“Boy Meets Girl:” (1) Changing Residence Regulations At The Mount Allison Ladies' College in the 1920s
by Sarah Craig
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This exploratory essay of gender issues will examine the relaxing of discipline within the Mount Allison Ladies'' College residence life in the 1920s. (2) Firstly, it will provide a brief overview of the changing economic, cultural, social, and educational trends of the interwar period. Secondly, it will examine primary sources describing residence life at the Mount Allison University Ladies' College, and detail the changes which occurred during the 1920s. Specifically, it will demonstrate that the Ladies'' College experienced a relaxing of gender discipline through new fashion regulations, an increased support for mixed-sex social settings, and the initiation of dances to facilitate co-ed socializing. Finally, this essay demonstrates that female students in residence achieved more independence, as supervision decreased, especially as fewer escorts were used in extra-circular events. Such changes forced women to navigate a new sexual double standard, treading the line between the newly sexualized image of the ‘modern woman' and the traditional ‘chaste' image of the ‘good women'.
In the boom and bust economy of the inter-war period, Canada experienced a painful transition from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy. At this time, Canadians clung to the ‘separate spheres' ideology, traditional notions prescribing women's place within the home as primary caregivers, thereby reinforcing a gendered divisions of labour. (3) The female workforce of the interwar period was characterized by young single women, ghettoized into pink-collar professions such as nursing, social work, and secretarial work, as an extension of their domesticity. Once married, women were typically expected to leave the labour force (4) and give their family their full attention.
‘Separate spheres' ideology, the ideals of a ‘good woman' and a ‘modern woman' created complex contradictions as well as a sexual double standard for women of the 1920s. Canadian women navigated between mass consumerism's promotions of the ‘modern woman,' reflected in the contemporary sexual liberalism of women's fashion, and traditional gender notions of a ‘good woman,' as someone who was expected to fulfill her domestic role, and remain asexual until marriage. New forms of mass culture served to both reinforce traditional gender ideologies and present new, subversive ideas. Within the new mass culture, women were portrayed as both dutiful wives and subversive objects. The flapper, also known as the ‘modern woman,' was both exalted and vilified in media representations. She was exalted as the sexy new ideal and used to sell everything from Palmolive to feminine independence. She was vilified in that she was used to represent the loss of previous sexual purity and societal mores experienced during World War One. (5) These traditional moral expectations continued to censure women who had premarital sex or appeared promiscuous.
As Canadian women's sexuality became increasingly liberalized it was also gradually disassociated from female procreative capability. (6) This liberalization of sexual attitudes was a result of two primary factors; the availability of contraceptives and new ideologies of marriage. A new ideology of marriage evolved during the interwar period; from a concept of economic necessity and convenience to one of love and friendship, a companionate marriage. The ideal marriage was one in which sexual intercourse was a prime factor; it reflected the ‘love' in a marriage. Intuition and instinct were not sufficient for the desired sexual relationship, rather men and women were expected to study sexual manuals. (7)
In the post World War I period women moved toward a more androgynous body type; slimmer hips, narrower waists, and short hair, the characteristics of a flapper or ‘modern woman.' Typically, flappers indulged in recreational activities once considered masculine; driving in automobiles, attending university, smoking, drinking, and attending co-ed dances. They celebrated sexual allure and experimentation, and explored sexual pleasure before marriage. This new culture forced university administrators to wrangle over when and where women could mingle; keeping in mind their desire to match young men and women with the expectation of a happy and companionate marriage. (8)
Liberalization of sexuality, the rise of the ‘flapper', and companionate marriage are key developments against which to examine changing gender ideologies in Canadian universities. The 1920s era witnessed a relaxing of university residence culture for women; they were given extended passes, opportunities for supervised co-ed mingling, and the censor on dancing was lifted. (9) This new youth subculture also reflects a broad trend towards secularization within Canadian universities. This was certainly evident in the new administration and challenges of Mount Allison University in the 1920s. Consequently, the movement towards secularization resulted in the removal of religious practices from the coursework in universities, and a removal of the mandatory church attendance. (10)
In 1923, Mount Allison University welcomed a new president, George Johnstone Trueman who was significantly different than his predecessors in several significant ways; firstly, Trueman believed there was no contradiction between personal fulfillment and social improvement, which he felt was God's aim for the human race. (11) Secondly, he didn't recognize a distinction between liberal and vocational education and felt that all education was both vocational, literally designed to prepare people for answering God's call, and liberal, cultural, as well as technical. (12) Trueman was a curious mix of socialism and pre-determinism. He deeply disliked discrimination based on social status and class, but truly believed that within the human race, some people were destined to be leaders and others were destined to be lead. (13) These ideas likely stemmed from the social gospel movement during the period, which worked for social reform and to improve the lives of impoverished and underprivileged classes. See also Prentice et al, Canadian Women: A History 164. The new president's perspective may have helped to close the gap between the Mount Allison female students and the actual Mount Allison Ladies'' College curriculum, calling into question the solely vocational existence of the Ladies' College and its strict rules. This meant a change in curriculum, such as focused domestic science courses and a smaller emphasis on religion.
In 1923, the administration and board of governors made a decision to keep the Ladies'' College open. Reflecting national trends towards liberalization and secularization, the Mount Allison administration significantly shaped a more informal atmosphere within the Ladies'' College. For example, by 1926, Trueman quietly mentioned in his report that compulsory church attendance no longer existed at Mount Allison or at the Ladies' College. (14)
Despite calls for a woman principal, William Ross was hired as principal. In 1926, both he and his wife Victoria Burrill Ross moved into the Annex, the Ladies' College residence, along with their three children. The reforming attitude of the Rosses' and their overall affect on the residence is reflected in the diary of Victoria Burrill Ross, kept from 1926 to 1931. Her writings reflected some of the public attitudes prevalent during this time as she continued to advocate church attendance, strict lights out rules, and curfew times. However, Burrill Ross also advocated on behalf of the female students to have the ban on dancing lifted, while at the same time musing about opposite sex meetings. Her diary opened with a description of the relations between the sexes at Mount Allison in 1926. “Boys and girls walk separately around the grounds, but have the opportunity to meet in Church…the boys watch the girls closely, and the girls watch the boys watching them.” (15) While there seems to be acute awareness of the opposite sex, there does not seem to be much opportunity outside of Church attendance for social interaction at this time. In fact, in the same year, ‘friends of the university' visited William Ross' office to grievously report “two girls out walking with boys,” believing the principal had let morals slacken. However, as it turned out, the two ‘girls' were maids and not students of the Ladies'' College. (16) This is interesting, as it shows the way in which the town aided in policing the female behavior. It also serves, perhaps, to demonstrate class differences among women in Sackville in the 1920s. Once it was determined that the two young women were actually domestic servants, the incident brought no further comment. Does this indicate that leading members of the town and university may have more strictly monitored the behavior of middle class female residents of the Ladies'' College than that of the ‘less privileged' female citizens of Sackville?
Some Mount Allison Ladies'' College rules changed dramatically in the year 1926, for by November, the ladies college seniors had won the right to have a dance. However, it was not until 1927 that the first dance was held at Mount Allison in the university gymnasium, an occasion on which Victoria Burrill Ross reported the “good wholesome fun” and the impeccable manners of both sexes. (17) At this time she was also responsible for orchestrating several co-ed socials, in which male and female students were able to meet and converse under adult supervision. On the 30th of May, 1927, following her complaint to her husband that “girl should meet boy,” women were soon allowed to be accompanied home from church with someone of the male persuasion. (18) This was a dramatic change from the World War I period, in which women traveled to and from church in two straight, quiet, lines. By stark contrast, in April, 1927, the Rosses' were taking both sexes on walks after vespers to the bridge around the ladies college. (19) One indicator of how much the administration had changed in these years is reflected in Ross' reports of an incident involving a post graduate female under the university's care who escaped to Amherst to attend a dance. The young woman's punishment, even in Ross' opinion was surprisingly lenient as she was only given a warning. (20)
Liberalizing attitudes towards relationships between the sexes in the Ladies'' College in the 1920s is most evident in the Ladies'' College Residence council meetings notes, which documented charges of late penalties, misdemeanors, and the possibility of more co-ed meetings. (21) This council was elected by students, with a three person executive of students and a student representative from each year. Although these records seem to indicate the female residents governed themselves (by charging each other for misdemeanors and reporting each others unacceptable behavior), it is clear that they were governed ultimately by university regulations laid out in the student's council handbook in 1922-1923. While this handbook primarily addressed the male students and promoted male academic clubs, (22) it promised to make bible study classes ‘equal' for both men and women. This demonstrated when co-ed interaction was considered appropriate, usually under the supervised religious study. The handbook's advice section was aimed directly at men, as reflected in the advice being offered to young men about activities excluding women, such as football, and any unsupervised social interaction. (23) The handbook also demonstrates the difference in regulations imposed on the sexes, revealing that men at Mount Allison had much more freedom than women. From the fines within the residence student council notes, we know women were not permitted to attend all campus activities, and their freedom was further constrained by the time limits placed on extracurricular activities.
Following the First World War era, the minutes of the Ladies' College Residence council meeting notes show a relaxing of restrictions on women's permission to leave the college. During World War One, female residents were required to sign out every time they left the residence, including when they went to classes or extra-curricular activities. In addition, every time a girl left the college at night, regardless of reason, it counted as a night out. They were allowed only three evening passes a week from the residence, and needed special permission to be out after nine thirty at night. (24) However, by 1924, short shopping expeditions were not considered ‘nights out' for senior girls. (25) And, by 1925 they were allowed to be escorted by female and male family residents of the town, rather than chaperones from the college. (26) By 1928, the Residence Council had determined that ‘nights out' were to be considered as only the following events; movies, dances, parties, walking, and sports games which lasted more than an hour. (27)
The meeting records of the Ladies'' College Residence Council also reveal changing attitudes on fashion, providing further evidence of liberalization regarding female sexuality. Women residents were permitted to wear clothing which often exposed more of their bodies than ever before, without censure from their peers and authority figures. However, they continued to face gendered regulations. This was indicated by 1924, when the council felt it was necessary to outline the conditions under which these new fashions could be worn. For example, everyday shoes must have rubber soles, and only bedroom slippers were to be worn after ten at night to cut down on the noise made in the residence, especially by heels. (28) Also, during graduation, female students were required to wear a white cap and gown everywhere they went beginning Friday noon on the week of graduation – a symbol of their demure and pure status as feminine graduates. (29) Although the council attempted, in 1927, to overturn this regulation of wearing caps and gowns for graduation week, so that the female graduates could dress in their preferred fashion, request was denied. (30)
Ladies' College Residence Council records in 1926 reveal that even the clothing of female students was subject to university regulation during supper. Since dining was still considered a formal occasion, in which students were expected to follow certain etiquettes, including demure and appropriate dress, female residents were not permitted to wear heavy sweaters or overshoes on these occasions. (31) By regulating ‘appropriate dress,' the administration was training young women to be ‘proper' hostesses and wives in their marriages, as per the curriculum of domestic sciences. (32) With the new fashions of the 1920s, the college moved from uniform dress codes, to only enforcing female deportment during certain times; such as dinner time in which formal standards still applied. For example, women in the mid-nineteenth century performed lawn drill dressed from head to foot in white dresses. The only lasting example of this uniformity in 1920 is found in the mandatory wearing of the cap and gown during graduation week. (33)
Finally, the Ladies'' College Residence Council meeting notes indicate the changing rules around gender relations throughout the era. During World War I, female and male students were only permitted to see one another during church, placing an emphasis on same sex friendships over heterosexual relationships. (34) If a female had been seen with a male un-chaperoned, it would have been considered a grievous offense. (35) She would have lost Sunday privileges for up to a month or for the remainder of the semester. (36) However, by 1924, the Residence Council made note of two senior females out walking with males and comment on the offense as being “not that great;” (37) rather, it was the lack of permission that they considered a broken rule. (38)
Although rules around mixed-sex settings were becoming more relaxed, female sexuality continued to be regulated rather rigorously. By 1925, female residents were asked to make sure their blinds are down at night so as not to attract attention. (39) Was this only now becoming an issue? Had previous students been more careful to make sure the blinds were down? According to Burrill Ross' journal in 1925, women at Mount Allison were making themselves more visible to men as she alleges that women could be seen standing in full view of the window in the common room and the men were gawking. (40)
By 1926, residence rules were relaxing considerably as male university members were permitted to call on women in the Ladies'' College. Reflecting a closely supervised attempt to allow the sexes to mingle, men were allowed to pay a visit every Sunday afternoon at the Ladies'' College. However, in the same year, female residents dining out with young men needed permission. (41) It was not until 1928 that women at Mount Allison were allowed to go driving with men, and only then under the supervision of an older female student. (42)
The Residence Council records also reflect sites of gender rebellion in the 1920s. From 1924-1928, there were increasing incidents of female students failing to sign into residence upon their return, or staying out hours after their curfew. (43) Since these types of behaviors were not reported in the Residence Council meeting notes prior to World War I, this may be represented as a phenomenon unique to the changing gender order of the 1920s. Additionally, Council notes show that women at Mount Allison were resisting hygienic regulations by refusing to clean their room and advocating for weekly room inspections rather than daily room inspections. (44) Furthermore, by 1926, female students in residence were denying chaperone's orders; refusing to wear gowns during graduation week; were dancing in the hallways despite a censorship; and entertaining men in darkened rooms. (45) Penalties ranged from fines for dancing to a loss of evening privileges for entertaining men or refusing to wear gowns. (46) This leads one to query whether a degree of liberalization in the regulations at the Mount Allison Ladies'' College residence in the 1920s disrupted the gender order just enough to facilitate somewhat unprecedented gender resistance amongst female students at this time. In this exploratory essay, I have attempted to illustrate how Mount Allison followed Canadian university trends, both promoting and restricting the socialization of men and women in the inter-war period. Both sexes were encouraged to intermingle but only under close supervision and towards the purpose of establishing lasting companionate, relationships.
Atlantic historian, John Reid, has demonstrated that Mount Allison, while unique was also a microcosm of changing national trends. Ladies'' College residence records along with the Ross diary shows how female Mount Allison students reflected changing fashions, and gender behaviors, as well as facing increasing freedom and limitations in their relations with the opposite sex. While key Mount Allison officials, including the University President and the Principal of the Ladies'' College reflected growing liberal and secular attitudes, female students at Mount Allison continued to be closely supervised in their ‘co-ed' interactions. Subsequently, they continued to navigate a sexual double standard in this changing institutional landscape. They walked a fine line between being free to mix with men while not appearing to be ‘floozy.' (47) These findings raise further questions; while this essay might suggest that the experiences of female student were homogenous, Reid's scholarship reveals a broad range of economic and material situations among Mount Allison students at that time. Furthermore, as feminist historiography has so skillfully demonstrated, women's different experiences, based on class, race, and ethnic factors, provide complex contexts for analyzing how women from different socio-economic backgrounds may have experienced the relaxing of residence culture. Were there different standards for middle class women than working class women? Did a woman's religion have any affect on their restrictions? Answers to these questions would significantly illuminate the picture of women in residence at Mount Allison University during the inter-war period.
1. Victoria Burrill Ross, Moments Make a Year, Sackville, (N.B.: Sackville Tribune, 1958).
2. The scope of the research is limited by time and length restraints, as this essay is intended to be a seminar term essay. Therefore there were sources, such as the Argosy (Mount Allison’s student newspaper) which I would have consulted had there been more time.
3. Alison Prentice et al. Canadian Women: A History. 2nd ed. (Scarborough, ON: Thomson Nelson, 1996).
4. Laura Davidow Hirshbein, “The Flapper and the Fogey: Representations of Gender and Age in the 1920s,” Journal of Family History 26 (2001), 244.
5. Ibid., 112-137.
6. Moral codes and practices of the interwar years were inherited from the Victorian Era. Prentice et al. Canadian Women: A History.
7. Prentice et al. Canadian Women: A History.
8. Margaret A. Lowe, Looking Good: College Women and Body Image, 1875-1930 (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2003), 103-133.
9. For examples of other Canadian and American University experiences please see James M. Pistula, “Student Life at Regina College in the 1920s” in Youth, University, and Canadian Society: Essays in the Social History of Higher Education eds Paul Axelrod and John Reid (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989) and O’Grady, Jean. “Margaret Addison: Dean of Residence of Women at Victoria University, 1903-1931.” In Framing Our Past: Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century. eds Sharon A. Cook, Lorna R McLean, and Kate O’Rourke. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 166-168.
11. This belief stems from the Wesleyan doctrine which was created with the merging of Christian perfection and moral reform. Timothy L. Smith, “The doctrine of Sanctifying the Spirit,” Wesley Center For Applied Theology, http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyan_theology/theojrnl/11-15/13-6.htm [accessed 28 March 2007].
12. John Reid, Mount Allison University: A History II 1914-1963, 57-107.
13. Ibid., 57-107.
14. John Reid, Mount Allison University: A History II 1914-1963, 57-107.
15. Victoria Burrill Ross, Moments Make a Year, September 12.
16. Ibid., September 25.
17. Ibid., February 12, 1927.
18. Ibid., May 30, 1926.
19. Ibid., April 24, 1927.
20. Ibid., October 20, 1929.
21. I examined the entire collection of these notes, from 1915 to 1944, noting any time there was a mention of rules, restrictions, or fines. Although they are not comprehensive records, I believe they give some indication of what residence life was like at the time.
22. This discrepancy suggests there was a separate document governing the Ladies’ College, which has not been archived at Mount Allison.
23. Mount Allison University Archives (hereafter MAA), Lorena Spicer and Aleida Hawes fonds, 8615/8 Mount Allison University Student’s Handbook (Sackville, N.B.. ), 6-63.
24. Ibid., Rules and Regulations for the University Girls of the University of Mt. Allison College, October 1912, 1-9.
25. MAA, House Committee Minutes fonds, 7722/4. Minutes for 1924. 24 September 1924.
26. Ibid., Minutes for 1925. 19 October 1925.
27. Ibid., Minutes for 1928. 27 February 1928.
28. Ibid., Minutes for 1924. 6 October 1924.
29. Ibid., Minutes for 1925. 11 May 1925.
30. Ibid., Minutes for 1927. 14 February 1927.
31. Ibid., Minutes for 1925. 15 February 1926.
32. Alison Prentice et al, Canadian Women: A History 164.
33. Raymond Claire Archibald, Historical Notes on the Education of Women at Mount Allison, 1854-1954, (New Brunswick, The Centennial Committee, 1954).
34. For more information on female friendships and the extent to which women and men were isolated from each other until marriage please see Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” In Women’s America, Refocusing the Past (Sixth Edition) eds Lina K Kerber and Jane Sherron De Hart (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 168-182.
35. MAA. Lorena Spicer and Aleida Hawes fonds, 8615/8. Rules and Regulations for the University Girls of the University of Mt. Allison College, October 1912, 1-9.
36. MAA, House Committee Minutes fonds, 7722/ 4., Minutes for 1915. 11 May 1915.
37. MAA, House Committee Minutes fonds, 7722/4 . Minutes for 1924. 5 November 1924.
38. MAA, House Committee Minutes fonds, 7722/4 . Minutes for 1924. 5 November 1924.
39. MAA, House Committee Minutes fonds, 7722/4 . Minutes for 1925. 16 February 1925.
40. Victoria Burrill Ross, Moments Make a Year, September 25th.
41. MAA. House Committee Minutes fonds, 7722/4 . Minutes for 1927. 17 January 1927.
42. Ibid., Minutes for 1928. 15 October 1928.
43. Ibid., Minutes for 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, and 1928.
45. Ibid., Minutes for 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, and 1928.
46. Ibid., Minutes for 1926. 19 March 1926.
47. James M. Pistula, “Student Life at Regina College in the 1920s” in
Youth, University, and Canadian Society: Essays in the Social History of
Higher Education eds Paul Axelrod and John Reid (Montreal:
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989).
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Tracey, Frederick. “Prescriptions for Womanhood, an Experts View of Female Adolescent.” In No Easy Road: Women in Canada 1920s to 1960s. eds Ruth Roach Pierson and Beth Light. Toronto: New Hogtown Press, 1990, 55-56.