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A Woman’s Place is on the Campus: US Women’s Progessive Colleges in the 1930s (Part I)

By Pamela C. Crosby

This short essay is a first of a series of articles on the history and philosophy of women’s colleges in the 1930s, and part of a larger series on the history and philosophy of higher education and student affairs. Many women’s colleges of this decade emphasized a vital connection between the self-directed learner and the self-reliant individual who contributes to the well being of a democratic society. In this article, the author provides a brief overview of the role of the female student in selective women’s colleges as described in an article published in 1935 in the Journal of Higher education by Kathryn McHale, director of the American Association of University Women.

At one point in “A Study of Student Life,” appearing in The Journal of Higher Education in 1935, authors Cowley and Wallercontrasted two types of campus cultures in women’s colleges: one they described as the “finishing school” and the other as the “feminist school.”  The finishing school, the authors explained, provided women a clear advantage over others in luring eligible males into marriage by emphasizing “social ease” and “familiarity with the amenities.” In contrast to students in  the finishing school, the students of the feminist school resisted “male domination” so resolutely that at one school, women prided “themselves upon not washing their necks and upon dressing in slovenly skirts, sweaters, and smocks” (p. 140).

Although most of the article rarely mentions women specifically, authors Cowley and Waller did note that the “best looking girls in the sophomore class” at Vassar and “comely Sophomores” at the College of New Rochelle had been participants in a daisy chain parade (p. 135), and at a Middle West institution, there was a controversy surrounding the election of a homecoming queen (p. 138). Concluding their essay on the social and cultural traditions of the undergraduate, they commented that “the college is an expression of American life” (Cowley & Waller, p. 142).

Preparing for the Modern World

Extracurricular activities of women undergraduates in progressive colleges in the 1930s, however, did not always center on events involving the enticing or fending off of men, beauty contests, or daisy chains. In many women’s institutions, involvement in student forums, political clubs, and student branches of national organizations contributed to students’ awareness and understanding of world events. In many women’s institutions, participation in student forums, political clubs, and student branches of national organizations contributed to students’ awareness and understanding of world events. Kathryn McHale, director of the American Association of University Women, wrote in 1935 that young women were becoming more acutely aware of the importance of their participation in a democratic society, seeing themselves as contributing individuals with unique talents, interests, and abilities.

McHale argued that women in the new decade were being “forced by the crowding impact of events to feel a greater responsibility for taking part in community, national, and international affairs and for understanding economic and social forces”(1935, p. 459). According to McHale, the 1930 census figures showed that profitable employment of women was up 50.1 percent from 1920; an increase of 60 percent of those employed were married (p. 459). Women were beginning to move from slight participation in public affairs to greater involvement in industry, service organizations, education, and government.

Increasingly women’s institutions saw their role as preparing women to live in the “modern world” by promoting “experiments and changes in college education which are almost revolutionary” (p. 460). McHale explained that curricula in many leading women’s colleges and coeducational colleges reflected the recognition that education must be an individual matter and that the college should not only consider the differences in abilities and interests of the individual, but should capitalize on these very differences through a flexible program fitted to the students’ needs.

Social Responsibility

Inspiring a sense of social responsibility was an important goal for many women’s  colleges, for example. McHale wrote that learning to live with other people is a crucial part of college life. Educated people should not be “aloof,” but should be “dynamic members of society, functioning as they give and receive and use ideas” (p. 463). Students in several colleges participated in projects that enabled them to work closely with people in their communities. Bennington was an example of a progressive institution where students took leave from college for two months to help alleviate social problems in their locales (p. 461). Mount Holyhoke women had opportunities to investigate the influence of work relief programs (p. 466). At Mills college, students could major in “The American Community,” which was designed to prepared students for civic engagement (p. 465).

Residential life was beginning to be an  important aspect  of the curriculum. Scripps College in California, for example, designed its residence halls in ways that would help to intersect students’ residential and academic  life. At Vassar, three  faculty members lived in each resident hall “whose function . . . [was]  to develop nformal and helpful student-teacher contacts, to gather material on the intellectual interests and probable success of Freshmen, and to advise students”  (p. 465).

Intellectual Standards

Contrasting the American to the German university, McHale noted that US students were more prepared in ways to address “contemporary problems” than their German counterparts(p. 468). However, McHale emphasized that the highest intellectual standards should always be demanded of students. Crucial is

[t]he fostering of methods and conditions of study that build real intellectual values-mental vigor, reasoning power, courage, independence, initiative. These are qualities greatly needed in the world today, both for leaders and for the followers on whom leaders must depend. (p. 462)

For example, one of the most important experiences going on in selected women’s colleges was the elimination of the existent credit system that was “a game in which a good memory is often the only determinant.” McHale quoted an educator who described the process of earning credits as similar to a preschool child [who] adds beads to a string,” and promoted “scattered learning and prompt forgetting” (p462).

Replacing this type of system was the “comprehensive examination,” which used multiple methods whereby the student could demonstrate her knowledge of subjects while demonstrating “reasoning power “and “initiative” (p.462). For example at some schools conferencing with instructors and fellow students replaced classroom attendance. Course credits were replaced by  independent work and study that were evaluated individually:

It is felt that under these highly individualized conditions no rigidly or universally applicable criteria of quality of work could be imposed. Instead, the student’s record is a cumulation of specific judgments on specific achievements. (p. 462)

According to McHale four important experiments were underway at women’s colleges at this time:

  • adjustment of the curriculum to the individual so that her powers may be developed to the fullest;
  • cultivation of the student’s independence and initiative;
  • education of the student as a social being by making the residence life a part of the curricular life;
  • construction of courses that prepare for modern living. (p. 467)

These four areas, argued McHale, helped to cultivate women students to  become active, responsible, and highly knowledgeable leaders in their communities and society.2


Cowley, W. H., & Waller, W. (1935) A study of student life.  The Journal of Higher Education 6(3), 132-142.

McHale, K. (1935). Education for women: The significance of present-day college education for women and curriculum changes.  The Journal of Higher Education 6(9), 459-460.

1William Harold Cowley was a professor of education at Stanford after his term as president of Hamilton College. At one time, he was worked on the staff of the Bureau of Educational Research at Ohio State University. Willard Waller was an eminent sociologist at Columbia University and wrote extensively on higher education.

2In a future  issue of Clearinghouse, the second article in the series will focus on the collegiate experience at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1930s.