Sunday, October 28, 2012

The College Girl

College Girls – Lynn Peril

The college girl has endured many labels and multiple manifestations since women began attending institutions of higher education in the mid-19th century. Advances in science and medical understanding of human functions, and social mores about what women can and cannot do lead to grudgingly wider acceptance of women in universities. At first, women could only attend finishing schools, designed to make them better housewives. Slowly they were accepted at universities, though with curriculums specially tailored to their “delicate constitutions.” Eventually, women were able to pursue any degree they wanted, though some were more difficult than others, play sports, and live in dorms without the supervision of house mothers standing in for their real parents. Despite all the generational differences and advances in technology, the main argument about women in college remained the same, although dressed in different disguises. Ultimately, it is bad for women to go to college because men don’t want to marry a woman who is smarter, more well-rounded, or in any way better than they are. This reasoning has been amazingly persistent over the years.

“The College Girl” is a thoroughly researched history of women in college starting with the earliest recorded schools, the finishing schools, designed specifically for educating girls. Although the writing is dense at times, the topics discussed are quite interesting. She breaks her chapters into sections on what kind of education women received, what to wear, how sports came into the picture, rules and rule-breaking, and the importance (or not) of husband hunting. She also includes many, many pictures from past yearbooks, magazines, and countless advertisements about what was most important to the college experience. The different experiences shown over the course of generations makes for an illuminating read about what the world used to be like.

Although I found parts of this book interesting, it was also rather heavy reading. This would normally be assigned reading for one of my classes, and though I generally enjoy assigned reading, it’s still assigned reading. I learned a lot of interesting tidbits from this book, though. For example, pushing and shoving used to be part of the hazing routine in fraternities. Groups of boys would gather on staircases or other small, enclosed spaces, and push and shove until it was the last man standing or someone decided it was over. Overall, though, it’s quite academic. Interesting, but only to a limited audience.

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