“Coeds” on Campus: The Power of Language, Discrimination, and Integration
This post is written by Soquel Filice (HIST ’15), a Student Assistant in Special Collections and Archives. This is the third and final post in a series she wrote about the history of women at Cal Poly for Women’s History Month. Read her previous posts here and here.
September 1956 was a momentous time for women at Cal Poly. Finally, they were re-allowed to take classes alongside of the men on campus and participate in what we would consider the “full college experience.”
In Spring of 1956 Elizabeth Hanlon and Verna Rogers were early pioneers for women students at Cal Poly, as the first women to receive their bachelor’s degrees at Cal Poly, three months before women were officially readmitted to campus. They were allowed to enroll in the summer session, but were not treated very well. Hanlon remembers that one of her teachers said to her, “You can take the class, but I’d like to see you get credit for it.”
When women students were welcomed back to campus in Fall 1956, many of them continued to major in courses such as home economics and education, as had their earlier Poly predecessors. But a campus newspaper article from September 1956 points out that “girls are interested in 22 of 33 majors offered on campus including architecture, physical education, poultry husbandry, electronics, farm management, and printing.”
Cal Poly as Parent
Women students were treated very differently from their male counterparts. Cal Poly, like many other colleges, acted in loco parentis for students on campus, assuming legal responsibility for all students living on campus. They took their role very seriously and published several handbooks titled Cues for Coeds to encourage women living on campus to act, dress, and “keep in step” with the rules at Cal Poly.
Even the word “coed” has a meaning that separated women out as different from men. “Coed” (an abbreviation of “coeducational”), refers to an institution that instructs both men and women, but also refers to female students who attended a coeducational university or college. By using this term only for women, the Cal Poly administration singled out women students as additional or separate, instead of integrated.
Cal Poly administrators took their in loco parentis role almost too seriously when publishing Cues for Coeds and The Mustang Handbook. The first two pages encourage women how to do well in school, but the following 13 pages are dedicated to how a ‘coed’ should dress and act.
Blouses, sweaters, and skirts were recommended to be ‘well-dressed,’ while jeans, bermudas, pedal pushers, and slacks could only be worn on campus:
- To breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays and to lunch on Saturdays.
- After 4:00pm except to class or dinner
- To labs requiring them.
If women students did well in their studies they received a certain number of “specials” per quarter, which allowed on-campus students to stay out later than 10:00pm on a weeknight (although she had to be back by 12:30am). Phone calls and visitors were only permitted during certain hours, permission from parents was required for women to visit male students off-campus, and students had to sign in and out of the dorms with the “house mother.” If they failed to cooperate with the “regulations” that were given to them, women students had to stay on campus, in their rooms with no phone privileges until the next morning.
Men did not have these same regulations and restrictions.
Cal Poly continued to celebrate PhT graduates with “Pushing Hubby Through” graduation ceremonies, but it seemed as if women would never be equal to men, still only playing a supporting role. Kennedy agreed that “there is a male heritage of prejudice against that so-called minority group to which you belong. But the problem has ancient historical roots.”
And yet, in the same speech (to a Home Economics 101 class) Kennedy remarked: “In fact, with the male-female percentage here at Cal Poly as it is, it is very likely that a young lady will get her MRS. before she gets her BS or BA degree,” suggesting that women should “learn how to be invisibly brighter and obviously better looking” than their spouses, and “if you women ever do decide to organize for equal rights, please remember that as women you have so much more to offer to the world than you would have as ‘counterfeit men.’” As “the natural mothers of humanity” whose “principle function [is] to teach men,” “women have great gifts to bring to the world of men: the qualities of love, compassion, and humanity.”
As humans, don’t we all have the capacity to love and be compassionate? Why is it a woman’s job to encourage men to do these things?
Learning from the past
I do not believe that “history is really the culprit” for the divide between men and women. We are the culprits. The way that we talk to each other—no matter our race, sexual orientation, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, or age—can either perpetuate or eradicate earlier stereotypes and discrimination. Yes, we may have moved past using the words “coed” or removed derogatory slurs from our vocabulary, but by making jokes and letting smaller microaggressions linger, we become a part of the problem. As students at Cal Poly, we have been encouraged to “learn by doing.” I hope that this blog series encourages you to listen to what you say about people that are different than you and remember that we are all Cal Poly students and what we do here on this campus will not only effect our years on campus, but also future Cal Poly students.