College Girls: A Century in Fiction

College Girls: A Century in Fiction

College Girls: A Century in Fiction

College Girls: A Century in Fiction


"Since the opening of Vassar College in 1865, objections to higher education for women have ranged from charges that females were mentally and physically incapable of learning to the belief that educating women would destroy society. Underlying all arguments was the folk wisdom which declared that women could not live and work together. To counteract such beliefs, women's colleges tried to create a special kind of space and new role models that would allow women to exist for a short time in idyllic (or, at least, idealized) conditions. The debate over women's education, for the good or ill of society, generated a great deal of "print," including short stories and novels. Shirley Marchalonis guides us through the history of this fiction, its depiction of the complexities of the college experience, and the conflicting attitudes that teetered between fascination and fear, celebration and regret. Using novels, short stories, and some juvenile fiction from 1865 to 1940 - all of it specifically about college "girls" - she examines these ideas, the way they developed over time, and their significance in understanding women's education and women's history. The debate over separate colleges for women continues to this day and can be better understood in the context of this informative and entertaining look at the past." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


Between the 1870s and the 1930s, fiction about the experiences of women going to college constituted a small but significant subgenre. The earliest writings treat both a new opportunity for women and the controversy that surrounded it.

The opening of Vassar College in 1865 shocked many; the often ferocious objections ranged from fear that educating women would damage their "womanly" qualities to conviction that it would destroy society. Consequently, some of the fiction has an extra-literary element: to explain and make familiar a strange and disturbing venture for an audience that varied in age, gender, and class. At the same time much of the fiction, less consciously but more importantly, redefined women's space and offered role models for success within that space. Read chronologically, the fiction reflects differences in attitudes and behavior over the period on the part of the women themselves as well as those who observed them and those who wrote about them. The body of work examined here focuses on one area of women's lives and what that work reveals of their expectations for themselves and society's for them, and then the changes brought about by time and the outside world.

Vassar Female College (the "Female" was dropped a year later, thanks to the efforts of editor Sarah Josepha Hale) opened in 1865, to be followed ten years later by Smith and Wellesley, and Bryn Mawr in 1883; by the end of the century Mount Holyoke, a seminary since 1837, had become a college and the "annexes," Radcliffe, Barnard, and Pembroke, were established. Women were admitted into the large state universities in the 1870s. Smaller and less-noticed colleges, like Elmira and Wells, flourished.

In 1900, even though by then Vassar was thirty-five years old, Sophia Kirk, a contributor to important magazines like the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, made her contribution to the attempts to explain "college . . .

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