Women, Love and Learning

The Double Bind

by Alison Mackinnon (Author)
Monographs 254 Pages
Open Access

Table Of Content


There are so many who have helped bring this book into the world. Research assistants Kate Leeson and Penny Gregory at the Hawke Research Institute made important contributions to the research at different times. Kate Leeson (again!) and Rosemary Luke have both provided excellent editorial help. I have enjoyed and profited from discussions with colleagues Linda Eisenmann, Kathleen Wieler, Pat Graham, Alison Prentice, Geraldine Clifford, Marjorie Theobald, the late Fay Gale, and Judy Gill to name a few. Others such as Sherry Ortner, Harvey Graff, Ravenna Helson, Elizabeth Boyd and Dan Horowitz have been prepared to enlighten me on particular aspects of time and place. Barrie Thorne (University of California, Berkeley) offered sisterly hospitality at Berkeley.

Part of the research and writing was carried out while I was a visiting fellow with the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, Canberra, in 2006. During that time I greatly valued discussions with other fellows and seminar participants in a very generative setting. The University of South Australia generously granted me study leave to visit archives and libraries in the USA. In 1994 an Australian Research Council small grant funded the initial survey that began this study. An Australian Research Council Discovery grant (2002–2004) facilitated further research and the travel both within and beyond Australia that made the book possible. Smith College also provided a Margaret Grierson ‘Travel to Collections’ grant which funded a productive visit to the Smith campus in Northampton.

I have enjoyed sharing my research journey with the many helpful archivists I’ve encountered along the way. They are the guardians of treasure troves. At the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Harvard, Jane Knowles, Kathy Kraft (Radcliffe Archives) and Sarah Hutcheon (Schlesinger Library) were great supports; at Smith ← 9 | 10 College Nanci Young and Amy Hague (Smith College Archives and the Sophia Smith Collection respectively) have been generous both during my time at Smith and in their responses to many email queries; Matthew Kaliner at the Murray Research Center, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard, was particularly helpful with sorting data; archives staff at the Center for American History at the University of Texas and Michael Widener at the Tarleton Law Library (University of Texas) assisted me in Austin. Marian Gade, at the Center for Studies in Higher Education (UC Berkeley); Carroll Brentano at Berkeley (Chronicle, UCB); Maggie Kimball, University Archivist at the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford; and Octavio Olvera, reader services coordinator and public service assistant, Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA all gave their time and expertise. Many of those mentioned above helped with the lengthy process of securing copyright permissions. The author and publisher gratefully acknowledge the permission granted to reproduce the copyright material in this book. Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions and would be grateful if notified of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.

The alumnae offices at the universities of Melbourne and Adelaide facilitated the sending out of questionnaires for the Graduating in the fifties: women graduates’ family formation study project. For permission to reproduce the Charles Blackman Alice on the cover – one that portrays superbly women’s ambivalence in the 1950s and early 60s – I wish to thank the National Gallery of Victoria and Viscopy Ltd.

One of the greatest pleasures of the study was the opportunity to interview – or just chat with – many of the wonderful women mentioned here. I’m so thankful that most were happy to have their letters and diaries published – an act of trust and generosity. Those who preferred to remain anonymous will be recognizable to themselves but not to others. I hope that they all enjoy revisiting their pasts should they read this book. Some have already told me that they have enjoyed ← 10 | 11 → the reminders of times long forgotten that interviews and permission inquiries have elicited. The past, particularly the past of the 50s and early 60s, is definitely a foreign country.

I’m particularly grateful to Jill Ker Conway, Alison Prentice and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on the full text. I am aware that their suggestions if fully implemented would have made this a much better book. Katrin Forrer at Peter Lang has been a delight to work with throughout the publication process as we emailed across continents, time zones and seasons. Malcolm Mackinnon has lived through this book with equanimity, as always. A graduate himself of the early 60s he watched the women around him undergo amazing transformations and still kept his head.

This book is dedicated to my granddaughters Georgie and Skye in the hope that by the time they grow up they will no longer find themselves facing the double bind.

Alison Mackinnon, 2010 ← 11 | 12← 12 | 13 →


Any era that is simultaneously as dynamic, as glorious, as conflict-ridden, and as traumatic as the 1950s and 1960s were will have many rememberers.1

What a luxury this is – I wrote in my diary in December 2000 – to walk alone in frost-edged woods on a crisp New England day. The river is frozen in part, with white floes strange to my Australian eyes. The winter woods do not lack colour: the crisp brown leaves, a quick crackle and a grey squirrel flits away, red berries, white birch trunks. Walking back through a venerable and well-endowed campus, with gardens, ponds, statuary and a sense of solidity and entitlement, I feel the joy of life and the wonder of being a woman with work to do in such an environment. Yet I had also enjoyed a privileged moment in time as a student in Australia at a women’s residential college in an era that now seems as far off as the nineteenth century. I too am a rememberer.

Dipping into women’s lives in the 1950s and early 1960s at Smith College I found many echoes of my own and a few differences. We shared, most of us, a lack of urgency about careers, a feeling that we would inevitably marry and produce children, be interesting wives to be sure, but wives nevertheless when that word still was a matter of pride. We shared a love of learning, of diving into literature, history, languages for their own sake, often for pleasure rather than for grades. After all there were plenty of jobs and few of us would be encouraged to take higher degrees. We thought we were individuals but we shared the uniforms of the time: Bermuda shorts at Smith, twin sets with Peter Pan collars at Janet Clarke Hall. Cashmere sweaters were universally desired except by that small minority who signalled rebellion, ← 13 | 14 even then, with sloppy joes and bare feet. How did that world change between my generation of women students and the young women so purposeful, so busily planning their careers, who now throng the Smith campus, and the campus of my old university in Melbourne?

When did the world change for twentieth century women? Was it when Betty Friedan’s The feminine mystique was published in 1963? Friedan was a student at Smith College, albeit at an earlier time. Or was it with the publication of Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch in 1970? Greer trod the grounds of my alma mater, the University of Melbourne, drank coffee at ‘the caf’ and had become a legend by the time I got there. Was it with the introduction of the Pill? Let us arbitrarily decide on a date – 1965 – and see what that produces. In Australia Sir Robert Menzies was the prime minister and the Rolling Stones toured the country. Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins led the Freedom Ride through country New South Wales. In the US the Vietnam War caused turmoil in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson and civil rights activists stormed the South. In 1964 on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley the free speech movement had galvanized rebelling students. Could life ever be the same?

Was this turmoil anticipated? Stephen Graubard, reflecting on 40 years of the journal Daedalus, claimed that many issues reveal much about the time in which they were published. None revealed more than the Fall 1964 issue, ‘The Contemporary University: U.S.A’. ‘It would be correct to say that this was almost the last moment when one could still believe that the American universities were essentially sound’, he wrote, ‘that no major troubles were impending. Indeed, there is something almost alarming in the quiescence, the sense of security and stability that permeates the greatest number of the essays in this issue, so different from what was written and said only a few years later.’2 This could equally be said of the Spring 1964 issue of Daedalus on women. It boldly declared feminism moribund.

I am not the first to choose 1965 as a turning point. French demographer Louis Roussel claimed 1965 as ‘a rare axis of change’, one ← 14 | 15 that led to the ‘banalization’ of previously condemned behaviour.3 Where might we find evidence of such a transformation? And what did it mean to its participants? The University of California (Berkeley) yearbook of 1965 focused on student protest and free speech. It was the end of an era, the beginning of a more open and sexually liberated climate at universities and colleges. The UC yearbook, Blue and gold, looked back at ‘a year filled with a new discontent, a new cause … the Vietnam question pounded in the hearts of thousands’. It noted that ‘by taking care of their own disciplining, the students of the University of California have proven that they are capable of governing themselves’.4 But did that inevitably include women? Could women be trusted to discipline themselves?

In the UC-B yearbook the women of the senior class no longer wrote of marrying Ted and raising five children as they had in the early fifties. Now they were women who ‘will travel then attend law school’; ‘will teach junior college, then graduate study’; ‘gain real estate license’; ‘graduate school in social work’.5 Marriage did not rate a mention. In Australia, where ‘students were being asked to stand up and be counted in political demonstrations on the streets of Adelaide’,6 obedience to traditional rules seemed increasingly irrelevant. In Brisbane, Queensland, in 1965 two women, ‘wives of university lecturers’ (as they were described in the popular press), chained themselves to the public bar of the Regatta Hotel in protest at women’s exclusion from that important social space.7 In campuses such as Berkeley, home to a massive and sustained anti-war movement, in Queensland or in South ← 15 | 16 Australia, nothing could have seemed as banal in these turbulent times as a concern with the hours at which women returned to their dorms.

Yet a preoccupation with every detail of women’s behaviour and sexuality was a major aspect of the 1950s and early 1960s. University study did not exempt them. Elaborate rules determined the hours at which women students could leave their residences, could socialize, particularly with men, how they should dress and what careers they should consider. Some institutions still had women’s wardens. If 1965 marked the end of an era what did that era look like? And what were the seeds of its destruction? Can we detect them in the imaginings and practices of women of the times?

Much has been written about the turbulent changes of the late 1960s. Yet the 1950s and early 1960s have not played a major role in histories of the twentieth century. They are often seen as dreary, suburban, conformist. Those years have been viewed through a Cold War lens, through the rise of consumerism, even by a narrative of growing access to therapy in an increasingly Freudian climate. But what happened to women in the 1950s and early 60s? Were they all confined to the suburbs, to becoming ‘station wagon wives’, wives and mothers living the consumerist post-Kinsey dreams of the day or, worse, filled with ‘suburban neuroses’? Were they waiting, in narcotized sleep, for the words of a Friedan, or a Greer?

Sylvia Plath, poet and mother, could not wait that long. In 1963 she took her own life, overwhelmed with despair. Was her death in some inexplicable way emblematic of the sheer impossibility of the dream: of being a wife and mother and at the same time a fully creative, independent self? Plath struggled with those anxieties at a time in which there was no name for the despair creative women felt, no explanation other than the individual one, no demons other than personal ones. Within the ‘bell jar’ of neurosis there was no escape. Germaine Greer has claimed that if the new feminists were around in 1963 Sylvia Plath would not have had to commit suicide.8 This is debatable but Greer herself helped to name ← 16 | 17 the demons, to enjoin women to stop blaming themselves for unachieved perfection, to name patriarchal society as the enemy.

This book tells the story of a significant group of women who confronted the prescriptions of the times. They went to colleges and universities in increasing numbers, trained for the professions and developed a life of the mind. They expected to be interesting people and to have interesting lives. At the same time they were urged to listen to their hearts, to marry young, to devote themselves to their children and communities. Helen Horowitz has written of the continuing importance up to the 1960s of campus life, a predominantly male culture in which the peer group was vitally important in the formation of student identities in the United States.9 This campus culture was taken up by women in the 1950s with a major emphasis on romance and sexual attractiveness. That emphasis, some have argued, was so strong that it indirectly eroded women’s career identities.10 Can we find evidence of this? Could women’s education, in this context, help them to think outside the square? Would they redefine success? I argue in this book that they were already undertaking the revolution that was to burst onto the English-speaking world in the 1970s.

Higher education for women is a key to social transformation. Education has been seen as both a change agent and as a force for conservatism in the lives of women. Could it be both at once? A consideration of the place of women in higher education inevitably forces a link with wider social, political and economic change. While university women in the 1950s and early 60s could be seen as a privileged cohort, they led the way for a larger number of their sisters in the years ahead. They were the graduates considered as ‘reserves’ for the labour market – or, worse, as ‘wastage’ from the system of higher education by administrators concerned with ‘manpower’ needs of the emerging economy. They attended universities when it was said that ‘every boy or girl with the necessary brain power must … be encour ← 17 | 18 aged to come forward for a university education’.11 Yet what girls with the necessary ‘brain power’ were to do with their education was far from clear.

Can we see this group as a cohort, to use a demographer’s word? ‘Every birth cohort faces its own historical conditions, alternatives, opportunities, norms with regard to the timing and sequence of demographic events’, some claim. ‘Each birth cohort will thus go through life with the contemporary social heritage with which it grew up’.12 In this sense we are talking about a cohort, a specific group, whose heritage was different from those who came before and after. They faced greater transformations in their lives than the generations before, although they were spared world wars or the depression. ‘No other single generation of women had its personal foundation so thoroughly jolted’, claimed Shelby Moorman Howatt, class of ’56 in the US.13 And their choices were very different from the cohorts to follow. Were they the forerunners of today’s young professionals? Were they feminists without ‘feminism’? Were they the cohort who prefigured the women’s movement? In her recent book New Jersey dreaming anthropologist Sherry Ortner claims that ‘the feminist movement did not come out of nowhere’. It represented ‘a codification and intensification of ideas and practices that were already happening out there in the lives of real women, including the Class of ’58’.14 ← 18 | 19

Did they really enjoy the best of all possible worlds, as some have put it?15 There were fewer expectations and greater opportunities as the economic long boom of the 1970s stretched out ahead. It rarely felt like that at the time. Higher education shaped their future lives in immeasurable ways. Friendships made at university often endured for a lifetime. In writing this story I have already declared my own involvement. I was a young wife in 1965 putting my Bachelor of Arts degree and Diploma of Education to good use as a high school teacher of history, French and English in Melbourne. If I was utterly typical of young educated women of the time I was blissfully unaware of it. My future as the wife of a newly graduated medico seemed entirely a matter of individual choice. I had a miniskirt and a pageboy hairdo and life was exciting. Certainly my horizons as a new graduate did not include the possibility of becoming a university professor: that was unimaginable. But my world view did include an understanding of child and adolescent psychology and an alarming sense that any lack of single-minded devotion to my future children might lead to ‘maternal deprivation’. In that I was fairly typical of the times and my story is a part of this larger narrative.

Drawing on interviews, surveys, reunion books, reports, biographical and autobiographical writing, I consider the lives of American and Australian women for whom new opportunities flowed in the 1970s and 80s. ‘Educated in romance’16 in many instances, many graduates found early marriage and children insufficient for a full and satisfying life. Those who did not marry frequently found themselves adrift – unclear what their role was in a paired-up society. The contradictions that faced them all in that complex era led to the explosive changes of the late 1960s and 1970s. The combination of glamorous bride, perfect womanhood and educated citizen was too difficult to maintain. Something had to give. While many in the community faced these contradictions, they were much sharper for highly educated ← 19 | 20 women. They began to question established restraints. Studying this particular group contributes to an understanding of why the women’s movement occurred when it did. It also shifts the emphasis from one or two individuals, prominent as they were.

Not all women ‘bought into’ the romance of the 1950s. Nor did they all follow what Ortner calls the ‘girl track’. Some, usually those who came from less privileged backgrounds, used their education to secure a place in the workforce, essential to supporting their families or claiming independence, even to clawing their way out of an oppressed group. Some were serious about careers to better their class position. Women teachers who remained single forged significant career paths at this time. A hardy few knew from the beginning that a life of the mind mattered and that they would pursue it no matter what. Jill Ker Conway, who left Australia to find space for an intellectual life, wrote in her memoir: ‘At thirty-three, about to be thirty-four, I saw myself as a scholar … History was what I did and would do for the rest of my life’.17 Yet that insight was not always obvious. Germaine Greer, joining the Sydney ‘Push’, wrote, ‘I found what I did not know I was looking for, seriousness and scruple, in the service of the truth’.18

In the chapters that follow we see women enjoying their years of learning, struggling with life after campus, redefining their lives as circumstances changed, and reflecting now on a long gone era. We see them struggling to develop student identities as attractive and intelligent women, tactfully intelligent, as one put it – a notion that seemed to many a contradiction in terms. Some became leaders, activists and icons, keen to improve the position of women, to offer tempting models of womanhood (Germaine Greer, Jill Ker Conway, Gloria Steinem, for instance). Some, tragically, like Sylvia Plath, had ended their lives by 1965. Others followed mundane paths, but were ready to reinvent themselves at the call of 1970s feminism.

Many enjoyed long and unanticipated careers. What was distinctive to the educational experience in the US, what to Australia? Both ← 20 | 21 societies experienced significant upheavals at this time and interesting similarities emerge in the outcomes. Both the United States and Australia gave birth to significant movements of women’s liberation. Did the very different political contexts really matter? As we shall see, women in all parts of the English-speaking world dreamed of escape from the cloying circumstances that constrained them. ‘Even in the 1950s’, American poet Anne Stevenson believed, ‘American women were streets ahead of their British counterparts in terms of what they expected of and for themselves’.19 Were Australian women ahead? In spite of national differences the stories of women’s lives at this time are remarkably alike. By drawing from two societies the distinctiveness of each is magnified.

The US experience magnifies the contours of university life. More American women attended colleges or universities than did Australian women. By 1957 one in every five US women attended college. It was becoming a common life experience. By 1965 they were 38.6 percent of the enrolment.20 By contrast fewer Australian women, indeed fewer young Australians generally, undertook degrees and women represented only 26 per cent of the enrolment by 1965. Their presence could easily be overlooked in large co-educational institutions such as the universities of Melbourne or Sydney.

In the United States women of colour were a significant proportion of college graduates. They led the way in combining work and family, a matter frequently of necessity rather than choice. In Australia, shamefully, Aboriginal women scarcely registered as graduates: a tiny handful attended teachers’ colleges in the period. For this reason, women of colour and Aboriginal women do not play a part in this narrative except through their exclusion, which underlines the racially ← 21 | 22 privileged role of white women at this time. This exclusion was to animate several of the movements on campus for civil rights in the US, for Aboriginal rights and the abolition of the White Australia Policy in Australia – movements that most often found their genesis in religious clubs such as the YWCA and the Student Christian Movement.21

A range of institutions characterized the US scene: they might be Ivy League, public, private, religiously based, co-educational or women-only. In Australia at this time all universities were large coeducational state institutions, and most students were ‘commuters’ in American parlance, travelling to the campus daily on trams and buses. A handful of residential colleges provided for women only, although the single-sex nature of those institutions did not stretch to classes and clubs. But the stories of those who attended them are remarkably the same, with the possible exception of the strong women-only liberal arts colleges of the United States. Here, it can be argued, where a lengthy tradition of strong academic achievement prevailed, the contradictions women faced were even sharper.

For this reason I draw in some depth on the experience of students in women’s colleges. But this was not just the legacy of liberal arts colleges. Lois Banner certainly felt that doors were opening at UCLA in the 1950s. ‘It seemed as though I was learning a powerful language to enter a new world, with the professors its gatekeepers and the good grades I received my ticket of admission’.22

Their education took place against a backdrop of significant social currents. The most pervasive was that of the Cold War, a climate that not only reshaped the political and ideological climate but impacted on notions of sexuality, on possible femininities and masculinities. Heterosexuality was reinforced, the nuclear family normalized, any deviating from its prescriptions viewed as subversive and dangerous. Progressive campus clubs shrank or disappeared and ideas of so ← 22 | 23 cial justice went underground into religious societies and movements. Lecturers learnt to keep their lecture topics within acceptable limits as surveillance on campuses increased.

Linked to this climate was the growth of the social sciences of ‘adjustment’. Psychology and sociology reigned supreme and social groups were analyzed and probed. The goal of adjustment was paramount in studies of personality, of marriage and the family, and of social roles. Those not fitting in were viewed as requiring therapy, counselling or psychoanalysis. In the United States an alarming number of young people undertook lengthy psychoanalysis to deal with issues such as weight control, uncertainty as to career goals or inability to deal with family life. While social commentators and popular novelists spoke out against such adjustment and conformity, many colleges and universities supported it directly through parietal rules and indirectly through peer group pressure. While in Australia psychoanalysis was not as prevalent as a solution to life problems, nevertheless at institutions such as the Cairnmillar Institute in Melbourne, Dr Francis McNab began to offer therapy to deal with ‘suburban neuroses’. Career guidance for women was usually absent. Where it existed, it served to constrain women’s choices to the socially acceptable pathways of the time: teaching, journalism, librarianship and, increasingly, psychology.

The increasing affluence of the period and the growth of rabid consumerism also shaped the lives of young graduate women of the 1950s and early 60s. They were needed in the workforce as schools, universities, media and retail outlets expanded. They were drawn into the growing professions in greater numbers, although rarely with equal reward. On the other hand they were targeted by advertisers and retailers as consumers, prey to the lure of reaching the desired attractiveness of the era, of attaining the desired household objects with which status was increasingly measured.

In spring 1964 US sociologist Alice Rossi declared feminism moribund. There was no overt anti-feminism in American society in 1964 she wrote, not because sex equality had been achieved, but because there was practically no feminist spark left among American ← 23 | 24 → women. ‘There are few Noras in contemporary American society’, she lamented, ‘because women have deluded themselves that the doll’s house is large enough to find complete personal fulfilment within it’.23 Yet all was not dead for feminism even if the younger generation was deaf to its call.

The conflicting currents did not escape the attention of graduate women from an earlier generation, alarmed at what they saw as backward steps for women. The International Federation of University Women (IFUW) resolved in 1955 that: ‘An enquiry should be undertaken on the use made by women of their university degrees’. The results of the enquiry, to which both the US and Australia contributed, were placed ‘at the disposal of UNESCO and the IFUW representative working on the Legal and Economic Status of Women’. This was serious business to be taken to the highest levels. In Australia the enquiry revealed, inter alia, considerable discrimination against women: that, for instance, ‘no woman is a professor in an Australian university’,24 that in the Education Department and other government departments ‘women who carry a comparable responsibility with men receive only a proportional salary’.25 Worse, women who married, even those who had attained senior positions, were required to resign and become ‘temporary’ on marriage. Perhaps there were good reasons for women’s low aspirations.

Those who have studied the ‘college’ women of the period (and I use the term throughout in the broadest possible sense to include universities and the liberal arts colleges in both Australia and the US) all recognize their transitional nature. Some talk of a transitional genera ← 24 | 25 tion, others of a ‘swing bridge’ between tradition and the explosive era of liberation. They have been described as proto-feminists, as ‘premature liberationists’ (a term I particularly favour). Others speak of them as the pioneers of multiple roles.26 Some saw themselves as having always supported equal rights, and were scornful of the new women’s movement and what they called its strident tone. Some seemed exempt from the dominant culture of the time. Looking back over their lives many are amazed at the paths they have taken; others are regretful that they did not have the opportunities that young women have today – or, worse, that they did not seize a way forward when they might have, did not have the courage or foresight to take a new path. ‘[It] makes me feel annoyed with myself over lack of initiative, courage, daring’, wrote one woman.27 Some Noras did slam the door of the doll’s house; others regretted their timidity. Some also rearranged the house to their own satisfaction.

Where possible I speak through stories that women have told: in interviews, in their own writing, even in fiction. It is in their personal narratives that the joys and despair of the period fully emerge: the joy of intellectual work, the pleasures – and dangers – of being away from home, the pain of social expectations, the despair of a student forced to leave a hall of residence due to pregnancy, another pregnant young woman who committed suicide. While researching this book I heard stories from a Jewish woman who attributes her feistiness and ability to challenge to the long tradition in Jewish women’s culture, and other tales of brilliant women holding back on careers in case they outshone their husbands, and, sometimes, regretting it later. ‘Life gives you lots of stories, lots of journeys, doesn’t it?’ one woman claimed.28 ← 25 | 26

This narrative enriches the history of women and the history of education. Can it also influence current debates? Do the lives of these women, their varied journeys, have something to offer us in the twenty-first century? Between young women graduating today and the women of the 1950s and 60s stands the women’s liberation movement, a movement shaped by many of that generation as we shall see. The women’s movement opposed much of the zeitgeist of the earlier period: the restriction of women’s futures to marriage and motherhood, the depiction of women as sexual objects. They fought for the opening of educational pathways, of careers and salary scales to women and men alike, for the reconstitution of marriage to incorporate the household labour of both women and men and much besides. Feminists of the 1970s and 80s envisaged a different future for women. It was to be one with equal educational outcomes and shared goals, not a future where educated women attempted to ape the patterns of men’s lives. In the 1970s women spoke of part-time work, of shared careers and a right to leisure for both men and women, goals that seem to have disappeared in the greedy workplaces of the twenty-first century.

Can today’s young women – attempting to combine careers, motherhood and a femininity that demands perfection in appearance and performance – learn from the women of the fifties? Certainly their expectations are high – a legacy of the women’s liberation movement. They frequently outnumber and outperform men in schools and universities. They expect to enter careers and professions as men do. They expect their abilities to be seen for what they are, not a reflection of their appearance. They expect, and here is the crunch, that marriage, career and children can be combined in equal parts. In effect they expect to have it all. And why not? Yet, too often, when the children arrive reality hits and young women realize the cards are stacked against them as they juggle maternity, child care and career stresses.

This book reveals that there is much to learn from the women of the 1950s and 60s, the precursors of the women’s liberation movement. As times become more conservative in much of the Englishspeaking world and the contradictions mount, today’s young women need to look back as well as forward. They might recognize in the past ← 26 | 27 → the pitfalls of accepting demands for impossible versions of femininity. They may need another revolution, another turn of the social clock, perhaps another 1965. ← 27 | 28← 28 | 29 →

1       Neil Smelser, quoted in Clark Kerr, with Marian Gade and Maureen Kawaoka, The gold and the blue: a personal memoir of the University of California, 1949– 1967, volume two: political turmoil, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2003, p. xxii.

2       Stephen R. Graubard, ‘“Daedulus”: forty years on’, Daedulus, 128, 1999, pp. 22–23.

3       Nancy F. Cott, Public vows: a history of marriage and the nation, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002, p. 202.

4       Blue and gold, Associated Students of the University of California at Berkeley (ASUC), 1966, p. 117.

5       Blue and gold, ASUC, 1952, 1959, 1966.

6       Pauline Payne, St Ann’s College: the first fifty years, 1947–1997, St Ann’s College, North Adelaide, 1998, p. 78.

7       Marilyn Lake, Getting equal: the history of Australian feminism, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1999.

8       George Stade, ‘Afterword’ in Nancy Hunter Steiner, A closer look at Ariel: a memory of Sylvia Plath, Faber and Faber, London, p. 74.

9       Helen Horowitz, Campus life: undergraduate cultures from the end of the eighteenth century to the present, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1987.

10     Dorothy Holland and Margaret Eisenhart, Educated in romance: women, achievement and college culture, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990.

11     John O’Brien, ‘Universities, technology and academic work: a reconsideration of the Murray Committee and Australian universities (1957) in the light of Dawkins (1987–1988)’, Journal of Tertiary Educational Administration, 12(1), 1990, p. 258.

12     Willy Bosveld and Dorien Manting, ‘Helena, Lotte, Luisa and Wictoria’ in Anton Kuijsten, Henk de Gans and Henk de Feijter (eds), The joy of demography … and other disciplines: liber amicorum presented to Dirk van de Kaa on the occasion of his retirement as Professor of Demography at the University of Amsterdam, Thela Thesis, Amsterdam, 1999, p. 127.

13     Shelby Moorman Howatt, ‘Straddling two worlds (or) thank god we knew how to post’, Class of 1958 25th Reunion Book, titled ‘Connections’, Smith College Archives, p. 11.

14     Sherry B. Ortner, New Jersey dreaming: capital, culture, and the class of ’58, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2003, p. 243.

15     Judith Bardwick, ‘The seasons of a woman’s life’ in Dorothy McGuigan (ed.), Women’s lives: new theory, research and policy, Ann Arbor Center for Education of Woman, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, 1980.

16     Holland and Eisenhart, Educated in romance.

17     Jill Ker Conway, True north: a memoir, Vintage Books, New York, 1995, p. 149.

18     Anne Coombs, Sex and anarchy: the life and death of the Sydney Push, Penguin, Melbourne, 1996, p. 111.

19     Cited in Janet Malcolm, The silent woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Picador, London, 1993, p. 73.

20     Linda Eisenmann, ‘Women and postsecondary education in the post WWII United States: expectations and behaviour’, paper presented at European Social Science History Association Conference, Berlin, 24–27 March 2004. See also Linda Eisenmann, Higher education for women in postwar America, 1945–1965, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 2006.

21     See for instance, Renate Howe, A century of influence: the Australian Student Christian Movement 1896–1996, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2009.

22     Lois W. Banner, Finding Fran: history and memory in the lives of two women, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998, p. 109.

23     Alice S. Rossi, ‘Equality between the sexes: an immodest proposal’, Daedalus, 93(2), 1964, p. 608.

24     Australian universities were based on the British system where a department would generally only have one professor, a senior scholar in the field. This is quite different from the US where almost all tenured academics could aspire to the title of professor after several years.

25     Completed questionnaire, Australian Federation of University Women, May, 1957, Papers on Access to Higher Education 1957–67, Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University, Canberra, p. 14.

26     Janet Zollinger Giele, ‘Women’s role change and adaptation, 1920–1990’ in Kathleen Hulbert and Diane Schuster (eds), Women’s lives through time: educated women of the twentieth century, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1993, pp. 32–60.

27     Grace K. Baruch; Rosalind C. Barnett, ‘Women in the middle years, 1979–1980’, 1982, Murray Research Archive.

28     Respondent to survey, ‘Graduating in the fifties’ project, Alison Mackinnon, Australian Research Council funded research project, 1994. Respondents to this survey had attended either the University of Adelaide or the University of Melbourne.

1   Who was she? Surveying the educated woman: posture photos, beauty queens, dormitory rules and achievement motivation

It certainly would be healthy to take the American College Woman off the point of a pin and out from under the microscope, where she has been now for years on end.1

I was looking at myself through the lens of history.2

In the 1950s and early 1960s women were frequently the object of the professional, the disciplinary and the prurient gaze. Educated women in particular were a matter of considerable anxiety and concern. Could they be well educated and still be trusted to take their places as dutiful wives and mothers? What did this surveillance mean for women? How could they become the subject of the gaze: looking at themselves and others? For some, higher education led to a transformation, an ability to see themselves in history3 and in literature.4 In this process of becoming a subject, rather than an object, women were transformed by, and began to transform, the educational experiences on offer.


As Jill Ker’s plane left Sydney for the United States in 1960 she left behind ‘a culture hostile to aspiring women’. She was beset by ‘the overwhelming anxiety induced by the social attitudes of the 1950s, at being a young women travelling about the world bent on her own in ← 29 | 30 dividual purposes’.5 Ker felt she was leaving behind the expectation that would signal to the world that ‘a young female belonged with somebody else … that she was going about her business of being a helpful and charming female bent on caring for the needs of others’. But could she leave those expectations behind? Were they peculiarly Australian?

At Radcliffe Graduate Centre at Harvard Jill Ker soon felt that she had come to live in ‘one of the world’s greatest concentrations of intellectual women’.6 Her intellectual concerns were real, not defined as eccentricity as in Australia.7 Not only the women’s excitement at undertaking study but the articulateness of the men in her cohort delighted her as she realized that she had lived her ‘entire life without really talking to people’.8 Perhaps this was the promised land.

Yet even as she came to love the heady atmosphere of Cambridge and Harvard, Ker was puzzled by the attitudes to sex and dating. Women felt that they belonged in couples. They were even ashamed to be without a ‘date’ on a Saturday night, hiding in their rooms. Worse, Ker complained, ‘not to want to be paired off in this ludicrous manner meant that one was “poorly adjusted”, having trouble with one’s feminine nature and headed for deep psychological trouble’.9 Her request for migraine medication was received with a ‘knowing look, which conveyed that I was riddled with neurosis, and that what ailed my head would disappear if only I found a man’.10 Was the peer culture that distorted so many women’s lives insidiously present at even the most respected centres of intellectual culture? Jill Ker was not immune to feminine distractions, or the need to project an attractive appearance. After agonizing about her forthcoming General Examination, the essential hurdle before undertaking research for a thesis ← 30 | 31 at Harvard, she spent the day before the exam ‘getting a massage and a facial at Elizabeth Arden and dining with friends’.11

By travelling across the Pacific Jill Ker had been transformed from a ‘university graduate’ in Australian parlance to a ‘college woman’. And both were a matter of considerable interest in her country of origin and the newly adopted one she embraced with such joy.

As Dean Nancy Lewis of Pembroke College noted: ‘it certainly would be healthy to take the American College Woman off the point of a pin and out from under the microscope, where she has been now for years on end’.12 But had Jill Ker entirely escaped a culture hostile to aspiring women? Could she avoid the feeling of belonging to somebody else? The need to escape, to find a self, was an enduring motif of the 1950s and 60s when social science and psychology, politics and advertising conspired to convince women of their inevitable futures. They were to be wives and mothers, consorts of men. Educated maybe, fascinating dinner companions maybe, as well as sexual partners, but partners nevertheless. These college women excited considerable comment.

In a 1954 address Dean Nancy Lewis cleverly satirized the continuing interest in ‘the college woman’. How, she asked, ‘has the college man escaped and why has no one written a critical analysis of his shortcomings so that his college could see and mend the error of its ways?’13 Lewis went on to do precisely that, suggesting some cunning reversals: ‘Educating your son in the interests of our daughter’ or ‘Trends in the higher education of men and what this portends for the post-graduation activities of women’.14 Joan Scott noted that continuing concern in 1985: ‘There is [in the literature about higher education for women] a persistent and striking undercurrent of concern with sex and gender, with the impact education will have on the sexuality of women and on that system of gender relations deemed “natural” to human society’.15 ← 31 | 32

It was not only the American ‘college’ woman who occupied that uncomfortable position. Since women entered higher education in the nineteenth century they have been the subject of anxious social commentators. From Herbert Spencer’s well-documented fears that study would ‘desex’ women, causing blood to flow from their wombs to their brains and hence limit their child-bearing potential, to later concerns that educated women might be disinclined to marry and produce children, educators, medical experts, social scientists and psychologists have wanted to understand that disturbing being – the educated woman.

Women too have joined the fray, frequently with the desire to rebut some of the stranger theories of their detractors. In 1880s England Eleanor Sidgwick undertook a lengthy study of Newnham College graduates in an attempt to show that they had not been ruined for marriage and child bearing compared with their less educated relatives.16 It has not only been in defence of women’s education that women have surveyed their peers. They too have wanted to know what difference education made to the lives of women who sought it. The International Federation for University Women and its national affiliates have skilfully used the instrument of the survey to argue for a better deal for women in employment and the professions.

In this chapter we look at a range of surveys, studies and other measures that focused on the lives of women graduates of the 1950s and early 60s in both Australia and the United States. Some looked briefly at women at a particular point in time. Other life course studies enable us to track the lives of women over several decades. Underlying them all is a distinct anxiety about the educated woman. Who is she? Can she really be trusted not to undermine life as we know it? If we categorize her can we perhaps tame her, make her more amenable? In this climate it is hardly surprising that the young Jill Ker was unsure of her sense of herself as an intelligent person.

Women graduates have been the subjects of massive observation. The Henry A. Murray Research Center Data Archive at the Radcliffe ← 32 | 33 Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, for example, lists at least seventy studies, several of them longitudinal, that dissect and analyze the educated woman from all possible angles. This is not surprising: the Murray Center is after all the Center for the Study of Lives. But what is truly astonishing is the range of studies. We can assess a woman’s achievement motivation; her goals, attitudes and values; the role conflict she experiences; her fear of success; her likelihood of suffering from bulimia; and her ideas of identity and intimacy in marriage. We can begin to understand her likelihood of studying engineering, joining the women’s liberation movement or volunteering; her ability to cope with children and a career, with ageing or with occupational stress. She has been truly put under the microscope.

While many of these studies cluster around the period of the 1970s and 80s – a period when women researchers were trying to understand themselves better – many started earlier and followed women through the stormy period of the changes of the 1960s and 1970s, thus producing a valuable picture of ‘lives over time’.17 Many come from a narrowly psychological approach; others are sociological. All reflect their time and the preoccupations of their practitioners. Sometimes the questions asked are as revealing as the responses. Some studies not specifically aimed at college women nevertheless offer a window into understanding graduates’ way of life, as it is possible to select highly educated women from the larger group. The wonderful Kelly Longitudinal Study, for example, used extensively by Elaine Tyler May for her book Homeward bound,18 looks at marital compatibility. For researchers who seek to understand the marriages of educated women in the fifties this is an insightful, and often baffling, resource on the level of acceptance of marital limitations by women that is hard to understand today. ← 33 | 34

Measuring up: the sexual gaze

Not only were women subjected to the metaphorical gaze of the social researcher. They had to measure up under the direct gaze of many others, usually male. The direct gaze stretched from the posture photos taken by a generation of researchers, supposedly to support scientific and anthropological understanding, to the multitude of university and college beauty contests that characterized the fifties and early sixties. Both subjected women’s bodies to critical observation, teaching them the hard lessons of what constituted the ideal feminine shape.

Posture photos

An extraordinary ritual of the period from the 1930s to the 1960s was the taking of nude posture photographs of new students on campus, particularly at the more elite US institutions for both men and women. Radcliffe, Ron Rosenbaum claims, took posture photos from 1931 to 1961, Wellesley from the 1920s.19 Male and female students were photographed nude, full length, front, back and side. These photographs were originally intended to highlight postural defects, leading to remedial exercises. At least that is the official story … Rosenbaum, a New York Times writer, following leads in the 1990s, claimed that the photos were actually made for anthropological research, stemming from Francis Galton, the British founder of social Darwinism. The practice was taken over in the 1940s and 50s by anthropologists E.A. Hooton and W.H. Sheldon. Sheldon in particular was obsessed with body types (somatypes) and was the originator of the well-known endomorph, ectomorph and mesomorph typology, which purported to predict personality from body type, to predict, for instance, who was predisposed to criminality or leadership. George Hersey, interviewed ← 34 | 35 for a 1995 article on Sheldon, claimed that it was believed at the time ‘that a person’s body, measured and analysed, could tell much about intelligence, temperament, moral worth and probable future achievement’.20 Sheldon also wrote the well-known Atlas of men, illustrated with Harvard nudes.

Was there a sinister motive behind the posture photos? Hersey claimed a eugenic purpose for the practice and cited Hooton as proposing that the data would eventually lead to proposals ‘to control and limit the production of inferior and useless organisms’.21 The idea was to encourage better breeding – getting the male and female students of the elite colleges together – an idea that was certainly in the minds of many students and parents if not for such eugenic and indeed racist purposes.

It is not my intention to get to the bottom of this fascinating story here, although the defeat of Sheldon’s attempt to put together an Atlas of women would make a tempting detour. Many women’s colleges were keen to distance themselves from any such motives.22 At Smith College posture pictures continued to be taken until 1973. Alison Prentice wrote to her parents:

I never did tell you what I got in my posture picture – I’m almost a genius. It was C+. However I have an increased pelvic tilt, my shoulders are too far back and my head too far forward. ie [picture] – something like this! We are having our pictures taken again next Monday – and so I will let you know if there is any gigantic improvement. It’s terribly humiliating and above all downright discouraging to discover that as a physical specimen you are a complete wreck! A shame to the human race.23

A later study found that posture was not a strong predictor for future neck or back pains, suggesting that the intent was medical rather than ← 35 | 36 anthropological.24 What is significant is the impact of such practices – nude photos often taken by male photographers, albeit in white lab coats – on the psyches of the women students who lined up for them. The Radcliffe News of 1949 wrote flippantly of new students: ‘their egos were deflated at the sight of their cotton-robed selves awaiting posture pictures’.25

Sylvia Plath fictionalized the ritual in The bell jar:

[it] appealed to me about as much as having my posture picture taken at college, where you have to stand naked in front of a camera, knowing all the time that a picture of you stark naked, both full view and side view, is going into the college gym files to be marked ABC or D depending on how straight you are.26

To her mother, as always, she wrote a more sanitized and cheerful version:

my physical exam … consisted in getting swathed in a sheet and passing from one room to another in nudity. I’m so used to hearing, ‘Drop your sheet’, that I have to watch myself now lest I forget to dress! My height is an even 5’9”, my weight 137; my posture good; although when my posture picture was taken, I took such pains to get my heels and ears in a straight line that I forgot to tilt up straight. The result was the comment, ‘You have good alignment, but you are in constant danger of falling on your face’.27

But there were more serious claims than deflated egos. In 1995 Ron Rosenbaum tracked down remaining photos, and Sheldon’s files, then located in the National Anthropological Archives within the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.28 There he found inter alia proof that for women the experience could indeed be disturbing. A reply to a letter of Sheldon’s asking to rephotograph the female freshmen ← 36 | 37 at Denison University, Ohio, for technical reasons, was revealing. Sheldon’s request was refused on the grounds that ‘to require them to pose for another [nude posture photo] would create insurmountable psychological problems’.29 The faces told a similar story. Rosenbaum found the faces of the men in the photos ‘diffident’, ‘oblivious’. But the women, he claimed, ‘were another story’. He was surprised at how many ‘looked deeply unhappy’: he detected ‘what looked like grimaces, reflecting pronounced discomfort, perhaps even anger’.30

Did this practice take off elsewhere at the time? My high school class was examined semi-nude in the late ’50s by a doctor who asked jovially if I were a horse rider, a reference to my bandy legs. The legacy of this remark, probably well-intentioned and meant to set a young woman at ease, was a recurring anxiety about the shape of my legs. But I have not yet found evidence of posture photographs in Australia.

Beauty contests

Being in front of the camera was not always an unhappy experience for women. One large state campus in the United States offered a sample of the wide array of contests through which a US co-ed (that is, a woman who attended a co-educational institution) could achieve acclaim from her peers. She could become a University of Texas Sweetheart, the highest accolade, or at least a finalist in that competition. She might become a Bluebonnet Belle (there were ten belles so the chances were considerably enhanced) or even a Bluebonnet Belle nominee. All sweethearts, runners up, belles and nominees were photographed, frequently in full-page photo spreads, or, in the case of nominees, listed in the Cactus, the annual University of Texas at Austin yearbook. She might also be chosen as one of the student ‘literary’ magazine, the Texas Ranger’s, monthly pin-ups where a two-page spread would feature prominently the girl of choice, preferably in ← 37 | 38 shorts with as much leg displayed as possible. Several other smaller, less prestigious possibilities existed, giving many young co-eds the opportunity to include these awards in their CV. In the frequent wedding announcements listed in The Daily Texan, the student newspaper, a girl’s awards were always noted with great acclaim, even providing headline material. ‘Texas Sweetheart weds’ was not atypical. Even in the Law School, not a common destination for women students at the time, a U of T young woman could vie to become a Portia. The Dicta, ‘the voice of the Law Students’ noted in 1958 that this annual event is sponsored by Perigrinus as a recognition of the girls in the Law School. They were chosen on their scholarship, personality, beauty and extra-curricular activities.31

One law graduate of the class of ’51 recalls that the few women in law school were exploited by today’s standards.

The Portia contest developed during my time. That was the election for the law school Sweetheart. If you were female, you were automatically entered in the contest, and your name went on the ballot to be voted on by the whole school. One year, all women in school were called to the office. We were posed for a photograph, sitting on the counter with legs crossed in cheesecake style. When one brave soul voiced the discomfort many of us felt at this stunt, she was characterized as a ‘bad sport’.32

This law graduate went on to become the first woman from Texas and the youngest lawyer ever to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court.33 No doubt the experience bred a strong sense of self, of needing to ‘sink or swim’, as an earlier graduate noted.34 At Louisiana State University Beauties, Favorites and Darlings were chosen by male ballot. The LSU Gumbo regularly reported the voting and the winners of the Darling of LSU. ← 38 | 39

It is strange that the beauty queen culture became so rampant in colleges and universities. It was pervasive in American high schools of the time but was usually inaccessible to ‘clever’ girls. In high school, Lois Banner claims, beauty and popularity were incompatible with ‘brains’ or athletic success for girls. ‘Brains like Fran [Banner’s soul mate] and me could never win such titles’, she reported. They would not have their outfits exhibited in the school front hall display case as ‘winner of the monthly competition for the best groomed girl-of-the-month’, Banner explains: ‘brains cancelled out whatever beauty I possessed’.35 Clearly this cancellation no longer operated in colleges and universities where even stronger measures were necessary to assure the anxious population that educated girls were being produced for their ultimate roles as wives, mothers and consumers.

On the west coast of the United States, University of California at Berkeley girls did not feature quite as prominently in full-page spreads in the annual yearbook but could nevertheless vie for the titles of Homecoming Queen, Dream Girl of Delta Sigma Phi, Daffodil Queen and Ski Queen. They could even be a ‘Lux Lovely’. But the Berkeley co-eds roped in their male counterparts to at least a small degree. There was an annual ‘Ugly Man’ contest (photos do not seem to bear out the aptness of the title) and at a fashion event ‘Bud Sweet was crowned Dude of the Day by these fair co-eds’, as the caption put it.36

Australian universities also had their beauty queens although there was a far smaller set of awards to vie for. The University of Adelaide Miss University contest of 1950, ostensibly a fundraising event, was reported in the student journal On Dit. The basis of judging was ‘General Attractiveness, which includes (1) figure, (2) posture, (3) features, (4) clothes sense – individuality, smartness etc. Secondly, Personality, which includes (1) general intellect, (2) voice, (3) mannerisms and (4) social sense.’37 At Melbourne University in the late 1950s and early 60s Miss Fresher contests still attracted keen interest. ← 39 | 40 The tone of On Dit made it clear that women’s appearance was paramount and a sexual sub-text was common in reporting women’s activities. Reporting of student balls and dances in the local Adelaide newspapers focused more on fashion than on sex: ‘Frocking, colourful and delightfully individual, allied with the gaily attractive flower groupings, made a picture of collective beauty’ gushed a report of the St Ann’s College dance of 1951.38 Individual outfits were described enthusiastically: the ‘silvery grey tulle and satin dress’ of the vice president of the College Club received the full treatment. ‘Vertical tucks fashioned the little strapless bodice banded in satin, and fullness to the skirt was draped from one side. A cloud of tulle was added for [a] stole.’39 Student publications, however, were less concerned with the niceties of fashion.

If Australian student publications lacked the same obvious enthusiasm for women competing through their looks they made up for it in their level of reporting, often salacious and misogynist. A report of the Women’s Union annual revue in 1953 declared that

Despite the fears of certain old-fashioned girls who had heard ‘that the Women’s Union Revue is not quite nice’, Lorna Seedsman, Marie Guinand, Jenny Samuel, Julianne Gunnin and a host of other luscious and leggy lovelies will be let loose towards the end of July in an extravaganza of music, mirth and mysticism.40

The caption of the photos of two women from the previous year’s revue was: ‘Talk about cheesecake. 202 pounds of fun in a highlight from last year’s Women’s Revue.’ A report about rehearsals stated: ‘day by day the high kicks get higher and the low jokes get lower’.41

There was a distinct sexual innuendo in these reports, less common in the US student journals. The impact of the innuendo in Australian student journals was magnified by the sheer barrage of misogynist remarks and relentless emphasis on women’s sex. In the mid 1950s On Dit contained a regular column on current affairs called ‘A-Breast ← 40 | 41 of the Times’ which featured a gratuitous picture of a woman showing plenty of cleavage or a large-breasted film star in profile (the word ‘gratuitous’ was suggested here by my young female research assistant whose twenty-first century feminist values were affronted by such blatant reporting). A mammary fixation seems to have been a particular obsession for the student editors at the time. In May 1950 a debate between men students was held on the topic ‘That this house prefers Bertrand to Jane’ (referring to Bertrand and Jane Russell). The On Dit report, as well as the actual debate, contained many comments about Jane Russell’s breasts. This same concern almost crushed the high spirits of one female law student: ‘There was an incident I think almost in my first year where there was a law school paper … and someone wrote about me and my bouncy breasts, and that was just enough to make you self-conscious and to dampen what otherwise would be a very natural outgoing sort of thing. But it didn’t dampen me totally.’42

The disciplinary gaze

Women students who lived in residential colleges or dormitories in both Australia and the United States were subject to a set of rigid rules that shaped their comings and goings and, in particular, any activities with the opposite sex. The rules encompassed dress, curfews and forms of appropriate behaviour. It was hard work policing the moral boundaries, as the US Intercollegiate Associated Women Students (IAWS) acknowledged in 1954. ‘Since every community looks to college women for leadership’, they noted, ‘AWS should be concerned with training them in their campus life’. Yet there was a common problem: ‘how could moral values be upheld when there is a considerable time lag between the time when entertainment facilities close and ← 41 | 42 the hours the girls are required to be in’.43 ‘No alcohol’ and ‘no men’ were two important rules at St Ann’s College in Adelaide, South Australia.44 Clearly the mix of alcohol, men and unsupervised hours was inflammatory in an age where unmarried pregnancy was the most feared outcome for women and college authorities alike.

Those who infringed the rules might come before a Judicial Committee of their peers. The committee had the power to impose sanctions such as ‘grounding’ or being ‘gated’ (being confined to the residence), or being ‘campused’ (confined to the college and the library). Curiously these rules, while part of the wider university’s in loco parentis role, often overseen by a Dean of Women, were administered by the students themselves, who operated as responsible governing and judicial officers. Women’s rules stood for self-government. Thus while they constituted a set of behavioural restrictions on the one hand, their administration provided a training ground for young women in a range of leadership and committee activities on the other. Women learned how to police other women. The papers of the Judicial Committee of one particular Women’s Dormitory Association (WDA) provide, over a number of years, an insight into a process of social change as the fine distinction of rules and sanctions for infringement of rules that obtained in the early 1950s gave way to an increasing sense of irrelevance and, eventually, restructuring by 1966.

The University of California (Berkeley) Women’s Dormitory Association (WDA) was formed in 1915 and aimed to ‘encourage the development in each house of a high standard of scholarship, conduct and participation in living group and campus activities’.45 Records kept in the early 1950s include rules of personal conduct such as these: ← 42 | 43

Smoking had its own set of rules:

The rules also noted menacingly that ‘No woman should be out alone after dusk’. The rules on ‘lockouts’ were one of the key issues the Women’s Judicial Committee (WJC) concerned itself with. The girl on duty was to close the downstairs door at 6 pm, the time the girls were to be back in the residence. A girl could be ‘campused’ for two nights if she forgot to do the lockout. Exceptions were made for those with specials (permissions) and on weekends. The WJC constantly worried about the problem of ‘apathy’: girls who did not want to go to residence/dormitory meetings.

The involvement of students in the judicial and other committees that administered the rules was deliberate: it trained them in leadership opportunities. They learned meeting procedures, to engender sociability, etiquette and the place of service activities. The annual report of the Dean of Women at the University of Texas, Austin, mentioned with concern a survey that showed that ‘all major offices for women were held by just a handful of students’.46 This resulted in an attempt ← 43 | 44 to distribute opportunities for leadership and responsibility more widely. Beth Bailey argues that throughout the 1950s the system of controls became increasingly complex: ‘by the early 1960s it was so elaborate as to be ludicrous’.47 She gives the University of Michigan as an example: nine of the student handbook’s fifteen pages were devoted to the details of women’s hours and curfew regulations. Bailey argues that in fact ‘the overelaboration of rules is in itself evidence that the controls were beleaguered’.48

There were many who sought to transgress the rules. Elaborate stratagems were devised to escape detection if a student with a late pass returned after the deadline. At St Ann’s students were required to place their keys into a box, the resounding thud assuring the listening authorities of their return. Latecomers devised strategies such as flushing the toilet at the same time to muffle the sound, or lowering the key on a strand of hair or, in time-honoured fashion, climbing in through windows left open by friends.49 In Texas the Dean of Student Life reported in October 1954 that ‘girls are objecting to petty rules regarding dress, blue jeans, etc.’ and further in 1955 that there was concern over students moving out to apartments.50 By 1959 the Dean was considering limited joint activities between the men and the women. She ‘suggested a letter should be written to Indiana University to see how their dormitory with one wing for men and one for women and joint eating in the centre is working out’.51 The University of California (Berkeley) Women’s Dormitory Association constantly complained of apathy amongst students, of girls not attending meetings, resisting attempts to engender ‘house unity’ and ‘spirit’.

The dormitory association papers at the University of Texas at Austin offer another perspective – on racial segregation. It was noted ← 44 | 45 that ‘During a wing meeting in Kinsolving [the women’s dormitory] in October, 1961, upper-class advisers told residents that it was unadvisable to invite them (female negro [sic] guests) up, and we will discourage it’.52 The co-eds at the meeting applauded. It was not until 1972 that The Daily Texan headlined the news of ‘UT dorms integrated after long struggle’.53 This contrasts with the more liberal UC (Berkeley) where a Co-operative Association booklet of 1961–62 noted ‘their cosmopolitan atmosphere and inter-racial interdenominational traditions’.54

For those elite American women who lived in sorority houses a different form of disciplining was occurring, a shaping of the ideal wife for the new professional, a subtle containment of any nascent academic ambitions. The sharpest, sometimes satirical, portraits of the era come from women writers. Joan Didion, alumna (class of 1956) of the University of California at Berkeley, wrote an account of Berkeley in the up-market magazine Mademoiselle in 1960. Describing women students who are ‘affiliated’ she wrote:

in a house a girl observes all the amenities of life at home. She reads or plays bridge until dinner, against a comforting counterpoint of soft voices, muffled telephones and someone picking out an everlasting Autumn in New York on the piano. After dinner the housemother pours coffee in the living room from a silver urn, pledges drift off to their compulsory three-hour study period and upperclassmen [sic] settle down to study or knit or watch television and to wait for the telephone …

‘I wish we could go somewhere besides fraternity parties’, a pretty girl tells you wistfully, and another, a transfer from a smaller Californian college, adds: ‘I used to go out with boys I wouldn’t dream of marrying. Sometimes now I miss that.’ She sounds as if she were expressing a desire to see the far side of the moon, and she is, in her terms, doing just that. Her entire modus vivendi is oriented towards the day when she will be called upon to pour coffee in her own living room.55 ← 45 | 46

Joyce Carol Oates went further in her bitter fictional portrait of the Kappa Gamma Pi house at Syracuse where ‘a half-dozen girls blithely ignored the ledger book, and, yet more defiantly, trailed in after 11.00 pm curfew, delivered giggling and swaying-drunk to the doors by their dates’.56

Sororities warrant a book on their own but it is worth noting here that even in 1965, our year when the axis tilted, UC sociology professor John Finlay Scott observed that the college sorority was one of the principal instruments created by the American middle class to make sure its daughters married the right man.57 Sororities were carefully ranked for social class and some evaded the worst of the marriage mills. Lois Banner wrote of UCLA that her sorority sisters ‘actually respected scholastic achievement and esteemed me for my good grades’.58

By the mid 1960s in a climate of increasing questioning the strain of maintaining the rules was just too great. At university campuses throughout the US and Australia the rules gave way to a sense of women being responsible for their own behaviour, an acceptance that the double standard was outdated. An Associated Women Students (AWS) meeting was called in 1963 to discuss the rules concerning lockout – ‘not from a standpoint of how they are enforced or carried out – but rather from the more philosophical side relating to why we have them at all’.59 The UC (Berkeley) yearbook of 1965 was dedicated to the United Nations and focused on student protest and free speech. At Berkeley in 1966 the WDA formed a restructuring committee with a proposal for an independent social organization. Membership was to be open to men’s houses and co-ed houses. It was the end of the Women’s Dormitory Association as such.60 The restructuring committee proposed the dissolution of the association, the scholarship funds to be distributed to girls in approved ‘non-sorority houses’.

It was the end of an era, the beginning of a more open and sexually liberated climate at universities and colleges. ← 46 | 47

The social science gaze

The will to achieve

Although the ambitions of senior women at Berkeley seemed serious did women have the same will to achieve as men? This hot topic has flourished in the research literature on women’s education. In some ways it is an element of Freud’s famous question ‘what do women want?’ In another it harks back to the nineteenth century concern about the ‘divided aim’ that vitiated women’s drive: were women to be educated for motherhood or for a career? The question has animated educators since women’s appearance on the educational stage, as it is feared that an investment in women’s higher education, without a guarantee of her commitment to achievement, would be an investment wasted. Of course a woman’s will to achieve could always be sidetracked by other concerns: her need to attend to family matters, her fear of appearing ‘unfeminine’, or most tellingly the ‘role conflict’ she suffered. The tendency to see such traits as independent of circumstances is typical of the narrow psychological approach of many studies of highly educated women. We are brought back to the realities of ‘achievement motivation’ by a statement from a Sydney graduate study: ‘mothers of pre-school children found their aims more difficult to achieve than the working women generally’.61

Also hidden in many women’s subconscious was the infamous ‘motive to avoid success’, a problem that did not seem to afflict Jill Ker. Matina Horner’s work sums up much of the anxiety around educating women in the mid 1960s. Horner and others identified a trait within some women that made them anxious about success. The anxiety was based on the idea that femininity and individual achievement, particularly feats that reflected intellectual competence or leadership ← 47 | 48 potential, were mutually exclusive.62 This idea in itself drew on Freudian psychology, particularly on the idea that the essence of femininity was the repression of aggressiveness. Thus the qualities necessary for intellectual success, competition, independence and competence, which were highly valued in men, cast doubts upon a woman’s femininity. Indeed they might lead to feared accusations of masculinity in women. Horner quoted Margaret Mead: ‘Each step forward as a successful American regardless of sex means a step backward as a woman’.63

How pervasive was this ‘fear of success’ or, as Horner recast it, the ‘motive to avoid success’? Horner found it to be prevalent among girls from predominantly middle and upper class homes, and those whose male peers did not value educated or career women. It occurred even in select women’s colleges and became more marked over the course of their studies. Basing her studies at the University of Michigan, a large public ‘multiversity’, Horner lamented the fact that in spite of the increasing freedoms for women from the mid 1960s the motive to avoid success was growing. Femininity and competitive achievement continued to be desirable but mutually exclusive. She suggested that young women who faced this conflict would adjust their expectations and behaviours, disguise their abilities and move away from competition. This however, came at a price: internalized feelings of frustration, bitterness and confusion.64 Here surely was a variant of Friedan’s ‘problem that has no name’.

But for some the script could work in reverse. The motive to achieve could be activated by class as much as by personality, by attempts to heal the ‘hidden injuries of class’, to live out the unachieved ambition of deeply imprinted family scripts. Lois Banner, writing of her background as a daughter of farmers and workers with strong ethnic ties, recognized later in life her family legacy: ‘The drive to achievement was my birthright, handed to me by a family whose ← 48 | 49 members for several generations had fallen short of the mark’.65 ‘Behind my lust for education’, she wrote of her UCLA degree, ‘lay the drive to improve my social status even though it was hidden from my external self’.66 On the other hand, Banner felt that her friend Fran, who had a patrician heritage, could reject high achievement because ‘her personal lexicon, her family history, already included it’.67 This analysis, based on class, seems more satisfying than seeking an elusive trait of personality.

Role conflict: could married women work without destroying the family?

When the Homecoming Queens and Daffodil Girls left colleges and universities with their newly minted degrees they anticipated a life of marriage but not necessarily of paid work. Increasingly however paid work became part of their lives. So did the expected parenting and voluntary work. Could they handle those competing ‘roles’? The notion of role conflict embodies the anxieties that surrounded the entry of highly educated women into careers. A study undertaken by Baruch and Barnett in 1979–80 set out to examine women’s involvement in multiple roles in relation to three indices of psychological distress.68 These indices were role overload, role conflict and anxiety. The researchers examined ‘women in the middle years’, women whose mean sample age was 43.6. These then were the women who had graduated from US universities in the 1950s and early 60s. Among the questions they were asked was ‘Have you ever had a nervous breakdown?’ – a question redolent of the period which solicited a surprising number of positive responses and was certainly seen as entirely appropriate.

The study yielded some unexpected results, including the fact that highly educated women were at particular risk: ‘It may be that more ← 49 | 50 highly-educated women in fact experience more conflict, perhaps because of more rigid standards they set as wives, or mothers, or perhaps because of greater demands at work’. The authors looked first for an explanation in their subjects’ sense of responsibility: ‘They may be more likely to report the conflict’.69

As well as educational achievement playing a greater part, motherhood seemed to cause particular problems. The authors wrote: ‘role conflict increases with greater educational attainment: moreover, controlling for education, age, income and employment status mothers experience more role conflict than do childless women’. So far this might have been predicted. But the next sentence is unexpected. ‘In contrast to widespread belief,’ the authors wrote, ‘the role of paid worker per se does not add significantly to role conflict’.70 Thus ‘the two most striking findings of the study are’, Baruch and Barnett concluded, that ‘the role of parent rather than that of paid worker is the major source of stress for women in the middle years’ and ‘the quality of the experience within a woman’s social roles is a major independent predictor of role overload, role conflict and anxiety’. Finally, ‘role overload and role conflict were associated with anxiety only amongst the non-employed women’.71 Hence, they concluded, not surprisingly, ‘it may be that employment mitigates the stressful effects of role overload and role conflict’.72

Here was a strange finding indeed: that employment might mitigate rather than worsen possible role conflict. The anxiety might also have been in the mind of the observers, anxious as to where the employed wives and mothers were heading. The psychological notion of role conflict was pervasive among the many varied studies of graduate women. In a study of Vassar women graduates of the class of 1957 and ’58 Brown and Pacini found that ‘[m]ost of the Vassar women reported having experienced some conflict among their roles – mother, wife and worker – especially during the years when their chil ← 50 | 51 dren were very young’.73 Role conflict was felt most acutely by the divorced women in their sample.

Summing up twelve studies that followed educated women into midlife and beyond Kathleen Hulbert argues that the majority, ‘whatever paths they followed through adulthood, were found to have a strong sense of self and of their own competence and to have high levels of satisfaction with their lives’.74 This suggests that ‘role conflict’, where it existed, had been dealt with in ways that allowed most educated women to feel it had been resolved or at least accommodated.


As revealing as the interviews themselves in Baruch and Barnett’s study were the directions for the interviewers. On the last sheet of the questionnaire the following instructions appeared. The interviewers were to rate the respondent for her level of comprehension and cooperativeness.

Interviewer: this section by observation

1.   Interviewer Judgment: comprehension rating

          Fully comprehended questions

          Did not fully comprehend questions

          Unable to make judgement

2.   R’s cooperativeness toward the interview (R was, in general)

          Cooperative, neutral, antagonistic.

The interviewer was also to observe and rate the respondent’s physical appearance as: ← 51 | 52

One interviewer took the first instruction very seriously, writing the following note:

For appearance she wrote: 3 – ‘but a worn-out look’.

It seems that it was not just the masculine or anthropological gaze that had to be endured but that of the social science researcher – male or female. And, we might wonder, whose standards of beauty were paramount? The stories from this study trace a longitudinal picture of many women who graduated in the 1950s and 60s from a range of institutions, state and private, elite and otherwise. Happily, the questionnaire asked the respondents if they had been affected by the women’s movement. Three stories from this study’s detailed questionnaire reveal some of the workings of role conflict and role satisfaction as they were understood at the time.75 ← 52 | 53

Women’s stories

The first story illustrates a level of anxiety (role conflict).

Master of Science (library science), husband doctor, 3 children

On a scale of 1–7 this respondent replied to the question ‘how satisfied [are you] with being at home rather than having a paid job’ between 5 and 6. The interviewer noted that she would like a part-time job and to be able to be involved in community activities around children. Her sexual relationship was rated ‘not as good as I might like’. She rated herself an average mother.

On her expectation of her husband’s support she said ‘It was one of those things always assumed like going to college. This was the dream of the 50s. [Now] I feel economically very dependent.’ She wrote of having limited freedom and options. ‘Makes me feel annoyed with myself over lack of initiative, courage, daring’. Her husband felt much less threatened by their finances because he had control over a large amount of money. The wife was asked about her expectations when she was growing up: ‘I cringe to think. Expected to go to college, to work, to marry, to travel, to have children. My expectations virtually stopped there. I don’t think it’s all that uncommon. I would be a housewife and mother.’ She reported problems with depression.

A college-educated sculptor tells her story of taking control of her life

An administrator, half time with public charitable organization, married with children

A third story shows someone aware of, but dealing fairly happily with, the conflicts of motherhood, partnership and work.

For the ‘women in middle life’ of this study the years after graduation had brought the realization that their education had not prepared them for a career in a way they now wished. They had had to feel their way towards a satisfying fully rounded life and for many it seemed too late. One woman with an MA in education expressed that desire very clearly. She had become a children’s author and the satisfaction of that work was palpable: ‘I am self-supporting or can be. I enjoy what I’m doing. I feel competent. I get appreciation and ego gratification and I guess that’s about it – and also social stimulation’. Looking back at what she would change with hindsight she reflected:

Her work and her children, she claimed, brought her most pleasure.76 Like many married respondents in the study she expressed reservations about her sexual life: ‘frequency an issue, husband gets very tired, he works late, no intercourse very often’ and was coming to terms with her own body after a mastectomy.

Role conflict: sexuality

Although the sex life of respondents was not a major aspect of the role conflict investigated by Baruch and Barnett, issues around sexuality and its conflicts emerge vividly. The married women who expressed ambivalence about their sexual life had married at a time of the ascendance of strong Freudian views on sexuality. These views were often filtered through the more popular works of authors such as Lundberg ← 55 | 56 and Farnham. Their 1947 book The modern woman: the lost sex was still reprinted in the 1950s. The title says it all. The goal of sexuality for women, they claimed, was ‘receptivity and passiveness, a willingness to accept dependence without fear and resentment, with a deep inwardness and readiness for the final goal of sexual life – impregnation’.77 Furthermore, feminists, they asserted, ‘when they came to perform the sexual act, found that they were frigid’. To be called frigid in the 1950s and 60s was the final insult and women, not surprisingly, sought to avoid it by meeting the expectations of the day. The women in the middle years study demonstrate both the unsatisfactory state of married sexuality for many women and the joys of rediscovery of a sexual self after the women’s movement gave them permission to be more experimental. One alarming interview opened a window onto a clearly difficult issue for a married couple.

The wife had marked sex as issue ‘once in a while’, and also wrote ‘no big horrendous problem’. The interviewer noted that the husband came in during this question and told his wife to tell the truth about sex – she said for him to please leave. He said it again and she said ‘leave, this is my interview’. Then he said ‘tell the girl the truth, if any good will come of it, that’s what she’s here for’. The interviewer wrote, ‘I thought they might have a fight’.78

This was a topic several did not want to discuss: ‘Sex – not as good as I would like. [I: felt you might have nervous breakdown?] – Yes! Can’t talk about it.’79

Others revelled in the new opportunities release from marriage offered. When asked about the impact of the women’s movement, one replied: ‘Morally felt no shame about having lovers, being aggressive when it’s necessary’. A divorced social worker and self-proclaimed feminist had more practical problems. She was asked whether the frequency of sex was an issue for her: ‘Yes, trying to fit in going with ← 56 | 57 three different people and trying to keep that in balance and deal with kids. There’s only three nights in a weekend and sleeping with people three nights in a row is something I worry about and think about.’ However, she deemed her sex life ‘very satisfying’. She highly valued ‘my ability to support myself and my children – my independence’. This woman put paid to the Lundberg and Farnham link between feminism and frigidity.

The demographic gaze: who was marrying and having babies?

In twenty-first century society there is widespread concern at the ‘declining birthrate’, the fact that on the whole young women are marrying later, if at all, and are producing on average fewer than the 2.1 children necessary to reproduce the population. In some societies, such as Japan and Italy, this is deemed to have reached crisis point. Desperate measures are suggested, such as the reintroduction of large baby bonuses and domestic training. Those who worry about this issue might well look at the family formation patterns of highly educated women, particularly at the highest achievers of the 1950s. They were the prototypes of the young educated women of today.

Of course the issue of declining birthrates is not new. In earlier times the ‘new women’ were blamed for turning away from motherhood for their selfish ends.80 As women’s involvement in higher education increased over the twentieth century so too did the interest of demographers in their family formation patterns. Women’s propensity to have babies or to refuse to have them sparks off a number of deep ← 57 | 58 seated national fears.81 It is well known that the higher a woman’s level of education the fewer children she was likely to have and the later she was likely to produce them. While this phenomenon was easy to dismiss when a small proportion of the age group attended university, as the proportion of college goers increased it could not be so easily brushed aside.

Did having a degree exempt women from the norms of 1950s life? It may have done so early in the twentieth century but by the 1950s a Bachelors degree was sufficiently common, and having a higher degree was necessary for that exemption.82 We can see that pattern when we look at the women with professional training and higher degrees. But how did these new young graduates shape their family lives? Were they different from their sisters who did not undertake higher education?

Age at marriage

The decade of the fifties was the high point of marriage and the nuclear family. Some statistical patterns are useful here to set the parameters. In Australia the average age of marriage for women before the war of 24.7 years had dropped to 23.9 by 1940 and to 23.6 by 1954.83 Not only was the age at marriage dropping but the percentage of women ever marrying was rising. In 1954, 58.84 per cent of women aged 20–24 were married, which was an ‘Australian record of at least ← 58 | 59 seventy years standing, and probably a good deal longer’.84 By the ages of 35 to 39 over 91 per cent of women were married. In an Australian study 18.3 per cent of fifties graduates remained single, while over 81 per cent had married at some stage. While the figure of 81 per cent seems high in comparison to the 50 per cent of graduates of the first generation of university women who embraced wedlock, it was nevertheless lower than the population at large in the period.

‘A ring by spring’ at women’s colleges was not a fantasy. Dean Nancy Lewis noted of the US: ‘The picture of the married college girl has become a familiar one on every campus’.85 Sydney graduate women too showed a trend to earlier marriage over several cohorts. While the oldest women, those over 60 who had graduated before 1901, married at an average age of just under 29 years, those aged forty to forty-nine (i.e. graduated by 1920) married two years younger on average and more of them married under 21 than over 40. In the youngest group, the cohort of our period, 6 per cent of the youngest women were under 21 when they married and a large number tied the knot by the age of thirty. They were far from immune to the trends of the day.

Graduates may have married earlier than previously but they continued to marry later and less often than non-graduates. They were a much smaller proportion of those Australian women married by the age of 20.

Women were also marrying at a younger age in the United States. Yet graduate women too were marrying less. The authors of They went to college (1952) claim that 31 per cent of women graduates of 1947 failed to marry compared to 13 per cent of all US women.86 This however occurred shortly after the end of World War II and was to change rapidly throughout the fifties.

Other sources also show that age at marriage for graduates had declined but that they did, however, marry at a slightly higher age than non-graduates. Women in the US who married between 22 and 29 years of age had higher levels of education than those who married ← 59 | 60 aged 21 years or under.87 Yohalem’s high-achieving women who graduated from Columbia University between 1945 and 1951 were more likely to delay marriage or to remain unmarried than women of similar ages in the general population (28 per cent unmarried compared to 6 per cent) and especially so for women with a PhD (41 per cent unmarried).88

Fertility rates: a spectacular rise

In Australia, the mini-boom in fertility rates that resulted from more and earlier marriage was quite distinct. As one demographer pointed out: ‘There was a slow rise in the birth-rate as economic conditions improved before 1939; but towards the end of and since the war the rise in the total number of births and in the birth-rate has been spectacular’.89

Dawson found that the trend towards earlier marriage in the general population was also evident among Australian graduate women but, although they were less likely to remain childless overall, they were more likely to delay child bearing. For example, though there were fewer childless women among the graduate women than in the general population (15 per cent compared to 19 per cent), graduates began their families later and had smaller families.90 The Adelaide and Melbourne ’50s graduate women showed a slightly different pattern: almost 30 per cent had no children, a very high proportion of childlessness for the time. Dawson’s small group of women with Masters and doctoral degrees had even fewer children: ‘the 12 women with doctorates had an average of 1.33 children per women, well below the ← 60 | 61 sample average. One third of them had no children’.91 This seems to bear out the idea that higher degrees in this period led to an exemption from the norms of the time.92

However, as in Australia, 1950s college woman in the United States married earlier and had more children compared to earlier cohorts of women graduates who more often remained single and childless.93

Is this what they expected?

Regardless of actual outcomes, women expected a great deal of their marriages in America and in Australia in the 1950s.94 Commentator Norman Mackenzie summarised the attitude to home-centredness in 1962 in his Women in Australia:

It is … taken for granted that women are home-centred, and that there is something odd and rather undesirable about a woman who is making a career, or is active in public life outside a range of socially-approved types of women’s work and women’s interests. The ‘normal’ woman is expected to conform to the stereotype of femininity, seeking her satisfactions in house-pride and the care of the husband and children, finding her relaxation in card-parties, tennis or bowls, entertaining friends and relatives, tending the garden and watching television.95 ← 61 | 62

A curious detail in Dawson’s 1965 study examined the numbers of educated women who made their own clothes. Of the women aged 60 and over, 40 per cent made some and 2 per cent made all of their own clothes. This percentage rose with each younger cohort until in the youngest cohort, those women under 30, 70 per cent made some of their own their own clothes and 11 per cent made all of them.96 Was this a response to postwar austerities or an excess of domesticity? It is not surprising that in this climate Jill Ker felt as she left Sydney for the United States in 1960 that she was leaving behind ‘a culture hostile to aspiring women’.97 Yet something in the climate was changing. It seems that graduate women expected to marry more quickly, to spend less time in paid employment, and to have larger families than they ultimately did, as we shall see.98

Marriage and career: is it elementary?

If ‘love and marriage, love and marriage’ went together ‘like a horse and carriage’, as the popular song proclaimed, could marriage also be harnessed with career? This is a key point that will be developed more fully in Chapter 4 but it is worth briefly considering here. What did women expect at the time of their graduation? Only 5 per cent of Sydney women graduates expected to combine a university degree with marriage, but, Dawson concludes, 41 per cent actually did.99 There were differences between the older women’s expectations and those of women under 30 – those of our cohort. Only 18 per cent of women over 60 agreed that ‘marriage is a full-time career’, whereas 69 per cent of those under 30 thought that it was. Was this a reflection of the hard yards of experience or of the exposure of the younger women to the starry-eyed views of marriage portrayed by 1950s popular cul ← 62 | 63 ture?100 Women from a Roman Catholic religious background were more strongly of this view than others and of the view that ‘working women threaten family life’.101 Most women, in both the US and Australia, expected to have more children than they ultimately produced. Few, in sum, anticipated the upheavals of the next decades, which would reshape their futures in so many ways.

It is a strange paradox that in a period when more and more women were attending colleges and universities and vast numbers were entering the workforce, society’s expectations for women could be so firmly rooted within the constrained life of the nuclear family. The very paradoxical nature of those circumstances meant that surveillance was more necessary than ever, becoming more hysterical in tone as women challenged those boundaries. Disciplinary rules in women’s colleges multiplied as they became increasingly ineffective. Regulatory regimes became more oppressive before crumbling completely a few years later.

The gaze that fell upon educated women was all pervasive. They were observed by their male peers, by those who were responsible for their well-being and their intact femininity and by the new breed of social scientists who swarmed into the field finding educated women a fruitful ground for research. But in the latter area educated women themselves were often the observers, gradually becoming the doers of research, rather than the subjects of it. Women began to see themselves differently. As Jill Ker Conway spoke of looking at herself ‘through the lens of history’, so many other women began to see themselves through the lens of sociology or psychology. They began to see that the lens was clouded by a male perspective, a male-inflected set of expectations, which did not gel with their view of women. But we are moving forward here to the discoveries of the 1970s and 80s. First we need to look more closely at the social, political and cultural milieu of the 1950s and early 60s. For within that troubled context lay both repression and the beginnings of escape. ← 63 | 64 ← 64 | 65 →

1       Nancy D. Lewis, ‘College women and their proper spheres’, Journal of the American Association of University Women, 47(4), 1954, p. 207.

2       Conway, True north, p. 56.

3       Jill Ker Conway, The road from Coorain, Vintage Books, New York, 1990.

4       Carolyn Heilbrun, Writing a woman’s life, Ballantine Books, New York, 1988; Kate Millett, Sexual politics, Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1970.

5       Conway, True north, p. x.

6       p. 9.

7       p. 23.

8       p. 17, original emphasis.

9       p. 21.

10     p. 22.

11     p. 35.

12     Lewis, ‘College women and their proper spheres’, p. 207.

13     p. 208.

14     p. 207.

15     Quoted in Carolyn Heilbrun, Hamlet’s mother and other women, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002, p. 220.

16     Alison Mackinnon, Love and freedom: professional women and the reshaping of personal life, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1997.

17     Kathleen Day Hulbert, ‘Reflections on the lives of educated women’ in Hulbert and Schuster, Women’s lives through time.

18     Elaine Tyler May, Homeward bound: American families in the Cold War era, Basic Books, New York, 1988.

19     Ron Rosenbaum, ‘The great Ivy League nude posture photo scandal’, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, 15 January 1995.

20     Hersey, quoted in Rosenbaum, p. 30.

21     Hersey, quoted in Rosenbaum, p. 30. See also George L. Hersey, The evolution of allure: sexual selection from the Medici Venus to the Incredible Hulk, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996.

22     See for instance, Sarah Ligon, ‘A crooked science: the history of posture photos at Wellesley’, Counterpoint: the MIT-Wellesley Journal of Campus Life, February 2002, pp. 12–15.

23     Prentice letters, private collection, 8 November 1951.

24     Smith College, Class of 1957 25th Reunion Book, 1982.

25     The Radcliffe News, September 1949.

26     Sylvia Plath, quoted in Jane Yolen, ‘Posture picture on the wall, who’s the straightest of us all?’, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 1984, p. 19.

27     Aurelia Schober Plath (ed.), Letters home by Sylvia Plath, Faber and Faber, London, 1975, p. 48.

28     Rosenbaum, ‘The great Ivy League nude posture photo scandal’, p. 46.

29     p. 56.

30     p. 56. See also Yolen, ‘Posture picture on the wall’.

31     The Dicta, vol. 57, 4 March 1958.

32     Tarpley, quoted in Marquette Maresh, ‘Our place in history: a celebration of women in the law at the University of Texas School of Law 1999 reception remarks’, Texas Journal of Women and the Law, 8(2), 1999, pp. 340–341.

33     p. 361.

34     p. 337.

35     Banner, Finding Fran, p. 64.

36     Blue and Gold, Associated Students of the University of California at Berkeley (ASUC), 1952, p. 97.

37     On Dit, 19 June 1950, p. 3.

38     Payne, St Ann’s College, p. 32.

39     p. 32.

40     On Dit, 1 July 1953, p. 3.

41     ibid.

42     Interview, ‘Graduating in the Fifties’ project, Melbourne.

43     IAWS, regional convention reports, manual on leadership program and life after college, 1954, in Women’s Dormitory Association Records, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, p. 16.

44     Payne, St Ann’s College, p. 26.

45     WDA records, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

46     Dean of Women at the University of Texas at Austin, Annual Report 1953–54, Centre for American History, University of Texas Archives.

47     Beth Bailey, Sex in the heartland, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999, p. 79.

48     p. 80.

49     Payne, St Ann’s College, p. 25.

50     University of Texas at Austin, Dean of Women’s reports, summary of disciplinary cases, University of Texas Archives.

51     Dean of Women, UT-A, staff meeting minutes, 27 October 1959.

52     UT-A, Almetris Papers.

53     Daily Texan, 5 May 1972.

54     In WDA records.

55     Joan Didion, ‘Berkeley’s giant: the University of California’, Mademoiselle, January 1960, quoted in Ray Colvig, ‘Few concerns, fewer women’, Chronicle of the University of California, 1(2), 1998, p. 113.

56     Joyce Carol Oates, I’ll take you there, Fourth Estate, London, 2003, p. 15.

57     ‘Sororities like marriage mills, sociologist says’, LA Times, 10 May 1965.

58     Banner, Finding Fran, p. 112.

59     AWS records, 8 May 1963, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

60     WDA records, University of California, Berkeley.

61     Madge Dawson, Graduate and married: a report on a survey of one thousand and seventy married women graduates of the University of Sydney, University of Sydney, Sydney, 1965, p. 181.

62     Matina Horner, ‘Towards an understanding of achievement-related conflicts in women’, Journal of Social Issues, 28(2), 1972, p. 157.

63     p. 158.

64     p. 171.

65     Banner, Finding Fran, p. 97.

66     p. 114.

67     p. 97.

68     Baruch and Barnett, ‘Women in the middle years’.

69     p. 9.

70     p. 13.

71     My emphasis.

72     p. 18.

73     Donald Brown and Rosemary Pacini, ‘The Vassar classes of 1957 and 1958: the ideal student study’ in Hulbert and Schuster, Women’s lives through time, p. 180.

74     Hulbert, ‘Reflections on the lives of educated women’, p. 434.

75     As well as avoiding names and places to ensure complete confidentiality I have occasionally scrambled details, for example altering a husband’s occupation to a related occupation.

76     Baruch and Barnett, ‘Women in the middle years’.

77     Quoted in Elaine Tyler May, ‘Pushing the limits: 1940–1961’ in Nancy F. Cott (ed.), No small courage: a history of women in the United States, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p. 512.

78     Baruch and Barnett, ‘Women in the Middle Years’.

79     Ibid.

80     Mackinnon, Love and freedom.

81     See Alison Mackinnon, ‘“Bringing the unclothed immigrant into the world”: gender and population policy during the twentieth century’, Journal of Population Research, 17(2), 2000, pp. 109–123.

82     Patricia Albjerg Graham, ‘The cult of true womanhood: past and present’ in Eleanor Bender, Bobbie Burk and Nancy Walker (eds), All of us are present: the Stephens College symposium. Women’s education: the future, James Madison Wood Research Institute, Columbia, MO, 1983.

83     W.D. Borrie, ‘Australian family structure: demographic observations’ in A.P. Elkin (ed.), Marriage and the family in Australia, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1957, p. 11.

84     Ibid.

85     Lewis, ‘College women and their proper spheres’, p. 210.

86     Havemann and West, cited in Horowitz, Campus life, p. 218.

87     Hugh Carter and Paul Glick, Marriage and divorce: a social and economic study, Harvard University Press, Boston, MA, 1970, p. 92.


Open Access
Publication date
2011 (January)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2010. 254 pp.

Biographical notes

Alison Mackinnon (Author)

Alison Mackinnon is Professor Emerita at the University of South Australia and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Her extensive publications on women, education, and the changing life course include the prize winning Love and Freedom: Professional women and the reshaping of personal life (1997). She has held fellowships at Rutgers University, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Newnham College Cambridge, Umeå University, and the Australian National University.


Title: Women, Love and Learning