College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-Eds, Then and Now
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by Lynn Peril
W. W. Norton
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.
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.