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College Women in the 1920s: Their Education, Experiences and Self-Image

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    The decade of the 1920s was, comparatively speaking, a carefree era. A burgeoning youth culture was emerging. America’s colleges were becoming centers of cultural influence. Women were entering college in greater numbers than ever before.

    Meanwhile, the women’s rights movement was achieving many long worked for goals. The right to vote was achieved in 1920. The first female governor, Nellie Ross, was elected in Wyoming in 1925. In 1929, Gerti Cori won the Nobel Prize in science for the “Cori Cycle” movement of energy theory.

    Still, the education of women was not a high priority in America. The overall percentage of women who attended college remained low in comparison to that of the men. Those who did attend faced several difficulties. Long-held misconceptions about women and education were still in place. The early college women were also judged on their appearance, both by the college administrators and by their fellow students. The result of these factors was a sometimes crushing pressure to conform.

    In addition to the unique pressures felt by these women, they also were typically not offered a fair playing field. Course offerings often were not comparable to those available to their male counterparts. Despite the drawbacks, most college women of the 1920s viewed their educational experience positively. They succeeded despite the difficulties. They sensed the potential of higher education to make strides toward a more equal future.

    Historical Background

    Gaining entrance to higher education has historically been difficult for women in America. For the early colonists higher education was not an option. The harshness of life on a new continent dictated that the new settlers live with a cooperative, communal approach. The roles for men and women were tightly defined as each new community struggled to survive.

    Once safely established in the new world the European immigrants began to develop institutions of higher learning. These early colleges were more often than not under heavy religious influence. The religions tended to reinforce a traditional perspective on masculine and feminine roles. As radical as the new Americans might have seemed to the rest of the world; they created a society based upon the long-held traditions of Europe. The nation was radical enough to shake off tyranny. It was not yet radical enough to end slavery, institute universal suffrage or encourage the education of women.

    Despite the emergence of prominent educated women like Dolly Madison and Abigail Adams, women were largely relegated to the role of second class citizens. Former slaves would actually be granted the right to vote long before the women of America.

    Educated women were somewhat rare in the 18th and 19th centuries but not entirely unheard of. Women from the elite classes were educated in private schools or sent to Europe to receive a classical education. Meanwhile the doors of most American colleges were closed to the average woman.

    Population growth and the expansion westward created a critical need for teachers. Ironically, women were expected to fulfill this role even though their own educational opportunities were severely limited. Out of this landscape it was the progressive women of the mid-1800s that would pave the way for the influx of college women more than fifty years later.

    The movement to open the doors of higher education to women was intrinsically tied to the drive for women’s suffrage. At the first women’s rights convention in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton boldly stated that “all men and all women” were created equal. This was both a demand and a plea to society.

    A growing number of women wanted to participate in the American democratic experiment. The Constitution of the United States proclaims certain rights that every individual has. The women at that convention knew that they would never be able to fully fulfill those rights until the right to vote and the opportunity for higher education were secured.

    The Constitution set a radical new precedent for government despite its omissions. Fully realized, it threatened to turn tradition on its ear. The patriarchal traditions the new Americans brought with them were still strong, however.

    Law and culture rarely move at the same speed. Arguably, the freedoms stated in the Constitution still have not been fully realized. After the Civil War former slaves (males) we granted the right to vote. None the less cultural forces continued to prevent free exercise of this right. Voting, or attending college could be life threatening for African-Americans. It would take another hundred years until the culture was able to effectively address this denial of rights.

    The battle to secure women’s suffrage after passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was not as long lasting and never as bloody. This does not mean that all the hopes of suffragists were achieved immediately. Suffrage leaders had hoped that passage of this amendment would help break down walls in education and many other areas. This, in fact, would happen. The effect was neither instantaneous nor complete, though. The progressive college women of the 1920s would have to confront a society that was still getting used to their presence.

    Even with the gradual societal acceptance of college women in the early 20th century, the women had to face an increasingly competitive environment. College applications, from men and women, soared to record levels after the end of World War One. Colleges with a limited number of slots became increasingly more selective. They could afford to take into account subjective factors beyond academic qualifications. The road would be difficult but the women gladly accepted this challenge.

    A unique cultural shift was under way in the 1920s. The end of World War One in 1919 had brought about a palatable sense of relief and a motivation to live for the moment, especially in the victorious Allied nations. America was infused with a new found energy that manifested itself in a more carefree and permissive culture.

    There had been a women’s rights movement in the United States since the founding of the country. For centuries, however, it had been unable to generate sufficient momentum to instigate meaningful change. This gradually began to change in the latter half of the 19th century.

    One point of emphasis for the women’s movement was access to formal education. In the 1800s the nation still operated under confining, unwritten rules about roles for the sexes. Some small steps were made during the 1800s. The first women’s colleges were opened. Free high schools for girls were also opened in some parts of the country.

    Those who favored the status quo were able to raise irrational fears, i.e, educated women would end up spinsters. Incredibly it was prevailing medical opinion at the time somehow damage a woman’s general and/or reproductive health. Women had smaller heads and smaller brains. They reasoned, therefore, that their brains were less capable and unable to hold up under the stress of a rigorous academic curriculum. Flexner writes: “It was almost universally believed that a woman’s brain was smaller in capacity and therefore inferior in quality to that of a man”

    That opinion did not go without dispute, however. In the late 1800s a contrary conclusion was gradually gaining acceptance. A study conducted by the Association of College Alumnae reported that a rigorous academic program actually benefited a woman’s health. In addition, the study found that college women who played sports were benefited even more

    Very few social movements move on a continuous trend line, though. Resistance to women’s rights ebbed and flowed throughout the 19th century. Many still saw the education of women as a radical threat. In the words of Flexner “the idea that women might possess creative intellectual powers was an explosive one”

    Traditionalists feared everything from harm to the women themselves to the destruction of the family unit. One selling point for those in favor of education was the idea that women were only going to college to better themselves in performing their traditional roles. “Their power to do good will be incalculably enlarged”

    In other words, the pro-education advocates had to tread lightly. Society, they sensed, was not yet ready for the “career woman” as we know today. A somewhat modest statement of expectations helped the women’s education movement gain some traction in the late 1800s.

    Barriers, legal and societal, were still in place that prevented women from participating in many professions. A strong cultural pressure toward traditional roles for women still limited opportunities, even for those fortunate enough to have acquired a college education.

    By the turn of the 20th century most (70%) college women were attending coeducational institutions. However, only about 7% percent of all women in the U.S. attended college  That percentage did not increase substantially until after the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920.

    An Education Revolution

    In the mid-1800s The Women’s Rights Convention had addressed the need for formalized education bluntly. In the statement from their 1848 meeting they wrote that “he [men] has denied her the facilities of a thorough higher education, all colleges being closed to her”  In this context, the effect of the passage of the suffrage amendment cannot be underestimated: “It conferred the opportunity to claim enhancedsocial status and greater independence on every female in the land”

    By the 1920s women had been part of college life for 50 years. The success of the suffrage movement helped women to higher aspirations than they had in the past, even if the establishment had other ideas. The college women of the 1920s had to walk a fine line of independence and conformism; cultural influence and peer influence. The colleges were quickly becoming hubs of youth culture. That culture was fostered, in a large part, by activities outside the classrooms.

    The extracurricular activities reflected the social emphasis at colleges of the day. The New Jersey College for Women (a division of Rutgers University) exemplified this emphasis. A 1922 issue of Redbook listed the activities for that year, which included: …the Christmas Dance, mid winter play, Mothers Day, field day, Senior ball, Junior prom, Sophomore hop, and St. Valentines, Halloween and St. Patricks Day dance.

    College life offered a freedom that women had not experienced before. By most accounts they enjoyed this freedom to full effect. Most colleges had rules in the dormitories, i.e. curfews and dress codes. These restrictions were of no consequence to most students however. Students found ways to have raucous, alcohol-fueled “petting parties” on a regular basis. A joke from the 1920s state She doesn’t drink. She doesn’t pet. She hasn’t been to college yet.

    Sports, fraternities and sororities were also integral parts of the lives of 1920s college students. In the days before title IX opportunities for women to play intercollegiate sports were still limited. Football games and other men’s sports were still events women could attend and revel with the rest of the student body. Events like these helped women at newly co-ed universities become part of the social landscape.

    The weekly football game was the center of activity at many colleges. Thousands gathered to cheer on the team. The game might be a destination for daters, or it might be a place to find a date. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who tried out for football at Princeton, wrote of the pageantry and spectacle of college football.

    The newfound independence women enjoyed was expressed in a multitude of ways. From provocative dress to challenging the academic establishment women were showing themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Not all of the expressions of freedom were positive though. College women who saw their screen idols smoke took up smoking in record numbers. To them it was a statement of independence.

    Unfortunately, a grudging resentment still existed among the male students and faculty at some colleges. Sometimes this resentment boiled to the surface. Whether uttered behind women’s backs or published for all to see in the school newspaper, there was an undercurrent of discontent among some of the male students. At that time, most college students still had come from families with considerable wealth in which the male heir is made to feel great entitlement. It is this background that helped to create perceptions such as those noted by Green: Women are stupid, out to spend men’s money, and either the goody-goody type who would be reticent to be too physically intimate or the wild rebellious type.

    The Jazz Age also ushered in a whole new language of slang, many of the terms having to do with women. It was not uncommon for women walking across campus to hear themselves referred to as a “broad”, a “dame”, a “doll” or a “charity case”. Generally speaking these terms were not taken as insulting as they are today. An exception might be the term “charity case” which referred to the sexual promiscuity of a woman. Terms to describe college men like “Joe College” and “Joe Yalie” also became popular in the 1920s.

    The vibrant social life of the students in the 1920s was partially due to a relatively low emphasis on academic performance. Most students were perfectly content with “C”, or average, grades. In fact there was a certain peer pressure within the college environment to be “average”. Students who spent a great deal of time studying were sometimes socially shunned and looked on with derision. This is another example of the mixed messages the college women of that era often received. They had heard the social message that education is the key to success and independence. At the same time their peers were telling them to temper their ambition and that college was much more about social interaction than about academics.

    College and Body Image

    The stereotyping of women was still a generally accepted practice in the 1920s. According to Green the prevailing perception of many males was that there are “two kinds of women among college students in the 1920s; sexual women who lived by the rules and those who did not”.

    For the women of American society, college was much more than just a place to obtain an academic education. In the 1920s college became a “critical site where modern notions of female body image were mapped out” 12. Appearance, in effect, became an additional qualification for college admittance. In their reviews administrators “routinely noted their impressions of students’ appearance”.

    If not stated explicitly; it was understood by the college women of the 1920s that other people’s perceptions of appearance were going to play a significant role in the women’s future success or lack of it. Many women were forced to feel inadequate. Most of them felt an intense pressure to conform to others expectations. As white and black women claimed access to the life of the mind, it was their bodies that drew intense personal, public and institutional scrutiny.

    In the early 1900s a health craze was influential in forming people’s impressions of the ideal body type. By the 1920s, a different ideal had emerged. The “ideal” woman of the 20s was more sophisticated and fashion conscious, but extremely young-looking in appearance. Fashion was more than just the way people dressed. Closer fitting clothes contributed to the increased societal focus on body type.

    The emergence of targeted marketing and new media helped to reinforce the messages early college women were getting from their peers. In the same way that the painfully thin supermodel ideal is unapproachable today, so was the child-like flapper image in the 1920s. In addition to being trailblazers in the field of education, women had to deal with body image issues forced upon them by the culture.

    The influence of the “culture of youth” on college women of the 1920s cannot be underestimated. In that age, the term “youth” became more than just a descriptive term. It became a verb; a way of life. Given that context it is not surprising that the first winner of the Miss America contest, Margaret Gorman, was only sixteen years old. Her measurements were a waiflike 30-25-32. According to Green “the practice of youth…as a fully structured directive social act” came to full fruition in the 20s. It was the beginning of the youth obsessed culture we live in today.


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    College Women in the 1920s: Their Education, Experiences and Self-Image. (2016, Sep 21). Retrieved from

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