College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens and Co-eds, Then and Now

College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens and Co-eds, Then & Now by Lynn Peril

Proud Daughter: “I have made 100 in algebra, 96 in Latin, 90 in Greek, 88-1/2 in mental philosophy, and 95 in history; are you not satisfied with my record?”
Father: “Yes, indeed, and if your husband happens to know anything about housekeeping, sewing and cooking, I am sure your married life will be very happy.”

I’ve been wanting to read this book for quite a while and I was definitely not disappointed. As someone who grew up in the girl-power-Lilith-fair-empowering-women nineties, I admit that I sometimes forget how far we’ve actually come. This book did well to remind me that not even 40 years ago women were not afforded the luxuries of education that we have today–or, at least, they were constantly reminded that if they chose to attend college for their B.A. they also better be seeking their MRS. (the most important thing to a woman, mind you.) College Girls did a fantastic job of following the college girl through her bluestockings stereotype of the 1860s (where educated women were suspiciously eyed and denounced as destined for spinsterhood) all the way through to the sex kitten stereotype of the 1950s (where her sweater-sets showed off her *ahem* assets as she cared more about getting pinned than getting A’s).

“A woman is not expected to understand the mysteries of politics because she is not called to govern; she is not required to know anatomy, because she is not to perform surgical operations; she need not embarrass herself with the theological discussions because she will neither be called upon to make nor to explain creeds.”

First off let me say that I’m an education freak. I was that girl who made her friends play school when they came over in grade school, the girl who read books for fun, the girl who couldn’t wait to go to middle school, high school, college. The thought of society condemning my passion for higher education as unfeminine, unwise or unnecessary really pisses me off. Really, it does. That’s why I enjoyed this book–because it reminded me how thankful I should be for all of the book nerds that came before me and paved the way.

Lynn Peril has crafted a witty, interesting, and engaging book that spans over one hundred years of women in education in America. Everything from how they lived (or were told to live), what they studied (or were told to study), what they wore (or were told to wear), and what they did with their education is packed into this fun read. Most women who entered faced a barrage of criticism and judgment–why would a woman need to know about politics when she should be learning about how to iron or cook pot pies? Peril illustrates the long and arduous road they endured and the struggles they faced in their attempt to be taken seriously. More than anything I found the rules that were enforced upon the women the most fascinating part. Sure, I was expecting that back in the day they had rules about male visiting hours (hell, my college still had them!) but I wasn’t aware of the scope of control they college had over their lives:

“By 1962, Vassar’s long-standing, unwritten ‘open-door’ policy by which students could have men in their rooms at certain hours was frequently ignored in favor of the privacy afforded by locked doors. Given the change, a student committee asked for Vassar’s definition of the ‘highest standards’ the college expected ‘every girl to uphold.’ President Sarah Gibson Blanding (the first woman to hold that position at Vassar) called a compulsory convocation in response, and told students that premarital sex or excessive drinking were grounds for expulsion.”

Holy shamoley! That’s no Victorian-era rule, this was only 40-some years ago! It is quite stunning that a college believed they had the right to dictate student morals. And yet rules like this were plentiful for years–rules that applied to woman and not men; rules that aimed to “protect” women and their “purity” while they were away from home (aka their father, keeper of all things hymen). College Girls does a brilliant job of illustrating how the plight of these women changed over the years, from a hostile environment denouncing female education, to a very gradually more accepting and open environment, leading to today where more women than men enter the collegiate world (although stereotypes still do exist–girls gone wild much?) A compelling yet light read that is a must-pick-up on your next trip to the library.

Finally, let me leave you with my favorite passage that will make you grateful it is no longer 1957:

“‘Brains are for the Birds!’ (1957) was the eye-grabbing title of a story that appeared in Redbook magazine. Twenty-one-year-old Kathy Adams is a stenographer at an advertising agency who yearns for intellectual integrity. ‘I’m tired of being known as a — a fluff ball with legs!’ she declares. Unfortunately, she is more bombshell than egghead–in the illustration accompanying the story, she resembles Marilyn Monroe. In a misguided attempt at self-improvement, she dumps her current office beau (the broad-shouldered, blue-eyed Johnny Egan) for the Jason Agency’s resident horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing intellectual, David Keller, by faking an interest in his work. She is disappointed, however, when, instead of discussing advertising techniques, he asks her to be the model for Servisheer hose–one of his accounts. ‘I could make Mister David Keller notice my legs without even intending to, because I was using natural ammunition. But when it came to making him notice me for an intelligent female, I was just shooting at him with an empty gun!’ […] Kathy realizes her flight with intellectualism is over. ‘I’m just a d-dumb bunny, and I was trying to be intelligent!’ she sobs to Johnny Egan, who […] holds her tight and says, ‘Don’t worry…when we’re married, you can go to night school. Every night. I’ll be the teacher.’ At the end of the story, Kathy’s happily married to Johnny and ‘majoring in biology’–wink wink. The moral of the story? Women shouldn’t try to rise above their stations, and men don’t want their wives to be intellectuals.”

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2 responses to “College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens and Co-eds, Then and Now

  1. At Carleton my junior year I lived in a dorm that was built with columns instead of floors (i.e. in order to go from room 3A to room 3D you had to walk down the stairs to the first floor, walk across to the fourth column and then walk back up to the third floor). It was originally built as a women’s dorm and was commissioned by the dean of students at the time, who felt that women spent too much time gossiping and socializing and that the new layout would keep girls more isolated and studious.

    By all accounts, it didn’t work.

  2. another thing that is easy for people in our generation to forget is that the so-called best and most prestigious schools didn’t begin even admitting women until the latter half of the 20th century. Princeton and Yale began admitting women in 1969, Harvard was 1977 (when Radcliffe officially merged), Dartmouth was the early ’70s too, and Columbia didn’t even admit women until 1983!!! And even though these colleges were “affiliated with” women’s schools before then, that doesn’t change the fact that those schools didn’t confer the same prestige upon graduates.

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