Despite being a first-generation college student, college has always been on my radar, a privilege and goal taken totally for granted. It never seriously occurred to me that 250 years ago, a female college student was a real anomaly; that one hundred years ago, adult female college students were kept under stricter rules than kindergartners; that fifty years ago, the view of college as a sort of waiting room preceding marriage was a laudable, common one (and one that, i know, still exists today, but i haven’t personally encountered it, thankfully). When I first picked up College Girls, i was quite unaware of these truths, but i didn’t think it could hurt to read a history of American women and their relationship to higher education as to perhaps appreciate the bravery of my foremothers more fully.
Indeed, after reading College Girls, i have a much better idea of the significance of my taking my role as a student for granted, especially as a woman of color. That i’ve never questioned my right to be a student is a gift from women of the past to women of the present—a gift fought for, ardently in many cases, through innovation, action, and leadership.
I’m interested in the history of American collegiate culture in general—all the secret societies and legacies and such seem so intriguing!—but it’s also odd to think of college in the past, as I see college as a perfect snapshot of the contemporary. I guess it’s the high concentration of youths, many of whom holding very current views and leading very modern lives. So, the thorough but readable history College Girls provides proved fascinating to me, full of tidbits about how everyday life was at this-or-that campus in whatever year, information gleaned from novels written about college girls, interviews with students themselves, or first-hand diaries or essays. Drawing from this rich variety of sources, Peril presents the reader with images of college as contemporary students would never recognize it. I, for one, couldn’t imagine attending an institution where not only curfew, but total lights out, was enforced by 10PM. Or where one was only allowed to leave campus to visit home or elsewhere every six weeks. Or where daily chapel attendance was mandatory, and if one was caught canoodling with a beau (or (even worse) belle), one could be severely punished, even suspended or expelled.
On the less punitive side, collegiate women of the past were, in general, worked harder than many modern students. Syllabi they could not deviate from often included Greek, Latin, high sciences and mathematics, French, literature, and music all in one term. I don’t mean to suggest that modern education is inadequate, but it seems that certain women’s colleges of the past wanted to ensure that the vast majority–if not totality—of students’ time was spent in study, while modern colleges seem more open to allowing time for socializing, extracurriculars, and down time.
Aside from offering vivid reconstructions of the college experiences of women past, Peril also explores the College Girl as an icon, with its various connotations, as outlined in the subtitle of the work. First, there was the bluestocking, an image first popularized in the late 1800s, around when college girls first became a semi-regular fixture in American culture. The bluestocking was a girl educated to a fault: she was so learned that she cared for nothing more than studying—settling down to have a family was, damnably, far from her mind. The bluestocking was considered both physically and mentally unattractive, for what man would want a woman even equally intelligent as him? The spirit of this attitude linger in modern times in the occasionally encountered idea that there is nothing wrong with a woman being educated, but there is a definite point where she becomes “too” educated, and therefore undesirable—not to mention, of course, the ubiquitous dichotomy between the homely smart girl and the brainless babe.
In a bit of a 180, around the 1920s, the college girl began to be portrayed as the sex kitten, the frisky, sexually adventurous young girl who snuck boys into her dorm room and perhaps even slept with her professors. (Smutty novels and pulp fictions concerning the latter situation became quite popular in the twenties, as well.) Surely, there is a kernel of truth to this stereotype—in the twenties and today, college is a time when many young women (and men) explore their sexualities in a hopefully constructive and conscious way. Assuming that proper emotional and physical precautions are taken, i don’t see a problem with this; however, i do find a problem in the reduction of the College Girl to an empty sexual object.
Though, granted, pretty much any given group of people could or already has been fetishized by someone out there, Peril has a theory as to why the college girl fetish is so widespread: “Portraying the college girl as an eroticized playmate defused the threatening image of a man-hating intellectual harpy by reducing her to a sexually submissive pussycat”—if she was nothing more than a sex object, her purported intelligence could scarcely be considered a threat to the idea of the omniscient male and intellectually limited female that was generally supported by both men and women of the time.
(As a side note, I found an interesting parallel between the stereotypes of collegiate women and those of queer women: either they are unattractive, overly educated dissidents who uniformly abhor the idea of forming a family, or they are sexual objects, perhaps only pretending to be what they claim for the sake of titillation.)
The final item in the subtitular list, co-eds, of course refers to the gradual disestablishment of single-sex education in America (today, only a handful of all-female colleges exist, and even fewer all-men’s). Peril discusses this shift at length, and it’s easy to understand why: the transition from a world where female students could be severely punished for even talking with a man after hours, to one where men and women could not only socialize at will, but sometimes lived in the very same dormitory, was far from smooth. Indeed, during some campuses’ early days of coeducation, male and female students were flat-out held to different standards: men had no enforced curfew, while women had a strict one; men were allowed to smoke in the dorms, sometimes even in their rooms, while women were not allowed to smoke at all. Such rules were a response to women’s supposed general inability to protect themselves; school administrators reasoned that vulnerable female scholars needed the college to act in loco parentis—that is, at least until she returned to her real parents or, more favorably, got married. Today, such flagrant sexism is difficult to fathom; also today, thankfully, sex is at least not a formal consideration in the formulation of most mainstream college’s rules.
Ever since i was little, i’ve enjoyed history, but i often have a difficult time imagining what the lives of people of the past were really like, because such imagining encompasses so many details: diction, slang, fashion, popular decorating schemes, social norms, technology, pop culture…So, i’ve always found it edifying to watch a movie set in historical situations that i am interested in. Point being, my finishing College Girls coincided quite neatly with watching Mona Lisa Smile with my girlfriend on Friday night.
Set in 1950s Wellesley College (one of the most established women’s colleges in the U.S. to this date), Smile was a fun way to tie together pieces of women’s collegiate history i’d learned from reading Peril’s book, even if it wasn’t entirely accurate (as, granted, few historical films are). Interestingly, included in College Girls is an interview with a bonafide Wellesley alumna, who sneers at the movie’s essentialist attitude of bohemian Californian professor vs. stuffy, traditional New Englanders. But Smile still captures many of the points Peril explores: The restrictiveness of college rules at the time. The rigor of the curriculum. The inclusion of traditional “women’s work” in said in curriculum (in the movie, this takes the form of an etiquette class). And, of course, the difficult choice scads of women had to face: Should I make use of this degree, perhaps even continue onto grad school, or leave well enough alone and start a family?
In short, College Girls was an excellent summary of women’s history in the world of upper class education. Whether or not you’re generally into nonfiction, i’d recommend it, as Peril’s flair for personalizing potentially dry first-hand quotes and overall familiar, appropriately humorous style make it a fun read.
(And, i must add, i just returned from spring break to my own college. Cheesy though it may be, Peril’s work has inspired me to try to get the very most out of my last quarter as a first-year.)