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

reviewed by Alyssa Bryant - July 19, 2007

coverTitle: College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-Eds, Then and Now
Author(s): Lynn Peril
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co., New York
ISBN: 0393327159 , Pages: 352, Year: 2006
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Lynn Peril explores the lives of college women and traces the changing social contexts that have shaped women’s education over the course of history. She treats the topic with attention to both the particularities of college life (e.g., clothing and style) and the broader societal themes that have defined the purposes and expectations for college women’s educational pursuits. Drawing on a variety of sources – including college and university handbooks and historical archives, academic books and articles, and popular media – Peril expertly weaves stories of college life that are at once rich and compelling. The book begins with an engaging introduction that introduces the “typical” Jane Doe college girl and underscores the author’s intent to uncover the roots of current-day (though seemingly anachronistic) assumptions regarding the implications of higher education for women’s lives and relationships. In providing a historical perspective, Peril encourages readers to value progress that is so often taken for granted and also to note the ways in which the system of higher education perpetuates the very same prejudices of the past. In the spirit of feminist scholarship, Peril locates herself in the larger story, sharing vignettes from her college experience and the meaning she made of the experience as a whole.

Chapter one examines the emergence of women’s opportunities in education. Beginning with the first woman to receive a college degree in the 17th century, Peril highlights the evolution of educational institutions for women through the colonial era and beyond, suggesting that early opportunities were perceived as furthering women’s responsibilities to educate their children. Education was not intended to disrupt the balance of social roles for men and women. In fact, some were of the opinion that education was the “antidote” to the strong-minded “bluestocking” women who met in literary salons and challenged the very notion of traditional femininity. Moreover, as women made inroads in co-educational institutions, their progress was typically thwarted by quotas to block their enrollment or mistreatment when they did gain entrance. Peril’s historical overview reveals that the birth of women’s higher education was fraught with contradiction but budding with promise.

In chapter two Peril details the hallmarks of college life for women: traditions for welcoming freshmen, rituals and ceremonies, homesickness, roommates and residence life, sororities and clubs, popularity, and social etiquette. She shows us how “going to college” entailed far more for women than mere class attendance and homework. In attending college, women entered a complex social world that had much to offer in the way of friendship, engaging activity, and rites of passage, but expected much in return. That is, women received subtle and not-so-subtle cues from their peers and society at large regarding who to be and how to act in order to achieve the college girl persona. Chapter three carries a similar theme in its focus on clothing as essential to exemplifying one’s status as a college woman. Appearance, fads, and style were of particular import. While colleges attempted to counter trends in attire to maintain propriety and minimize the appearance of social class differences on campus, media, advertising, and peers pulled women in the opposite direction. Peril’s discussion of collegiate dress exposes the prevailing forces that ardently controlled women’s behavior on all sides – down to the seeming insignificance of even the clothes they wore.

Whereas chapter three is concerned with aspects of college women’s lives that are surface and of minor consequence, the heart of Peril’s book can be found in chapters four through eight where she considers the pervasive supervision of the college woman’s social life, virtues, intellect, body, intimate relationships, and future. It is in these chapters that we find the lived experiences of women subject to parietal rules; dual standards; feminine roles and ideals; and prejudicial assumptions regarding their intelligence, academic ability, career potential, physical health, and sexuality. Peril’s illustrations derive primarily from late 19th century and mid-twentieth century portrayals of college life for women, often identifying the foundational conundrum with which American society at large seemed to wrestle: In the education of women, what is gained? What is lost?

The precarious balance between the perceived gains and losses was carefully maintained by extending women’s education to a point, all the while ensuring that mechanisms to keep women’s roles in proper order were instilled in the collegiate structure. Often these mechanisms were assumed to be in women’s best interest. As a poignant example, women’s college sports were curtailed and regulated to protect the woman’s “delicate” physique. Suggestions that these mechanisms served the interest of women softened the larger reality that women who were educated-just-enough-but-not-too-much made interesting romantic companions for men (so long as their intelligence did not overshadow their partner’s).

College Girls implicates higher education as a purveyor of both progress and oppression. Peril adeptly communicates the central theme that the range of acceptable behaviors and characteristics of college women were narrowly defined and monitored. College women were expected to be “just so”: Educated, but not brainy. Popular, but rule-abiding. Pure, but with sex appeal. Healthy, but not overtly athletic. Academically successful, but not career-oriented. In the historical detail, Peril portrays a system of higher education that has treated the college “girl” with considerable ambivalence; while ultimately affirming her right to be educated, the rigid oversight of the “how” and “why” of her education ensured that women could progress only so far and only for specific, gender-appropriate reasons.

The articulation of these critical realities notwithstanding, I came away from the text with a few remaining questions. First, what were the broader social and political contexts that made prejudice against women and reinforcement of stereotypes ebb and flow? A consideration of the distinctiveness of various time periods would be instructive. Many of the author’s examples reflect the misogyny prevalent in the late 19th century or the 1950s’ return to traditional gender roles, whereas other decades of the early (and later) 20th century boasted more progressive attributes. How might we think about the changing social climate that affected college access and opportunity for women?

Second, though Peril touches on student rebelliousness against restrictive campus rules and regulations and the influence of feminism, the implications of counter-movements, particularly the first and second waves of the women’s movement, might have been further explored. The book constructs such a vivid depiction of women’s plight, but what about women’s response and powerful critique of unjust social structures and norms? Surely women have responded – they have not passively accepted discrimination – and this has had far-reaching and transformative effects on higher education as a whole.

Third, how does history provide a cautionary tale? Peril closes with a satisfactory summary of current trends among college women, but I was left wanting more in terms of how we might approach present discriminatory patterns in education given what we know from these historical patterns and trends. What does the past tell us about what we should be doing now? What challenges remain? As readers, we can appreciate Peril’s portrayal of advancements in women’s higher education over the last century at the same time that we recognize the necessity of continued vigilance in correcting discriminatory errors in perspective and practice that still plague college women in the present.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 19, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14558, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 10:26:19 AM

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About the Author
  • Alyssa Bryant
    Carolina State University
    E-mail Author
    ALYSSA N. BRYANT holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from California State University, Long Beach and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is Assistant Professor of Higher Education at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Dr. Bryant’s research focuses on two strands of scholarship: spirituality in higher education and gender issues among college students. The first strand has evolved into a comprehensive exploration of the meaning of spirituality in students’ lives and the corresponding implications for their values, behaviors, and wellness. The second major strand involves the ways in which college impacts women and men students – and the extent to which such effects are conditioned by gender.
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