When Men will be Boys: Masculinity and Late 19th Century Fraternities

When I started research on my newest book, Scholarly Pursuits, the sixth novel in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, my only agenda was to take some of my series characters across the San Francisco Bay to solve a crime on the University of California campus at Berkeley. I was primarily curious about what life was like for college students in 1881, and since my mystery series focuses on women and their experiences in this period, I assumed I would mostly deal with what life was like for my female characters. (If interested in this topic, see this post.)

What I did not expect was to find myself researching college fraternities and the role they played in the emergence of a new kind of hyper-masculinity among young men of the late nineteenth century.

In fact, if you had asked me before I embarked on the research for this book, I would have guessed that there weren’t any fraternities on such a recently-established, state-supported campus (the University of California was founded in 1868 and opened its first campus at Berkeley in 1873.)

Instead, I learned that in 1881 there were five male fraternities and one female fraternity (which was not yet called a sorority) and that four years earlier, Berkeley’s Zeta Psi fraternity was the first fraternity in the nation to have built their own fraternity house.

I also discovered that members of these campus fraternities had played prominent roles in the brutal hazing of fellow students, drunken beer bashes, and the creation of scurrilous fake publications, sparking an anti-fraternity movement on campus that resulted in a temporary ban on fraternities that divided the students and faculty and may have resulted in the recommendation by the Board of Trustees that the university president be fired in May, 1881.

The rest of this essay can be found posted on the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative website. When you have finished reading it, do take a look at the wonderful books in its catalog.

M. Louisa Locke

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