Lynn Peril has put together an eye opening overview of advice, advertising and stereotypes aimed at and associated with college girls in the United States from the early nineteenth century to the present.
Don’t look too closely for the “present” in this book. Though the title does promise a look at Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-eds, Then and Now the “now” of it is only touched upon briefly in the final chapter. Most of the book focuses on the image and experience of the college girl who attended school between the late 1830’s and the late 1950’s.
This book is overflowing with facts, something I found slightly intimidating as I started reading. Peril doesn’t offer much in the way of reflection or analysis. Fortunately the facts are so engaging the book rarely reads like a stuffy history text. A lot of that is due to Peril’s writing style which is both sleek, punchy, and fast paced. She never gives the reader the opportunity to become mired down with information. She keeps you moving seamlessly forward from one topic to the next in a manner that allows one to take her swift style for granted.
Some of the assumptions examined in this volume are a scream. Take for instance my personal favorite, the assertion put forth by Dr. Edward H. Clarke in his 1873 book Sex in Education, or, A Fair Chance for the Girls that college girls needed to take a few days off from studying every four weeks while on their periods. His reasoning was that studying diverted physical focus away from the reproductive organs and prevented them from fully developing. These girls “graduated from school or college excellent scholars, but with undeveloped ovaries. Later they married and were sterile.” It really makes you wonder what map of logic this guy and a host of other “experts” were following.
It’s the stories of how such absurd ideas rose to acceptance and fell to hogwash that makes this book so stimulating. In taking one small aspect of the female experience Peril succeeds in showing the reader how far women have truly come in American society and how far we have yet to go.