College Girls

Shirley Marchalonis
June 01, 1996

In 1900, when Vassar College was 35 years old, Sophia Kirk, a contributor to important magazines like the Atlantic Monthly. and Harper's, made her attempt to explain "college girls" to a world that clearly still did not understand them. After pointing out that higher education for women was here to stay, she wrote,

"The college girl, though golf and tennis have brought her nearer than of yore to her generation in society, and the sense of her being harder to talk to than other girls is wearing off, is still regarded curiously and a little askance. There is a certain myth afloat in regard to her nature and existence. She is subjected to three processes which in the eyes of the world at large are occult and mysterious, separating her from her kind, fraught with possibilities and dangers: she passes through a terrible ordeal known as the entrance examination; she plunges into the abyss of intellectual work; she is surrounded by the strange enchantments of college life."

Kirk went on to repeat the questions that so many had been asking: "Will her health, her spontaneity and joy, be forever ruined by the first? Will the second engulf forever her womanliness, her charm, her religious faith? Will she be unfitted by the third for home life, for social life, for the best of human life?"

black and white picture of seven women

Higher education for women was once a socially disruptive phenomenon, and authors tried, with varying degrees of subtlety and literary skill, to answer Kirk's questions. Between the 1870s and the 1930s, fiction about the experiences of women going to college constituted a small but significant subgenre.

The early books celebrate an experience and opportunity for women that simply had not existed before. The pioneers, like Helen Dawes Brown's Two College Girls (1886) and Abbe Carter Goodloe's College Girls (1895), present a women's space that nourished community—a space with its own rules.

This women's community bears a striking resemblance to what Shakespeareans know as the green world, which in itself is an adaptation of the magic forest found in medieval romance, into which the untried knight enters to begin his quest. It is away from the "real" world and has its own reality; there can be movement in and out of it, but always with the sense of crossing borders; it is beautiful, mysterious, and magical; most important, it is the place of transformation, where its temporary inhabitants grow, change, seek identities, and find solutions.

To compare these characters with some of the heroes of 19th-century women's fiction is illuminating. The 19th-century novel that deals with young girls growing toward maturity stresses constraint, the suppression or refinement of natural instincts, and the rejection of self in order to reach an ideal of womanly behavior. At the extreme is Ellen Montgomery of the enormously popular novel, The Wide, Wide World, who must undergo one painful ordeal after another, each working to strip her of her will, her natural desires, and her self-esteem. Subordination of self to concern for others is a goal for these young women, and the corollary is that women will be happy if they are good and if they stop thinking about their own needs and desires.

But this is just what the early portrayals of women in college do not do. Instead the women's college fiction, while it conforms to certain behavioral standards, emphasizes discovery and expansion of self, talent, and desire, and glorifies the resulting happiness that comes from stretching the self and enjoyment of the process. Above all, interests need not conform; there is respect for individual talents and differences. Physical space may be confined and restricted, mental space is not.

What happens to the young women who have gained an education, learned how to live together, enjoyed prominence and admiration, have, in short, had the unique experience of the green world and then must leave it? The question of what to do with educated women surfaces early in critical commentary and by 1885, 20 years after the establishment of Vassar, is a frequent topic for newspapers and magazines. Generally the thesis of those attacking women's education is that the educated woman is a misfit; she cannot return happily to her home, nor is there a place for her in the world of work.

The popular magazines presented educated women as displaced persons and offered a subtext that advised putting them back, undoing their educations, and teaching them to be womanly again. In 1909 the Ladies' Home Journal serialized a story called "When She Came Home from College," which fictionalizes prevailing attitudes. Barbara Grafton wants to write and was badly disappointed when she missed out on a fellowship by a fraction of a point, but she has determined to make the best of her situation and comes home ready to apply system to the household. When her mother collapses with a nervous breakdown, Barbara is left in charge. Her efficiency alienates everyone, including the cook, who leaves. A procession of cooks create one disaster after another; a neighbor advises her to learn to accommodate herself to circumstances. At this point she is offered the fellowship she had wanted, but her little brother falls seriously ill and needs careful nursing. The importance of what she is doing becomes clear to her, and she refuses the fellowship. Her mother shows Barbara's lively letters from college to an editor she knows, however, and he advises the prospective writer to write sketches of everyday life. So the tale ends with a hopeful compromise: Barbara has learned the importance of keeping a home, and it is clear that her writing will be successful, if somewhat less grand than her dreams.

Obviously the Journal's policy is a guideline for the development of the story. Barbara must learn practical wisdom and womanly values; when she does, she finds satisfaction and her life has purpose. Her education and talent must come second, and in fact the story is not about her realization, but her humiliation. A modern reader might point out the stunningly illogical but unnoted fact that it is Mrs. Grafton, that fine wife and mother, who has the nervous breakdown, and no one, including her doctor-husband, shows surprise or guilt.

What the story presents is not a very attractive future, especially when contrasted with the magical green world with its space in which women were invited to stretch themselves ad grow and be appreciated for precisely that. If these college stories are classed as tales of initiation—and they do contain elements of the initiation process: separation from family, tests and ordeals, the teaching of tribal lore, ending in the ceremony that returns the initiate to her society as a responsible citizen—the problem is that the society to which the initiates are returned does not want them.

Fictional portrayals of college life do not have to account for their characters after they leave, but the writers of popular series books were in a different situation. Given the practical motive that writer and publisher want to continue a successful series, what does one do with a popular hero after she graduates? The answer was consistent: bring her back to the green world and give her something to do there until her marriage, the acceptable closure for female adventure. For the heroes of the coeducational stories, life after college is simple: they get married.

Although my study ended with the 1930s, many fictional accounts of college life for women appear after World War II, and all are set in coeducational colleges. There is no doubt in anyone's mind why women go to college now: they go to find husbands. The early fiction as part of its thesis insists that higher education does not make women unfit for marriage, but it puts marriage after graduation and refuses to allow it, in the form of men and romance, to dominate or encroach on the unique experience. In contrast, the later fiction asserts an institutional and societal insistence that women must marry.

As women gained more freedom in their everyday lives, symbolized by bobbed hair, by changes in dress, by the vote, and certainly by the awareness of sex and the end of the 19th-century attitude that saw women as nonsexual beings, the colleges, with their rules and traditions, their preoccupation with image, and their determination to control what women might be permitted to know, seemed more and more restricting, so that the green world became, instead of a place of opportunity and growth, a place of confinement. The physical barriers—walls, gates, fortresslike buildings—were replaced by the restrictive "image" of the college product.

Far from a sphere or space where women are encouraged to find their abilities and develop them, Mary Lapsley in The Parable of the Virgins (1931) and Kathleen Millay in Against the Wall (1929) create spaces that oppress because the aim is to mold the young women into conformity—to clone them into an image established as desirable by those who are more concerned with the outside world's judgments than with the needs of the students, who can leave the place, as Millay's Rebecca does, or can hang on with a kind of pitiful grimness to get the education—or the degree—that they want. Physical freedom is a given; the restrictions are on the use of the mind. Critical thinking does not fit the image the college wants.

One would expect, in a study covering these years, to find a progression, and indeed the progression is there. Unfortunately it is not a record of steady gains and movement from restriction to freedom, but rather a mixture of views reflecting ambivalence about women—and, indeed, women's ambivalence about themselves.

Shirley Marchalonis, Ph.D., is professor of English and Women's Studies at Penn State Berks, P.O. Box 7009, Reading, PA 19610; 610-320-4843. This essay was drawn from College Girls, published in 1994 by Rutgers University Press.

Last Updated June 01, 1996