Written by on March 17, 2014

Waiting in the wings: Women and their supporting roles at Cal Poly, 1930-1956

This post is written by Soquel Filice (HIST ’15), a Student Assistant in Special Collections and Archives. This is the second in a series of stories she is writing about the history of women at Cal Poly for Women’s History Month. Read Soquel’s first post here and her third and final post here.

How can Mr. McPhee say that he is educating men for the ‘real world’ if they never learn to deal with any women except me?

- Margaret Chase, Cal Poly Administrator, 1908-1946

As mentioned in my previous blog post, the California government decided to ban women from Cal Poly because of lack of funding for additional women’s facilities and home economics department, which most women students enrolled in. What is very interesting about this legislation is that in 1937 it was repealed, but women were not allowed to enroll in classes again until 1956. Why was this?

President Robert E. Kennedy, in his memoir about his time at Cal Poly titled Learn by Doing, explains that women did not challenge the repeal of this legislature for two reasons:  because they did not know that it had been repealed due to the ban on enrollment seven years prior and because President McPhee and other administrators continued to classify Cal Poly as an “all-male school.”

The period of 1930-1956 forced women to play a background role on campus because they were barred from enrollment. Amelia Earhart noticed this problem when she visited Cal Poly in 1936. In an article of the San Luis Obispo Tribune the famous female aviator remarked, “One thing this school and other schools of its kind lack is the fact they have no enrollment of girls…and I believe there should be no restriction on aeronautics or any kind of education.”

Famous pilot Amelia Earhart’s visit to the Cal Poly Aeronautics Division, 1936. (University Archives Photograph Collection, University Archives, UA-Engineering-Aeronautics-Earhart-03)

Famous pilot Amelia Earhart’s visit to the Cal Poly Aeronautics Division, 1936. (University Archives Photograph Collection, University Archives, UA-Engineering-Aeronautics-Earhart-03)

Although Cal Poly would technically be an “all-male school” until 1956, a female presence “promot[ed] the interests of the California Polytechnic School and the welfare of the students.” This took the form of a Faculty Wives’ Club that started in 1924 to “initiate social and cultural activities on campus.” The women in the Faculty Wives’ Club met on campus once a month and continued the traditions of the earlier Amapola Club by planning social events for students on campus and exchanging literature through a book club.

In 1940, the Faculty Wives’ Club renamed themselves as the Cal Poly Women’s Club. One year later, this club took on a new role. When United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war on the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, every American citizen was expected to contribute to the war effort both at home and abroad. This gave the Cal Poly Women’s Club a reason to expand their duties and learn more about Home Economics, Sewing, and First Aid through weekly course instructions. Also in order to help the war effort, women from the outside community were taught how to weld and work with aircraft metal on Cal Poly’s campus through the mandate of the United States National Defense Training Program.

After WWII, wives of students and faculty continued to support Cal Poly men by encouraging them to finish their degrees and essentially “pushing their husbands through” college. Wives of students often would live on campus with their families because of the influx of married men that came back from the war in order to receive an education.  In 1949, Robert E. Kennedy and Dr. Young (faculty from the journalism department) created a specific graduating ceremony for the women ‘in the background’ for receiving their PhT degrees or ‘Pushing Hubby Through.’ Although this ceremony could be seen as a way to congratulate women for their efforts, it only perpetuated the earlier stereotype of Cal Poly as a college only for men. This ceremony excluded women and sectioned them out as caretakers, thus creating a social norm that women should be at home while men went off to school and work.

What is also interesting about this ceremony is the language used on each of the diplomas given to the PHT graduates. The diploma states that the graduate:

“has completed in a most satisfactory and effective manner the major project of admiring, badgering, coaxing, demanding, encouraging, financing, goading, harping, inspiring, jollying, kibitzing, loving, managing, nagging, overseeing, praising, quieting, reminding, suffering, threatening, understanding, vilifying, worrying, and otherwise aiding and assisting, her husband…”

It also mentions that although the spouse of each PHT graduate wears the academic cap, they continue to wear the “academic pants.”

This is one of the original PHT diplomas handed out to every graduate who successfully “pushed” their husband through college. (University Archives Photograph Collection, University Archives, ua-sel_00000240)

This is one of the original PHT diplomas handed out to every graduate who successfully “pushed” their husband through college. (University Archives Photograph Collection, University Archives, ua-sel_00000240)

This language makes light of the dedication and hard work that wives of students and faculty did to support their husbands through school. It also points to the fact that at Cal Poly, during this time period, women were seen as playing the supporting role. If they had decided to take the spotlight, or protest against not being able to enroll as students, who knows how the administration would have reacted.

Campus sporting events also continued to be a place where women were showcased on campus. Student wives such as Betty Jo Bewley, famous baton twirler, were often asked to perform with the Cal Poly band to “pump up” the crowd and give the male students an idea of what having ‘coeds’ back on campus would be like (Kennedy, pg. 107). For community-wide events such as Homecoming and Poly Royal, “princesses” and “queens” were selected from college-aged women at other schools or from faculty and/or student wives. Cal Poly did not see a homecoming queen selected from its own student body until 1957, when Barbara Foley became queen.

Betty Jo Bewley, wife of Cal Poly student Lew Bewley, like many other student wives, put her husband through college by working as a campus secretary, 1950. (University Archives Photograph Collection, University Archives, ua-pho_00000779)

Betty Jo Bewley, wife of Cal Poly student Lew Bewley, like many other student wives, put her husband through college by working as a campus secretary, 1950. (University Archives Photograph Collection, University Archives, ua-pho_00000779)

In 1956, women were finally welcomed back to campus, but it took a long time for a majority of students and administrators to agree with Amelia Earhart’s belief that “A woman has as much right to study and make her way as a man.”

 

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