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
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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.

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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