Still Streaking, But Things Have Changed

Women students at Wells College protest on the steps of the administration building in Aurora, N.Y., Monday, Oct. 4, 2004, a recent decision by the board of directors to allow men to enroll.
I think it was the streakers who rushed the stage when I spoke at USC earlier this year, looking exactly like the streakers I remember from the '70s, that gave me an almost overwhelming sense of college déjà vu. That, and the braless women's-studies type who got up to ask a question — a question that threatened to devolve into a really long and tedious lecture until I told her to sit down and give someone else a chance already.

This woman looked exactly like the perpetually peeved stereotypes I remember seeing hanging around Westwood's Sisterhood Bookstore, circa 1977, right down to the shapeless sweatshirt. Has nothing changed in college life in three decades? Are these ivory towers actually frozen in time?

Not long after that, my 17-year-old daughter Maia, who during her senior year of high school took afternoon classes at our local city college here in Los Angeles, encountered there a creepy, fifty-something man who'd asked (and here comes the red-flag phrase I remember from when I was that age) if she had "an open mind." Then he suggested they have dinner. An open mind! If I had a nickel for every time some masher said that to me when I was at UCLA! Also popular: "What's the matter, are you a racist? A lesbian?" And so on.

A friend of mine suggested I have my 77-year-old dad, who often picked up Maia from those classes, handle the situation: "Have him show up in a raccoon coat, holding a pennant, saying, 'Back off — Maia and I have been dating for six months!'"

It's funny how iconic such early 20th-century college student imagery still is, that its meaning remains for someone far too young for even his parents to have experienced it firsthand. (This guy is only in his early 30s, a long way removed from raccoon coats.) But as the new book College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens and Co-Eds, Then and Now shows, the stamp these archetypes have left on pop culture seems pretty indelible. Reading Lynn Peril's new book of social history sometimes feels like flipping through a gallery of stock characters; the changes are really more a matter of new costumes and props.

How different, after all, are today's pizza-filled dorms from the midnight "spreads" of fudge and rarebit sandwiches Peril describes from those raccoon coat days? A 1949 advice book Peril cites sternly orders co-eds not to "linger in the bathtub" or take up embroidery, lest these solitary pursuits encourage freshman loneliness. (Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, about a depressed freshman girl unable to cope with today's libertine college customs, is basically an old-fashioned novel that could have been set in the time of the old 1960 potboiler Where the Boys Are, minus a few graphic details.)

Homesickness seems an eternal college-girl problem, along with clueless and overprotective parents: Lynn Peril mentions a 1955 New York Times article suggesting that mothers who pack their daughters' clothes and arrange their dorm rooms are "going too far."

Or so I thought, until I began noticing how Maia's college experience is already shaping up to be far different than mine.

She skipped 12th grade and entered UC San Diego in September as a Russian/Soviet Studies major directly after finishing 11th, ignoring advice from those who ran her old private high school that she wasn't ready. (Rather than argue about it, she transferred to our big public high school for senior year.) But while I entered UCLA not knowing anyone and felt a bit lost my entire first year there, Maia had met, at least online, dozens of her fellow students months before she actually enrolled. Because of the Internet, the college experience has probably changed more in just the last few years than in the previous two or three generations.

That's true for boys as well as girls, of course, but girls are still the focus of special concern. People are still arguing over what college girls ought to study, even if the particular topics of discussion have changed. Up until the latter part of the 20th century, as College Girls reveals, the debate was over what subjects were most suitable for future wives and mothers. Now the worry is that not enough women are majoring in math and science.

You might think that hard sciences, at least, would be resistant to the unscientific notion that equal opportunity necessarily leads to equal outcomes. Alas, no, as recently departed Harvard president Larry Summers discovered last year, when he notoriously suggested that perhaps women are underrepresented in science because they're just less interested in the subject. The very notion caused a woman MIT professor to walk out on Summers's speech; his ideas basically gave her the vapors.

But with all the "outreach" going on, it's unlikely college girls are discouraged from careers in math and science now, and I'm skeptical of the notion that doors were always slammed in their faces. Even in 1950, for instance, no one stopped my mother from studying science at the University of Manitoba, although, as she always said later, maybe they should have. She spent her spare time reading Milton in the library, but insisted on majoring in science, to be different.

A silly reason, obviously. But I'm afraid the only other two she ever offered weren't any better. The first was that the science department had the best sports "yell," which years later my mother was still able to quote verbatim: "Hot damn, holy hell, have you heard the science yell? We want, God knows, more beer, less clothes."

The second was that as a girl science major, she got even more male attention. I once looked through her scrapbook of sentimental science-major memories and came across this excited, scribbled note: "Crowned first girl to ever enter the engineers' common room! Wore my tunic with frosh beanie and science buttons..."

Shades of the retro notions collected in College Girls! To those debating the topics brought up in the Larry Summers flap, all this is much more than quaint nostalgia, of course, and maybe they've got a point. But I just hope my daughter has at least as much fun in college as her grandmother did, with that tunic and frosh beanie, and those science buttons.
By Catherine Seipp
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online