back into the kitchen. It’s not. Its goal is to make cooking and cleaning respected and on par with men’s office work. Also, as the Progressive movement got going in the early part of the twentieth century, it was thought that middle- and upper-class white women could take this training and go out and work in a settlement house or municipal kitchen. It was called municipal housekeeping. You would go out into the world and use your skills as a woman to help people. And this would be a respected position.

Early women’s educators fought for women to study the same things men did—things like advanced mathematics, Greek, and Latin. Then all of a sudden there was this other movement saying, No, we should be educating women for what they’re actually going to be doing, which is keeping house and raising children. There’s a quote in the book from one of Harvard’s early presidents, I think, who said, “Of what use degrees are to women, I don’t know.” The early men’s colleges were training men to be clergy or statesmen, and those professions were both closed to women. So what was the point of training a woman in mathematics and dead languages, which were what constituted a men’s liberal arts education? Why not just educate them for domesticity?

It came into play again in the mid-twentieth century with the idea of the woman-oriented curriculum. So there you are, it’s post-World War II, men are back from fighting, and want their jobs back, and there’s this whole cultural shift to domesticity. People who have been putting off having families because of uncertain times are now having them, and all of a sudden, marriage and babies and women in the kitchen are everywhere. An idea starts to float out there in higher education that you can take the liberal arts and view them through a lens of domesticity. So, for example, you could not only study child psychology rather than regular psychology, you could, to paraphrase an article in Mademoiselle from the late 1940s, study the psychology of a man coming home from work after a hard day, hot and tired, and how to deal with him. This sort of stuff was put forth very seriously. The president of Mills College in the ‘50s went on about how women should study “the theory and preparation of a Basque paella, a well-marinated shish kabob and lamb kidneys sautéed in sherry.” And the idea that women need to be educated differently is still with us today. Now it’s not so much that women need to learn a more domesticated liberal arts; it’s questions like, Do women learn differently from men, should they be taught differently than men? These ideas have been around forever, but they kind of mutate over the years.

I know that you’re an inveterate collector of prescriptive literature of the type that’s featured in the book. How did you get into this, and how do you find all this great stuff?

I’m just one of those people who always found all that enforced femininity stuff to be really annoying. I watched Bewitched and wondered why Darren wouldn’t let Samantha use her powers, which, now that I look back on it, has turned into a great feminist metaphor. Why did Ricky treat Lucy like some kind of imbecile child? Why couldn’t I wear pants to school? Here was this world where there was this yucky kind of femininity imposed on people, and then there was my home life, where women could really do anything—my parents owned a hardware store, and I would go there after school and use tools, put together bikes and wagons, and all that. And then the junior high school home-economics thing was just the worst. I was mortified by it. But later on, I found a 1960s home-ec book in Seattle, and I thought it was the best thing ever. So I started collecting prescriptive literature that set out to impose an idea of femininity.

The prescriptive literature is so exaggerated—you sometimes can’t even believe what you’re seeing. How accurately do these documents reflect what was going on at the time? Do you have to take them with a grain of salt?

You have to take them with a huge grain of salt, because you never know how people are actually integrating this into their lives at any given time. On the other hand, this literature certainly shows what the social anxieties were. For example, I found a “charm and beauty guide” which had pages devoted to how to treat your elbows so they aren’t ugly. Were people lying awake at night worrying their elbows were ugly? I don’t think so. At the same time, there’s this idea that every single part of the female body can become some kind of lodestar for disaster if you don’t buy a product to take care of it.

Did writing this book make you think about your own college experience differently?

Yes. I didn’t particularly value my college education for a number of reasons. Just being young, for one thing. It was an intense time in life. I went to the University of Milwaukee and there was a group of Gothic buildings on campus that were completely different from all the others. It turns out they’re part of the Milwaukee Downer Teacher’s college, which through several name changes and building changes was originally part of Catherine Beecher’s initiative to train women teachers for the frontier. It has a direct link with women’s higher education. Had I known that maybe I would have been a little bit more interested in my own education. I might have valued it more if I had realized that going to college wasn’t always the norm for women. It never occurred to me that women hadn’t attended college all along. Here I was enjoying this privilege and I didn’t even realize it was a privilege.

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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