Friday, March 09, 2007

Gils, girls, girls,

The wonderful Caitlin Flanagan has a review this month in the Atlantic Monthly of a non-fiction book about college-girls.

The notable thing about it is this: In Flanagan's telling, turn-of-the century female college students were almost exactly like 21st century seminary girls. For example:
[The author of the work under review] has created a record of the daily habits of these women—from what they ate, to what they wore, to the subjects they studied—that will fascinate anyone interested in the history of private life. As for what they ate—just about anything that wasn’t nailed down, apparently. One cannot read this book and continue to believe that the “disordered eating” that besets so many college women is a recent phenomenon. Today it may be marked by grimly endured starvation campaigns or bulimia, but in decades past it was the stuff of a strange glee: festive communal gorging. The midnight suppers or “spreads,” once a major pleasure of college girls’ lives, were conducted around a chafing dish—by the 1890s, it was a popular gift for a college-bound girl—in which the hostess cooked rarebits, omelets, and (most popular of all) pan after pan of fudge. By the early 20th century, groups of female eaters commonly gave themselves nicknames: the Stuffers, the Nine Nimble Nibblers, the Grid L. Kakes. While college men during the same period were forging friendships through cane rushes, fraternity hazing, and other acts of ritualized violence, the girls ate—and ate—their way to community and affection.
Sounds a lot like Sharfman's doesn't it? And, hold on to your seatbelts, there's more.

Several months ago Shifra left a comment here (I can't find it: Drat.) about some of the girls she knew in seminary. Though they weren't outright lesbians, Shifra says they were very touchy, and lovey-dovy. Other commenters, later on the thread, echoed this experience. We were left believing that every modern seminary has in it at least one clique of girls who can't keep their hands to themselves. Here's Flanagan:

The other thing that the girls tended to do was to fall head over heels in love with one another. The 1907 Barnard yearbook observed that crushes were “an epidemic peculiar to college girls,” marked by “a lump in the throat, a feeling of heat in the face and an inability to speak.” While romantic friendships between women were an accepted aspect of life in the 19th century, Peril’s reporting on the nature of those relationships is eye-opening. An 1898 advice book called What a Young Woman Ought to Know describes the irritating behavior of girls who imposed their ardor on the world:

They go about with their arms around each other, they loll against each other, and sit with clasped hands by the hour. They fondle and kiss until beholders are fairly nauseated.

In 1928, one besotted “smasher” at a Texas college formalized her feelings in a yearbook entry: “Roommate, darling, how I love you.”


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