As we celebrate back-to-school time, join Jennifer Leo as she looks back at the life and times of college women in decades past, including Literary Snippets from Lucy Maud Montgomery and more.
If you prefer to read rather than listen, scroll down to find a transcript of this episode.
Transcript for Episode 20: Here Come the Co-eds! College Women of Yesteryear
As it’s back-to-school time, I thought it would be fun to talk about college…specifically, what college was like for women in our favorite time period of the early- to mid-20th century.
But first, a brief update on my writing life. I’ve just returned from a wonderful three-day writing retreat in Post Falls, Idaho, only about an hour’s drive from my home. I went with several other members of my monthly critique group and it turned out to be a time that was both refreshing and productive. We alternated lots of writing on our own with time spent together, cementing our friendships. For the most part we spent our days writing, interspersed with a nap here or a hike there, and then gathered at mealtimes and watched movies together in the evening. If you enjoy writing, I highly recommend taking a writing retreat, either on your own or with other like-minded writers who are serious about getting stuff done. I think the same could be said about just about any art, from painting to quilting to scrapbooking. Time away can be refreshing as well as productive. Since I live in a quiet household anyway and have few interruptions other than those I impose on myself, I don’t know why I’m so much more productive on retreat, but there it is.
In other news, my historical-romance novella “The Violinist” will be published in November in a collection called The Highlanders. As the title indicates, each novella in the collection features a Scotsman. I took my Scotsman and I brought him to North Idaho as a logger in 1915. The other authors in the collection are J’Nell Cieselski, Naomi Musch, and Janet Grunst. I hope you’ll watch for The Highlanders and give it a read and a review. When it’s time for a sneak peek at the cover, I’ll post it in the show notes over at sparklingvintagelife.com under Episode 20.
My 1930s standalone novel, Moondrop Miracle, alas, has not yet been able to find a home with a publishing house. However, I believe in this story so much that I’m now planning to indie-publish it through my own company, Mountain Majesty Media. I’m making some final tweaks and it will go to an editor this fall, and I’ll also be auditioning cover designers soon. If all goes as planned, expect to see Moondrop Miracle in early 2020. And I’m still writing the first draft of the yet-untitled novel set in Hollywood in the 1930s. I took a break from it to get Moondrop Miracle ready to go to the editor, then I’ll be back at it. And finally, I’m polishing up a proposal for yet another novel, this one set around the capsizing of the Eastland excursion boat in the Chicago River in 1915. The working title of that one is currently, very unimaginatively, Eastland. If you have a better idea, let me know. The proposal and sample chapters will soon go to my agent to see if any traditional publishers might be interested in publishing it. I’m still open to entertaining a traditional publishing deal even though independent publishing is seeming more and more attractive on multiple levels.
And if you happen to be in the area, I’ll be speaking at the Idaho Writer’s League Annual Conference in Sandpoint, Idaho, on September 20 and 21, 2019.
So that’s what’s been going on with me. Now on to our topic, which is what college was like for women, several generations ago.
I’ve had great fun researching this topic. For the most part, I enjoyed my college years. There were some bad things that happened during that time, to be sure, but there were very good things too. So you need to know that my opinion of college is colored by my own overall positive experience, but I have very little firsthand or even secondhand knowledge of what college life is like today and how it compares. Those of you who are in college now or have kids in college would obviously know more about that than I do.
Another thing I want to say up front is that I no longer think college is right for everyone, especially in this day and age when so many alternatives are available. Of course, for certain careers one needs to credentials and the contacts that only college can provide. But I think nowadays specialized training, trade school or apprenticeships or online learning or other ways to prepare to earn a living are just as valid and often more practical, depending on a person’s life ambition. I’m also a strong proponent for self-education and lifelong learning no matter what path a person’s formal education takes. So don’t take this nostalgic look back at vintage college life and turn it into a blanket endorsement of college for everyone, because it isn’t.
All that said, let’s promenade back to peek at college women’s experience in the early 20th century. As I said, I had so much fun researching college life in that era. Sometimes it sounded like one chafing-dish party after another. Chafing-dish parties were all the rage in women’s dorms in the 1910s. Here’s some of what I unearthed.
First, rather than “college woman,” you’d be more likely to hear “college girl” or even “co-ed,” which was short for “co-educational.” Prior to the early 20th century, most colleges were segregated by gender. The majority were men’s colleges, plus a smaller number of women’s colleges. Women were more likely to attend finishing school, if they were from wealthy families, or to either get married or get a job straight out of high school if they weren’t. I’m planning to say more about finishing schools in a future episode of this podcast, so we’ll table that topic for now.
But back to colleges. In the late 19th and at the turn of the 20th century we had the land grant colleges which were now opening up coeducationally. It was still much rarer for women to attend college, and rarer still for them to attend colleges right alongside the men, the land-grant colleges notwithstanding. So when the first co-educational colleges came along, the female students themselves were called “co-eds” while male students were called “students.” You’d see magazine articles written about “Fashions for the Co-Ed” or “Study Tips for the Co-Ed.” In some places, female college students were still called co-eds right up into the 1960s, although by the early ‘80s when I graduated the term was no longer in use anywhere. We were all just “college students.”
I looked up some old student manuals to see what college life was like. It was interesting to see what was deemed important. For example, a women’s college in the American Southeast in 1927 devoted an entire section on the use of electric lights. Students had to be in their rooms with doors closed and lights out at 10:30 p.m., except on Saturdays 11:30 p.m. However, they were allowed two “light cuts” a week when they could keep their light on until midnight for studying. I’m wondering if electricity was so relatively expensive at that time that it had to be carefully regulated.
That same 1927 manual prohibited walking on the roofs of the buildings, making me wonder if that was a thing. It also prohibited smoking within a radius of ten miles of the college. First offense earned a reprimand. Second offense earned suspension. I have no problem with prohibiting smoking, especially these days when we know how harmful it is to our health, but the ten-mile radius seems a bit excessive, as does the punishment, especially because they didn’t have the Surgeon General’s Warning about tobacco back then. Interestingly, this particular college was located in Virginia, heart of tobacco-growing country.
Students were also only allowed to go for walks in groups, and the size of the group determined where they could go. For example, two or more students together could walk to certain places, while only six or more could walk other places. And the destinations were very specific: from this farm to that person’s house, or through Dr. So-and-so’s gate as far as the bend in the stream.
Needless to say, gentlemen callers were highly restricted at this college in that era. Men were allowed to call at the college on Saturday evenings between 7:30 and 10:30 and on Sunday afternoons from 3:00-5:45 and 8:30-10:00. Apparently they had to find something else to do with themselves between 6 and 8.
Chaperones were in high demand. “There are no evening engagements off campus unchaperoned,” the manual intones, “for safety, to protect students from being misjudged and to safeguard the social good of the college.” A list of approved chaperones was supplied. I think an entire future episode on chaperones, what they were, and what became of them is warranted, don’t you?
At this school in 1927, students wore white blouses and dark skirts to classes, but they had to change into a dress for dinner. They could, if they wanted, give the impression of a dress by wearing a white skirt with their white blouse, or a dark blouse with their dark skirt, but no wearing a white blouse and dark skirt to dinner. That was daytime wear. Also, “girls costumed in knickers or trousers for hiking do not use the front hall after 6 p.m.”
At another school several years later, in 1935, students were prohibited from dancing in public places, although presumably they could do so at private functions. They needed written permission from their parents to ride in an automobile. Their use of electric lights was not so restricted, but if they brought a radio from home they had to register it with the dean’s office, pay an extra fee for it, and have it taken away if they played it too loud.
It would be interesting to see how these rules and regulations compare to the types of activities that are permitted and not permitted on campuses today.
Finally, it’s been a while since I’ve brought you a Literary Snippet, so I want to close out this episode with a few insightful literary snippets about college life fifty or a hundred years ago.
In Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, published in 1912, Anne Shirley earns her teaching credential at Queen’s, a school that’s close enough to home that she can go home every weekend. Then in Anne of Avonlea she begins her first teaching job. At the end of Anne of Avonlea, she’s preparing to go to Redmond College to further her education. Before she goes, she meets her neighbor, Mr. Harrison.
“I s’pose you’ll be starting off for college in a fortnight’s time?” [said] Mr. Harrison. “Well, we’re going to miss you an awful lot, Emily and me.”
“Yes, I’m going. I’m very glad with my head…and very sorry with my heart.”
“I s’pose you’ll be scooping up all the honors that are lying round loose at Redmond.”
“I may try for one or two of them,” confessed Anne, “but I don’t care so much for things like that as I did two years ago. What I want to get out of my college course is some knowledge of the best way of living life and doing the most and best with it. I want to learn to understand and help other people and myself.”
Mr. Harrison nodded.
“That’s the idea exactly. That’s what college ought to be for, instead of for turning out a lot of B.A.’s so chock full of book-learning and vanity that there ain’t room for anything else. You’re all right. College won’t be able to do you much harm, I reckon.” (excerpt from Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery)
In the next book, Anne of the Island, Anne goes off to Redmond. Her love interest, Gilbert Blythe, is also going to Redmond, although they aren’t yet an item at this point. In a conversation the night before they leave, he says, “You look tired, Anne.”
“I am tired, and worse than that, I’m disgruntled. I’m tired because I’ve been packing my trunk and sewing all day. But I’m disgruntled because six women have been here to say goodbye to me, and every one of the six managed to say something that seemed to take the color right out of life and leave it as gray and dismal and cheerless as a November morning.”
“Spiteful old cats!” was Gilbert’s elegant comment.
“Oh, no, they weren’t,” said Anne seriously. “That is just the trouble. If they had been spiteful cats I wouldn’t have minded them. But they are all nice, kind, motherly souls who like me and whom I like it, and that is why what they said had such undue weight with me. They let me see they thought I was crazy going to Redmond and trying to take a B.A., and ever since I’ve been wondering if I am. Mrs. Peter Sloane sighed and said she hoped my strength would hold out till I got through; and at once I saw myself a hopeless victim of nervous prostration at the end of my third year; Mrs. Eben Wright said it must cost an awful lot to put in four years at Redmond and I felt all over me that it was unpardonable in me to squander Marilla’s money and my own on such a folly; Mrs. Jasper Bell said she hoped I wouldn’t let college spoil me, as it did some people; and I felt in my bones that the end of my four Redmond years would see me a most insufferable creature, thinking I knew it all, and looking down on everything and everybody in Avonlea; Mrs. Elisha Wright said she understood that Redmond girls, especially those who belonged to Kingsport, were ‘dreadful dressy and stuck-up,’ and she guessed I wouldn’t feel much at home among them; and I saw myself a snubbed, dowdy, humiliated country girl shuffling through Redmond’s classic halls in coppertoned boots.
Anne ended with a laugh and a sigh commingled. With her sensitive nature all disapproval had weight, even the disapproval of those for whose opinions she had scant respect. For the time being life was savorless, and ambition had gone out like a snuffed candle.” (excerpt from Anne of the Island by L. M. Montgomery).
So that passage gives you some idea of the various ways people thought about college education for women in those days. Those were several of the common objections people had to women going to college.
After they arrive at Redmond, Anne speaks to her friend and fellow “freshette,” Priscilla. In the book a “freshette” is a female first-year student, the female equivalent of a freshman. They talk about how overwhelmed and insignificant they feel as newcomers to campus. Anne says, “I suppose the trouble is we can’t forgive big Redmond for not being little Queen’s… When we left Queen’s we knew everybody and had a place of our own. I suppose we have been unconsciously expecting to take life up at Redmond just where we left off at Queen’s, and now we feel as if the ground has slipped from under our feet. I’m thankful that neither Mrs. Lynde nor Mrs. Elisha Wright know, or ever will know, my state of mind at present. They would exult in saying, ‘I told you so,’ and be convinced it was the beginning of the end. Whereas it is just the end of the beginning.” (excerpt from Anne of the Island by L. M. Montgomery)
And then finally, after a few weeks, Anne gets fully into the swing of student life a Redmond. “For the next three weeks Anne and Priscilla continued to feel as strangers in a strange land. Then, suddenly, everything seemed to fall into focus–Redmond, professors, classes, students, studies, social doings. Life became homogeneous again, instead of being made up of detached fragments. The Freshmen, instead of being a collection of unrelated individuals, found themselves a class, with a class spirit, a class yell, class interests, class antipathies and class ambitions. They won the day in the annual “Arts Rush” against the Sophomores, and thereby gained the respect of all the classes, and an enormous, confidence-giving opinion of themselves. For three years the Sophomores had won in the “rush.” That the victory of this year perched upon the Freshmen’s banner was attributed to the strategic generalship of Gilbert Blythe, who marshaled the campaign and originated certain new tactics, which demoralized the Sophs and swept the Freshmen to triumph.” (excerpt from Anne of the Island by L. M. Montgomery)
She goes on to describe many other fun doings of college life in that era.
Another delightful book that describes the college experience is Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster, published in 1912. Daddy Long-Legs is an epistolary novel, meaning it’s written in the form of letters. In it, an orphan named Jerusha Abbott has been sponsored by an anonymous benefactor to go to college, under the stipulation that she write to him regularly, keeping him informed of her progress.
So in her letters, when she first gets to college, she says:
The Letters of Miss Jerusha Abbott to Mr. Daddy-Long-Legs Smith [she calls him Daddy Long-Legs because she doesn’t know who he is, but she saw him from a distance once and knows he is tall].
Here I am! I travelled yesterday for four hours in a train. It’s a funny sensation, isn’t it? I never rode in one before.
College is the biggest, most bewildering place—I get lost whenever I leave my room. I will write you a description later when I’m feeling less muddled; also I will tell you about my lessons. Classes don’t begin until Monday morning, and this is Saturday night. But I wanted to write a letter first just to get acquainted.
To Mr. Daddy-Long-Legs
I love college and I love you for sending me—I’m very, very happy, and so excited every moment of the time that I can scarcely sleep. You can’t imagine how different it is from the John Grier Home. I never dreamed there was such a place in the world. I’m feeling sorry for everybody who isn’t a girl and who can’t come here; I am sure the college you attended when you were a boy couldn’t have been so nice.
My room is up in a tower that used to be the contagious ward before they built the new infirmary. There are three other girls on the same floor of the tower—a Senior who wears spectacles and is always asking us please to be a little more quiet, and two Freshmen named Sallie McBride and Julia Rutledge Pendleton. Sallie has red hair and a turn-up nose and is quite friendly; Julia comes from one of the first families in New York and hasn’t noticed me yet. They room together and the Senior and I have singles. Usually Freshmen can’t get singles; they are very scarce, but I got one without even asking. I suppose the registrar didn’t think it would be right to ask a properly brought-up girl to room with a foundling. You see there are advantages!
My room is on the north-west corner with two windows and a view. After you’ve lived in a ward for eighteen years with twenty room-mates, it is restful to be alone. This is the first chance I’ve ever had to get acquainted with Jerusha Abbott. I think I’m going to like her.
Do you think you are?
Later…They are organizing the Freshman basket-ball team and there’s just a chance that I shall get in it. I’m little, of course, but terribly quick and wiry and tough. While the others are hopping about in the air, I can dodge under their feet and grab the ball. It’s loads of fun practicing—out in the athletic field in the afternoon with the trees all yellow and red and the air full of the smell of burning leaves, and everybody laughing and shouting. These are the happiest girls I ever saw—and I am the happiest of all!
There’s much more to read about Jerusha Abbott and her college experience, including the fact that she changes her name from Jerusha to Judy, because she’d like to fit in better. So I do recommend, if you’ve never read it, Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster.
My final college-related literary snippet is from Campus Melody by Anne Emery. Published in 1955, Campus Melody tells the story of Jean Burnaby, who has received a scholarship to attend Overton College to study piano. I love the description of the campus:
“Jean’s room was in Houghton House, the oldest of four women’s dormitories at Overton College. An old brick building with high ceilings and Victorian woodwork, the floors slippery with age, the stairs grooved and creaking, it had the prettiest setting of any of the dorms, overlooking the new library, the older campus buildings, and the curve of the Ohio River, beyond which lay the Kentucky hills.
Jean loved everything about the college and her room, including the pink-and-blue curtains she had dreaded. They had turned out to be a dusty aqua with accents of coral and brown in impressionistic squares. The bedspreads were brown corduroy, and Melissa had contributed six lounging pillows covered in coral. Twin bookcases flanked twin study desks with coral blotters, set in the bay window, and each girl thought the other’s collection of books looked fascinating. Jean and Melissa spent the first week together listening to orientation lectures, filling out questionnaires, attending discussions on possible careers and courses of study. They had gone to two parties for freshman girls, had bought two record albums at the Campus Book and Record Shop, had had one of the famous milk shakes at the Sweet Shop, the favorite village hangout for students, and finally stood in line with two hundred other freshman girls in the big gymnasium to register for classes.”
At first all goes swimmingly for Jean. She has an active social life and keeps up with her classes. At first. Then she runs afoul of the housemother of her dorm, a stately lady with lavender-tinted gray hair. Jean and Melissa come in late one night.
“The girls ran up the flight of steps to the first floor as fast as their failing wind would permit and found themselves breathless and gasping, facing the housemother who had their cards in her hand.
“You didn’t sign out,” she said with a smile which was meant to be kind and patient. “That is our first rule, my dears.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jean, trying to think of an excuse and unable to. “I’m afraid we forgot.”
“Being sorry doesn’t help matters much, does it?” Mrs. Buxton smiled cheerily. “I am responsible to your parents for your morals, your conduct, and your study habits. And the only way I can cope with such a heavy responsibility is to have careful attention to the rules. Because,” she said happily, with a gleam of inspiration, “minor infractions lead to major infractions. We must not weaken the foundation lest the walls crumble.”
“We’ll remember next time,” Jean mumbled, feeling like kindergartner.
“I’m sure you will,” Mrs. Buxton agreed amiably. “We’re not surprised that freshmen find it hard to get used to our ways,” she went on, as if freshmen had had no upbringing before coming to Overton, “but we do feel that the sooner everyone is accustomed to cooperation, the happier life will be for everyone. Don’t you agree?”
Melissa had regained her breath. “We agree entirely, Mrs. Buxton,” she said obligingly. “Thank you so much. Good night.”
Mrs. Buxton looked pleased, if puzzled, at the thanks, and Jean wondered, giggling with Melissa as they climbed to the third floor, if it was hypocritical to agree with someone you disliked about rules you didn’t believe in. And what else could you do?”
Well, soon Jean is given a rush by the big man on campus, and adventure ensues from there. If you feel like a fluffy, lightweight read that will nonetheless immerse you in another place, time, and way of looking at the world, look for Campus Melody by Anne Emery.
Today’s grace note is a copy of my own book, Songbird and Other Stories. This is a collection of four short stories set in the Roaring Twenties, mostly in Chicago and one in northern Idaho. These stories feature characters from my Roaring Twenties series, so if you haven’t read that series, this is a great way to get introduced to those characters and to the types of books they are. They’re clean and wholesome and fun. I hope you would like them very much. So, to enter in a drawing for a copy of Songbird and Other Stories, simply go to sparklingvintagelife.com/podcast, click on episode 20 and leave a comment. In the comment I would like you to share a favorite memory from your schooldays. It could be college, high school, or elementary school. Just one memory you remember fondly from your schooldays. And in about a week or ten days, I will choose a name at random from those who have commented and you will have your choice of a print book, a large-print book, or an e-book copy of Songbird and Other Stories.
And that’s it for our show today. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little stroll across the college campus of yesteryear. If you have a favorite memory from your college days that you’d like to share, or a favorite novel set on a college campus that you’d like to recommend, feel free to leave a comment at sparklingvintagelife.com/podcast under Episode 20.