Books April 2007

The Age of Innocence

When girls leave home for college, it affects them far more deeply than it does boys—and there’s no way parents can protect them once they go.

When I was an undergraduate, in the early 1980s, I spent a semester of my junior year living in an all-women’s dorm. It was cleaner, quieter, and generally pleasanter than the coed dorms I had always favored. In the lobby, flanking the wide front door, were a sunken sitting room and a glassed-in office containing a defunct switchboard. The sitting room was filled with wrought-iron furniture and glass-topped tables, and was referred to as “the porch.” Both of these entities, the porch and the switchboard, were relics of the days when the university had observed parietals, the rules by which a college dormitory monitors the comings and goings of its students. Under the old system, there had been a curfew and nightly head count, and young men could not wander through the building; they were announced by the switchboard operator, and could be entertained only in certain venues—the porch, for example, or a bedroom (during posted hours), with the door left wide open.

Parietals, for the most part, have gone the way of the faculty-wife tea. Intended to regulate the sex lives of undergraduates, they belong to a time when colleges maintained a parental relationship with their students: monitoring their health, enforcing bedtimes, and ensuring that their passions did not control their behavior. The strictures were not imposed only on women; Harvard had instituted parietals by 1770, after a student—distinguished by the overweening ambition and ample pocket money of his kind—entertained not one but two prostitutes in his dorm room. But college women felt the brunt of them: Parietals in women’s dormitories were typically more restrictive, and they took far more effort to overthrow, because they had a different purpose when applied to women. Keeping whores out of Harvard residence halls had to do with the honor of Harvard, but keeping Betty Coed a virgin had to do with the honor of Betty Coed.

To an extent, the history of higher education for American women can be traced through the gradual erosion of parietals. As more and more young ladies began to leave their families not for marriage but for a college education, and then to slowly be granted the freedom of the campus, something profound began to change. The nature of the education women received in college—from the things they studied in the classroom to the graces and talents they were expected to cultivate beyond the lecture hall—evolved in direct proportion to their gathering personal and sexual freedoms. To be free to sleep wherever you choose and with whomever you choose is to be free to turn up your nose at the “Ladies’ Course” and to pursue instead a “classical” curriculum.

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.

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

All of these developments are cataloged in Lynn Peril’s invaluable new book, College Girls. Hers is not an achievement of analysis; almost every one of her revelations is marshaled to support the contention that colleges imposed more limits on women than on men. (Or, “Color me jeering,” as she puts it at one point.) But the book can be forgiven much, because in it Peril has assembled an Aladdin’s cave of treasures. She has read, and quotes at length from, a rich and various array of sources: student handbooks and yearbooks, popular novels, and advice manuals from the past two centuries. She has created a record of the daily habits of these women—from what they ate, to what they wore, to the subjects they studied—that will fascinate anyone interested in the history of private life.

As for what they ate—just about anything that wasn’t nailed down, apparently. One cannot read this book and continue to believe that the “disordered eating” that besets so many college women is a recent phenomenon. Today it may be marked by grimly endured starvation campaigns or bulimia, but in decades past it was the stuff of a strange glee: festive communal gorging. The midnight suppers or “spreads,” once a major pleasure of college girls’ lives, were conducted around a chafing dish—by the 1890s, it was a popular gift for a college-bound girl—in which the hostess cooked rarebits, omelets, and (most popular of all) pan after pan of fudge. By the early 20th century, groups of female eaters commonly gave themselves nicknames: the Stuffers, the Nine Nimble Nibblers, the Grid L. Kakes. While college men during the same period were forging friendships through cane rushes, fraternity hazing, and other acts of ritualized violence, the girls ate—and ate—their way to community and affection.

The other thing that the girls tended to do was to fall head over heels in love with one another. The 1907 Barnard yearbook observed that crushes were “an epidemic peculiar to college girls,” marked by “a lump in the throat, a feeling of heat in the face and an inability to speak.” While romantic friendships between women were an accepted aspect of life in the 19th century, Peril’s reporting on the nature of those relationships is eye-opening. An 1898 advice book called What a Young Woman Ought to Know describes the irritating behavior of girls who imposed their ardor on the world:

They go about with their arms around each other, they loll against each other, and sit with clasped hands by the hour. They fondle and kiss until beholders are fairly nauseated.

In 1928, one besotted “smasher” at a Texas college formalized her feelings in a yearbook entry: “Roommate, darling, how I love you.”

The tendency of these crushes to tip over into actual lesbianism terrified and disgusted parents (as well as college administrators, who were ever on the watch for an “exaggerated athletic bent” or “over-boisterousness”) even more than coitus, and may have played a small role in the gradual movement toward coeducation, a phenomenon that skyrocketed in the 1920s, when the population of American undergraduates swelled. Once coeducation became the norm, the goal of a woman’s college years shifted from preparing to become a wife to catching an actual husband, which in turn launched the thousands of proms, formals, and education-ending proposals that gave coeds a reputation (often well-deserved) of being less intellectually serious than college men.

Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That (2006). She is at work on Girl Land, a book about the emotional life of pubescent girls. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In