Introduction: I confess, that like many historical fiction writers, I often choose my characters and plots as a way to explore certain subjects. For instance, my primary goal in starting to write my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series was to further explore and tell stories about the women I had studied for my history doctorate. Consequently, during the past ten years I have researched jobs women held in a variety of occupations including domestic service, spiritualism, public school teaching, the printing industry, and department stores.
However, while doing the research about public school teaching for Bloody Lessons, the third book in my mystery series, I discovered that the University of California had opened up its door to women in 1870, and I decided that at some point I would like to see what life was like for women attending a coeducational institution in this period. (Bloody Lessons is free until February 5, 2019)
Fortunately, I had created a number of characters for Bloody Lessons that I could eventually send off to the University of California, at Berkeley, and the result is the forthcoming book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, Scholarly Pursuits (now available for pre-order.)
My initial reason for doing this was simple. I was curious about what had changed (or hadn’t changed) for college women since I had gone off to college in 1967.
Much of what I discovered in doing this research surprised me, and in later blog posts I plan on looking at a range of issues, including the role of fraternities on the Berkeley campus.
However, in this blog post, I am going to concentrate on comparing the ways in which college institutions tried to regulate the behavior of their students, particularly women, in both the late nineteenth century (the setting of my Victorian mysteries) and the middle decades of the twentieth century (when I went off to college).
Scholarly Pursuits Characters: The four characters I introduced in Bloody Lessons and then followed across the bay to the University of California, Berkeley, in Scholarly Pursuits, were Laura Dawson, Seth Timmons, Kitty Blaine, Celia Beale, and Ned Goodwin. Laura Dawson, the younger sister of Nate Dawson, came to San Francisco to teach school, then she began to support herself as a typesetter (see Deadly Proof). Seth Timmons, a civil war veteran and a former cowboy, had met Laura at the San Jose Normal school and, like Laura, then began to work in the printing trades. Their friends, Kitty Blaine, Celia Beale, and Ned Goodwin, were all initially studying to become or were teachers before accompanying Laura and Seth to the university in the fall of 1880.
While Seth, in his early thirties, was over ten years older than the average student at Berkeley in that year, Laura and her other three friends fit the profile better in terms of their ages—which ranged from late teens to early twenties. The women were certainly average in terms of the reason they were at Berkeley––to pursue either a classical or literary degree in the College of Letters, which was seen as the best road to a teaching or administrative position in the higher grades (where they could get a higher salary.)
And while all of these characters, except for Ned Goodwin (who lived in one of the two fraternity houses near campus), commuted from San Francisco to Berkeley––this also fit the student profile for this period. Forty percent of the freshman class in 1880-1881 lived in either Oakland or San Francisco. The reason for this was appears to be that there were no dormitories on campus and the town of Berkeley was so small that it was hard (and expensive) for students to find places to board near by, and it was therefore easier to live at home or board outside of Berkeley and do the two-hour round trip commute to Oakland or San Francisco.
The fact that I had both Laura and Seth work part-time also reflected the reality for many students at this time. One history of the university stated that half of the students in 1874 held jobs, working on campus, working in the manual trades in San Francisco, or working for private families to put themselves through college.
So, when I sent these characters off to the university, I felt I could honestly portray their experience as typical of college students attending Berkeley. What remained for me to do was discover what their life on campus would have been like—compared to my own experience at Oberlin College in the late 1960s.
Twentieth Century Oberlin College:
In 1967, when I left home to attend Oberlin College (a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere in the state of Ohio), most colleges still accepted the idea that they should act in loco parentis (like a parent) towards their students. As a result, most schools like Oberlin had regulations governing student behavior, on and off campus––rules that were often different for women and for men.
Some of these regulations said students couldn’t have a car on campus or leave campus over night without their parent’s permission. Others said women, not men, weren’t allowed to ride bikes with out that permission and that women were responsible for cleaning their rooms (while men could leave that up to the paid housekeepers.)
From my perspective as a student, a lot of these rules were a nuisance and were pretty much unenforceable––something we laughed at when we received the student handbook as freshmen. Although I remember being shocked when a friend broke her arm riding a bike…and got in trouble because her parents hadn’t given their permission to do so.
However, the rules that did have a good deal of impact on my day-to-day life as were the ones that regulated when male and female students could be alone together.
We could be together in public—in classrooms (which is where I met my husband), dining halls, the library, or outside, walking from building to building. Nevertheless, when I started college, men and women could only be together in private in a dorm room on Sunday afternoons or in the so-called “dating parlors” in the student union in the evening. After dinner, students would race across the quad to see who would get to the union in time to sign up for one of these precious rooms.
Even these limited opportunities for couples to be together in private were regulated—you had to keep the door to the rooms propped open by a wastepaper basket and keep “three feet on the floor.” (Yes, that was a written rule!)
Perhaps even more problematic, if you were female, was the regulation that female students had a curfew. If you planned on leaving your all-female dorm after dinner, (which was on the opposite side of the campus from the male dorms) you were supposed to sign out. Then, when you came back to the dorm, you were supposed to sign in to show that you had returned for the night.
The doors to the women’s dormitories were locked at a certain time each night, which meant that you would therefore be “caught” if you were out past curfew (either because you would have to ring the bell and get the “house mother” to let you in, or if you tried to stay out all night, this would be revealed because you wouldn’t have signed back in.) For the life of me, I can’t remember what the punishment was if you failed to return on time––I think that it might have resulted in a letter to your parents and eventually being dismissed from the college if you achieved too many “demerits” for missing curfew.
However, male students did not have curfews, their dorms were not locked, and they could stay out all night if they so chose.
Now, I don’t want to make it sound like we all mindlessly obeyed all these rules. For example, after several months of dutifully signing out and signing in and worrying about getting back in time for curfew, I remember when an older student told me that if I didn’t sign out, no would know I was out past curfew, and that I could always get someone who lived on the first floor to let me in.
Of course, once the nights got cold, and the classroom, library, and student union buildings were locked, there really wasn’t much reason to stay out past curfew—unless you were one of the brave souls who were willing to try to sneak into your boyfriend’s dorm room, or you were one of the fortunate students dating a senior who lived off campus.
Nevertheless, what I find amazing, is how accepting many of us initially were of these rules—including the explicit sexism of them. I don’t even remember thinking about how ironic the sexism was, given that in 1833, Oberlin had a very liberal reputation, based in part on the fact that it was the first college in the nation to permit women to attend college alongside men.
That liberal tradition, however, and the active participation of Oberlin students in the civil rights and anti war movements of the sixties, may have explained why Oberlin was also one of the first colleges in the nation to change its rules.
At the end of my freshman year, a group of female students held a co-ed “study-in” in a male dorm to protest the rules governing privacy and curfews, and by my junior year, the faculty had voted to end their responsibility to act in loco parentis. As a result, the curfews and restrictions about where and when students could be alone ended, and the first co-educational dorms were opened, getting the college featured in a front-page story in Life Magazine in 1970.
Nineteenth Century Coeducation:
Given my own experiences at Oberlin College, and the general history of gender roles in American society, I started my research into the lives of women students in the late nineteenth century expecting to find restrictive rules governing the lives of students, particularly female students. The information I found in the primary history of women’s experiences in co-educational institutions west of the Mississippi, Bright Epoch: Women and Coeducation in the American West (Andrea Radke-Moss, 2008), certainly fulfilled my expectations.
For example, in the five western coeducational institutions that Radke-Moss studied in detail, the regulations were even more restrictive than the rules I had faced at Oberlin. In all of the institutions, men and women were expected to sit separately in classrooms and assembly halls, and in most of them they were to take different entrances into campus classroom buildings. In some cases, women and men were even expected to go to the library at different times, and at Oregon Agricultural College and the University of Nebraska, men and women were not to speak to each other while on campus.
The regulations Radke-Moss discovered also limited the opportunities for campus-sanctioned social interaction between men and women. Except for chaperoned literary society meetings and the offices of the student newspapers, there didn’t appear to be any on-campus activities where men and women could socialize, and none of the colleges she studied permitted dances on campus until the 1890s.
However, much to my surprise, when I started to look into life of Berkeley students, I found a very different environment. There were virtually no formal rules governing student behavior in 1880-1881 (the year when my forthcoming book, Scholarly Pursuitsis set.) And there were ample examples of ways in which men and women freely interacted on campus.
Except for the fact that women could only use the Harmon Gymnasium the two afternoons a week when the men were off marching around campus as part of the required military drills, the few examples of physical separation between the sexes on campus seemed to be informal. For example, while there is a photograph of a large lecture class showing women sitting separately from men in the 1890s, I found no evidence of regulations requiring this, and the 1880-81 Berkeley Blue and Gold Yearbook has two illustrations that showed men and women sitting together in a classroom and in the library. (Even though these illustrations are humorous—as are all the illustrations in this yearbook––they nevertheless show that this sort of fraternization between men and women happened.)
Additionally, none of the memoirs or reminiscences of Berkeley student life during this period mentioned any prescription against men and women talking to each other on campus. In fact a lot of the satirical pieces in the yearbook recount lively interactions between men and women.
There were also numerous extra-curricular campus activities that men and women participated in together, including the Durant and Neolaean literary societies, the Bible Club, the Philosophy Club, and several of the college glee clubs. This meant that practically every day of the week there was some excuse for men and women to spend time together outside the classroom. There was even a clubhouse dedicated to giving students a place to engage in these activities on campus, and I saw no mention that these meetings had to include a chaperone, although it was possible that was simply a given.
Strictly social activities were also permitted. Unlike the anti-dance policy that Radke-Moss found elsewhere, Berkeley held formal dances in the Harmon Gymnasium at least twice a year. One of these dances made the San Francisco papers because some of the male students became inebriated—supposedly having cadged alcohol from the band that was playing.
As for regulations regarding where students could live, and the imposition of special rules for women, I wasn’t surprised that Radke-Moss found rules very similar to the ones I lived under at Oberlin. For the five institutions she researched, the men and women’s dormitories were strictly segregated, with curfews for the women. For off campus housing, men were generally permitted to make their own arrangements, but women were either to board with respectable families or live in single-sex boardinghouses run by matrons, again, with strict curfews. The idea that women’s reputations required these rules was very much in evidence (although Radke-Moss found that students, like the students at Oberlin, often worked hard to figure out ways to circumvent these restrictions.
However, The University of California, at least in the 1870s and 1880s, appeared much less restrictive. First of all, except for a brief experiment in providing on campus housing in the form of eight cottages for male students, there were no university owned dormitories for students until the 1920s. This meant that all housing was off-campus, and as far as I could determine, there weren’t any written rules about off-campus housing.
For example, one of the female students at Berkeley in these years, May Shepard, lived in a boardinghouse run by her mother, who rented to both male and female students, including a Berkeley student who her daughter May subsequently married. The university didn’t seem to have a problem with this, given that Mrs. Shepard rented one of the former “cottages,” from the university, despite the fact that she had both male and female students boarding with her.
In another case, a memoir by a student who attended Berkeley in the 1890s recounted how both male and females students rented rooms in his boardinghouse that was located a few blocks away from campus. This arrangement was not portrayed as at all unusual.
Conclusion: So, contrary to my expectations (or the experiences students in other late nineteenth century coeducational schools), the students at Berkeley faced many fewer attempts to regulate their social interactions and behavior than I had faced.
This wasn’t to say that these students, particularly the women, felt free to do as they pleased. In fact, I suspect the main reason there were so few formal rules was that, in this period, Berkeley was essentially a commuter school, with a large proportion of its students, especially the female students, living with their own families.
This meant that after classes were over, many of these students were under the authority of their own parents. And, even if they lived away from home (which was more common among the male students) and misbehaved (as there was ample evidence that many of the men did), the university didn’t have any mechanisms in place to do anything about that behavior since the students didn’t live in university controlled dorms or boardinghouses.
Interestingly, when the university did attempt to exert some authority over student behavior, for example, when the faculty temporarily banned fraternities in 1879, the parents reacted with a good deal of hostility––making it clear they felt the university had over-stepped its authority.
But in 1880, when my characters went off to Berkeley, the hand of the institution lay much more lightly on their lives than I expected. As you will see from Scholarly Pursuits, this lack of institutional control could, in fact, be problematic…for both male and female students––but that is an entirely different story.
Sources: Bright Epoch: Women and Coeducation in the American West (Andrea Radke-Moss, 2008); Berkeley, 1880-81 Blue and Gold Yearbook; The University of California: 1868-1968 (Verne Stadtman, 1970)
Bloody Lessons is Free on Kindle and all other major ebookstores until February 5; and Scholarly Pursuits is now available for pre-order on Kindle and all other major ebookstores, and will be published in ebook and print on March 5, 2019.