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.
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.
In all of these behaviors—the comforting with food, the lavishing of love on whoever was available to receive it, the dreaming about husbands and households—I find poignant evidence of the one fact about these girls’ lives so obvious that it is rarely considered at all: They had all been abruptly uprooted from their homes. Girls have a different relationship to home than boys do: They are more sentimental about it as well as more critical of its shortcomings, and they are moored to its routines and rhythms more deeply. Even those girls for whom leave-taking is more escape than sorrow enter a period of profound self-examination—and often melancholy—when they break from the home where they were raised.
The most arresting part of Peril’s book is the brief, vivid, and appealing portrait she presents of herself as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin 25 years ago. She arrived with a butch haircut, a suitcase full of punk clothes mail-ordered from New York, and a “tough-chick persona.” I suspected that she was romanticizing her past, but then she shows us her freshman ID card, and she really was a fright. Underneath, though, she was as timid as any 18-year-old girl plucked from home and set down on the campus of a huge university. Too shy to raise her hand in class, or even to order a pizza over the telephone, she was so rattled by a boy who flirted with her on the first day of French II that she promptly dropped the class. “In my heart of hearts,” she writes—the phrase itself a kind of linguistic Fair Isle sweater—“I knew I wasn’t ready for college yet.” She wandered through her four years, her melancholy settling into a depression, and despite all of her bravado—and a short, fun fling with feminist theory—she ended up in the greatest of all girl majors: art history.
Peril reports, accurately, that much of the historical anxiety about sending girls to college had to do with the question of sex. In the 19th century, many believed that too much education could rob a girl of “the womanly virtues” and set her on a course for spinsterhood. Coeducation was problematic on two fronts: Not only was a girl in danger of losing her virginity; she was also capable of falling in love with the wrong kind of fellow, perhaps even returning home engaged to someone her family had never met. Nowadays, with the threats to a woman’s virginity ever more numerous, and engagement regarded by most coeds as a quaint arrangement slated for the distant future, parents’ worries have only multiplied.
Proof that the sex lives of college women remain an object of intense cultural fascination can be found in a book like Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked (reviewed in last month’s “Cover to Cover”), which documents the semi-anonymous “hooking up” that is now the norm. Stepp’s intention was to study this phenomenon open-mindedly, “hoping to understand rather than intending to censure.” But journalistic objectivity was soon replaced by alarm and even horror. She found girls who were “exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually” by the practice. The girls’ behavior is starkly contemporary, but the adult’s characterization of it—and of the specific ways that sexuality can deplete a woman—could have been lifted from a 19th-century tract. In placing the blame for these developments on three forces (“the ethic of female empowerment; parental expectations for academic and professional achievement; and reluctance on the part of authorities on campus to intervene in students’ social lives”), Stepp occupies the squishy middle ground where many progressive women unhappily find themselves: Yes, yes, yes to female freedom and empowerment, but Jesus Christ, why are these girls giving blow jobs to guys they hardly know?
She pulls herself together long enough to conclude the book with a “Dear Daughters” letter. It’s the kind of “sex is a beautiful thing, when it’s between two loving people” lecture that has been making young girls want to jump out of the nearest window from sheer embarrassment since the early 1970s. (My lecture arrived, in my mother’s Palmer Method handwriting, on my bedside table midway through 12th grade, and the extent to which it mortified me—my mother was a nurse and knew how to draw a fairly precise medical illustration—cannot be overstated.)
I’m sure that lectures from Mom on how to have super great sex don’t always fall on deaf ears. But Mom’s voice becomes a distant whisper once a young woman arrives at college, where she will no longer be regarded as a cosseted girl-child in need of protection and limit setting. It is impossible to imagine nonreligious colleges involving themselves in the kind of sexual decision making that concerns Stepp, because to be an undergraduate today is to be treated as a fully independent adult, as even a cursory glance at the admissions materials of most schools demonstrates. (I would never have attended a college that monitored my sleeping arrangements; like most of my friends in the women’s dorm, I often spent the night at a boyfriend’s apartment.) Obviously, the young women Stepp describes in her book were almost all nice girls raised by nice parents in nice neighborhoods. But just as obviously, they changed in some ugly ways when left on their own. Given the coarsening of the culture, the intense peer pressure and corresponding desire to fit in that have always marked college life, and the way very young women are defined today as at once independent and exploitable, the bitter pill for many parents sending their daughters to college is that there is no possible way to protect them from what they will encounter once they have been dropped off at the freshman dorm.