Oakland author Lynn Peril has found her niche. As founder and editor of the online ’zine Mystery Date (which she admits is an outlet for her obsession with “old sex and dating books, self-help and etiquette manuals and fashion guides”), she found herself dabbling ever deeper into the realm of social history. In 2002, she wrote Pink Think, in which she deconstructed mass media’s directives to girls and women on how to become the “ideal female.”
With recent publication of College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-Eds, Then and Now, she’s shifted her campy gaze to the cultural icon of the College Girl and the history of women’s higher education in America. Illustrated with archival materials documenting the lives of coeds and the products geared toward them, the pictorial representations in College Girls is alone worth the price of the book.
Take a peek at a 1950’s home-economics class at Cornell University, where coeds learned how to “properly use and maintain an iron,” or a 1940’s ad urging coeds not to bore boyfriends with books but rather “dazzle him” with Dura-Gloss nail polish.
Footnoted throughout, College Girls has a textbooky feel and is further enhanced with historical charts, graphs and text enclosed in boxes with a vintage megaphone-holding cheerleader, announcing topics varying from chafing dish dainties to a debate over whether Catholic women become “muddle-headed” if exposed to higher education and Title IX.
Peril has done her research. She provides background in the first chapter with an easy-to-digest history of the evolution of college education for women, from Colonial America to 1900. Then, in each of eight chapters, she propels the reader through time looking at topics chronologically. She deciphers what it meant during different periods to be a freshman coed and, of course, what constituted college fashion over the years. She explores the knotty subjects of sex education and husband hunting as well as what courses of study were (and were not) available to female students.
For all the humor and smirks the material offers, Peril presents a serious context within which to place the seemingly lighthearted College Girls.
She explores the ramifications of two recent events that may have gone undetected by many women. In 2002, economists at Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies deduced that the increased number of women graduates was creating a marriage gap. Why? Peril explains: “This is a modern spin on the long-standing fears that higher education is a fast track to spinsterhood—for what man wanted to “marry up” to a woman better educated than he?”
More recently, a 2005 comment by Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers that, “… perhaps fewer women had successful math and science careers because innate sex differences made them less capable in these areas of study” earned him a no-confidence vote from colleagues.
Peril points out that this pronouncement sounded a lot like the early debate over “whether biological differences in male and female brains mean women weren’t capable of the type of abstract critical thought integral to a college education.”
But Peril isn’t heavy handed with her material. In fact, her breezy tone allows the reader to sit back and enjoy the social history she’s dug up from the not-so-distant past. She’s mastered a style that delivers weighty content with a light touch, allowing readers to ponder it all. “The question of what makes these ideas so enduring is a bigger one than this book can hope to answer, yet the history recounted here should remind us all not to take women’s right to higher education for granted.”