Please welcome author K.B. Owen to the blog today! Kathy, as a historical fiction author, has graciously agreed to honor us with a fitting post about celebrating Christmas as a 19th century college student… a far cry from the behavior of today’s college students. However, as you read Kathy’s story you’ll find out what was considered ‘unusual’ in the 1880s and how college students, in other ways, are alike generation after generation.
Christmas Traditions in late-19th/early 20th century Women’s Colleges in the U.S.
Imagine young ladies, away from home with the holidays approaching, during a time in which it was unconventional for women to undergo such a separation. In the 19th century, home was a woman’s sphere, the domestic realm over which she ruled. She didn’t stray far from it.
Around the 1880s/1890s, however, a few of the well-educated daughters of the middle class began to get a little restless. They were the second wave of female college students, following such pioneer women as Lucy Hobbs, Maria Mitchell, and M. Carey Thomas. Even so, they didn’t represent a large part of the demographic:
“In 1870 only .7% of the female population went to college. This percentage rose slowly, by 1900 the rate was 2.8% and it was only 7.6% by 1920” (AAUW, “Determined to be Educated,” http://www.northnet.org/stlawrenceaauw/college.htm)
These students were also a high-spirited lot, involved not only in their studies, but in all sorts of social activities: clubs, dances, plays, teas, charity work, and so on. They made the holiday season as festive as possible while away from home, until they could return to their families for the winter recess. For the time being, the college community was their family, and the holiday activities reflected some of the traditions of society at large.
The following is an excerpt of a December 15, 1901 article from The New York Times, detailing some of the Christmas activities/performances put on by the students of local Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York:
…a bit omitted here…
A brief explanation of some of the above: the article puts “gentlemen” in quotation marks, and cryptically says: “the ladies and ‘gentlemen’ were distinguishable only by the bows and bells.” This simply meant that, at a women’s-only college event, some of the women students were obliged to act in the roles of “gentlemen” dance partners. This was a very common practice at all-female institutions, and didn’t carry the connotations that it might today.
In the play mentioned above, we have a similar situation: an all-female cast necessitated women adopting male roles; hence the quotation marks in the article when referring to a female player in the male role who “quite distinguished ‘himself.’” Female students were not permitted to adopt male costume (read: trousers), so other props, such as a cloak, hat, or dagger, would be adopted to indicate the role. There was a very great concern that women attending college would become less feminine, and college officials took steps to avoid that from happening.
So, what do you think of how women students adapted to college life, and the restrictions of their time? I’d love to hear from you, here on Marcia’s site, and elsewhere!
Marcia, thanks so much for hosting me – it was a privilege and great fun to connect with your readers!
K.B. Owen holds a Ph.D. in 19th century British Literature and taught college literature and writing classes for a number of years. Since she has always loved mysteries (cozy, historical and otherwise), she decided to turn her hand to writing one of her own. She recently finished her first novel in a planned series, set at a nineteenth-century women’s college in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s a world filled with plucky heroines, quirky and beguiling characters, and mischief mixed with murder. Dr. Owen drew upon her own delightful and varied experiences as a college professor, though unlike her central character, she thankfully did not have to conduct her lectures in a bustle and full skirts.
Kathy, thanks so much for being here and for bringing us a fun and enlightening post! I love learning the mores of different cultural times – some are so similar to today and others can be bizarre! That the college administrators were concerned that the young women be viewed as anything less than feminine is not so different from today’s views. Though the prim behavior and dress of the late 19th century would not fly in 21st century colleges.
Please show Kathy some comment luv! You know we love hearing from you!
Don’t forget to join us on the 30th for The Life List Club Milestone Party! We’re celebrating our progress and the New Year! PLUS, we have prizes! See you there!