By: Misha DeLong
The 1920s was an exciting time for women not only in higher education, but also for women’s rights in general. In 1920, the nineteenth amendment to the American constitution was ratified, ruling that no citizen should be denied the right to vote based on sex. This amendment proved to be monumental for women’s progress in society, considering black males were granted the right to vote 50 years prior. At the same time women were gaining the right to vote, women’s access to higher education significantly increased through the growing presence of women’s colleges and coeducation (Thelin, 2011).
Baylor University was particularly progressive in crusading for coeducation, which came to Baylor in 1861 as a result of Rufus C. Burleson’s efforts. Baylor became the first school in the South to have coeducation and second in the nation only behind Oberlin College (Wall, 1929). The population of women grew rapidly on Baylor’s campus in the 1920s, which is accounted for in student newspapers and the Baylor Bulletins from the period. By 1921 females accounted for about 53% of the student population, 56% in 1926 and topped out at about 58% in 1930 (The Baylor Bulletin, 1921, 1926, 1930). Baylor’s commitment to coeducation can be seen not only in sheer numbers, but also through a quote that appears in every Baylor Bulletin in the 1920s:
Baylor University has long been committed to co-education. From the foundation of Waco University under the administration of President Burleson, women were admitted on equal terms with men. When Baylor University at Independence was merged with Waco University, co-education was continued as the policy of the institution. The policy has been justified by experience. (1921, p. 188)
Although Baylor had the espoused value of equal access for women, and provided them many opportunities, there was still limited access for women to be autonomous equals to their male counterparts. Societal pressures of the 1920s further perpetuated unequal access. Like other coeducational colleges around the country, the premise for women’s education was separate but equal. However, rarely did women’s experiences play out equally. In addition, while Baylor strongly committed to female education at this point in history, there is no evidence that other races had access to Baylor. Four areas that women at Baylor did not have equal access to in terms of access as seen for women today were educational opportunities, student organizations, athletics, and dorm life.
Baylor’s student body was made up of over 50% females throughout the entire decade of the 1920s, which would suggest that women had equal educational opportunities. However, women were confined to women’s curricula such as: teaching, the arts, and nursing. The societal pressures on women to conform were still strong on Baylor’s campus during this decade, even for all its apparent progressiveness. An anonymous student in the school newspaper, The Baylor Lariat, stated, “We are not against co-education, but it is mighty easy for a fellow to put too much CO in his education” (Matthews, 1921).
This statement shows the view of one student on women’s education in that it is mostly distracting for males. Societal pressures for women to stay confined to certain fields and not distract males limited women’s access in fields, such as medicine and healthcare. Most women could only seek out nursing degrees, rather than pursue higher degrees in the medical field. Very few women were admitted into the school of medicine in the 1920s. Based on the Baylor Bulletins from this period, zero men were enrolled in the School of Nursing. The prevailing opinion of this time was that nursing should be reserved strictly as a women’s field.
Another educational opportunity that women did not experience equally was in the newly established School of Law. The Baylor School of Law opened in 1920, and in 1930 zero women were enrolled in the school or graduated from it (Baylor Bulletin, 1930). Even with the odds against her, one female student managed to break through the gender barrier by entering the law school in 1924 (Baker, 1987). It is not known if she persisted to graduation.
Even though women did not always have the same opportunities as men, the dean of women advocated strongly for their vocational opportunities. In a Daily Lariat article from March 24, 1925, a reporter noted Dean Edna McDaniel’s plan for a vocational conference for the women of Baylor. The point of the conference was to show the girls a variety of work fields as well as expose them to experts already active in their field. These experts in turn could give advice to the girls who were still deciding their major or life vocation. The same article includes a quote from Miss McDaniel saying:
It is a pity that there are so many women with various talents who are all trying to be school teachers when they finish their college career. School teaching is a noble work, but there are a large number of other fields in which some women would be more successful in than they would be in teaching. (p. 4)
Dean McDaniel cared very much about women’s success in higher education as, evidenced from this article and other article from the decade. She wanted her girls to be well rounded and seek out vocations that they were passionate about. The Baylor women of the 1920s were fortunate to have her as their advocate.
One major that women started surpassing men in was journalism. A report in The Daily Lariat from 1928 says, “Women “Hold Their Own” In Magazine Course Offered In Journalism Department.” According to the article, women outnumbered men in the Journalism 251 class for four consecutive years. The class’s winter term of 1928 had more women than men enrolled in it with a ratio of 22 to 20. Similarly within the journalism field, Baylor University proved to be progressive in allowing women reporters for the Daily Lariat. During the 1920s women usually accounted for about 50% of the writers, as seen in Round Ups, Baylor’s yearbook, from the decade. In 1930 there was even a woman, Alice Twichell, on the editing staff serving as the Society and Copy editor (Round Up, 1930).
Access to student organizations significantly increased for women in the 1920s. Women had previously been excluded from student organizations because they were for men only, but by the 1920s women created literary societies to be counterparts of the male literary societies. In the 1920s, co-ed student organizations started appearing, including the Student Volunteer Band, the Glee Club, and the Press Club (Round Up, 1921). By 1930 many new clubs and honor fraternities became co-ed.
Theta Sigma Rho, a professional organization for women interested in journalism, was
founded during the spring of 1929 (Round Up, 1930). This was the only professional organization for women on Baylor’s campus in the 1920s. Theta Sigma Rho quickly gained extracurricular status on campus after just one year and drew members from the staffs of the Round-Up as well as Daily Lariat. This organization led the way in gaining equal access to organizations for women at Baylor.
Even though women gained significant ground in involvement in student organizations, equal access had not yet been achieved. Clubs such as the Chamber of Commerce, The Business-Accounting Society, and the Pre-Medic club were still overwhelmingly male populated in 1930. One lone woman’s picture is portrayed in the Pre-Medic Club’s page in the 1930 Round Up. The exclusion from these clubs mirrored the exclusion women faced in access to different career tracks.
At Baylor, women were held to rigid physical education standards. The Baylor Bulletin outlined the physical education requirements for men and women during this decade. Women were required to take several terms of physical education courses and required to wear a uniform for physical education, while men were not held to either of these standards.
Women had a separate pool and gym. It can be inferred that the women were required to take the physical education courses because they were viewed by society as the weaker sex and the separation of athletics only adds to the view that women did not experience Baylor equally.
Though physical education was separate, the female side of athletics did gain interest and support in the 1926-1927 school year. Female swimming, tennis, and basketball teams began to gain notoriety and were sponsored by the Women’s Athletic Association (Baker, 1987), showing progress toward more equality. The physical education program also added women’s courses in folk dancing and clogging, which would have been progressive for a Baptist institution. The progress in athletics during this decade was minimal, but restrictions in dorm life were worse.
1920s dorm life also provides evidence that women were perceived as unequal to their male counterparts. The first dorms for women were built due to the notion that young women were physically unequal to men and were unfit to fend for themselves (Cowley, 1934). Women’s colleges and deans of women all over the country strongly advocated for the building of dormitories for women. Although this appeared as progress for women, the reasoning behind why the dorms were built actually undermined the equality of women.
Baylor University was no exception to this view. Baylor built Georgia Burleson Hall on campus in 1888 for women, decades before a men’s dormitory was built. It had a capacity of just over 200 students. By 1920 residencies for women also included Price Hall and the annexes. The first on campus dormitory for men was not built until 1921, 33 years after Georgia Burleson was erected. Though it seems like women were given an advantage in this area, strict rules were enforced. The Baylor Bulletins outline the numerous policies regarding men’s and women’s dormitories. Based on the 1926 bulletin, the non-resident women were required to room and board in the dormitories, which were under the special supervision of the Dean of Women and her assistants. The requirement to live in the dorm points to the societal view that women were not safe on their own and needed further supervision.
Other rules listed for women in the Bulletin include: being required to send their laundry to the steamers, being expected to attend Bible school and church service at least once on Sundays, and being expected to maintain a dress code (Baylor Bulletin, 1921). Under the Dress section it states, “The superintendent reserves the right to eliminate from any young lady’s wardrobe any apparel that reflects thoughtlessness or immodesty” (p. 36). These rules only applied to women, and men were not held to these same strict standards. In addition, women could not walk on the same sidewalk as men and there were separate stairwells for men and women. When asked about the separation of genders in an interview, alumna Mary Kemendo Sendón provided further insight on the subject:
Well, then, see, in the dormitories, you know, the boys had to be in one and the girls in another unless it was an invitation to a party or something, then we could mingle. And they didn’t even walk on the same sidewalk sometime. They told boys never to walk on that side, you know, where Old Main goes down by Burleson to Speight Street (Interview, 1994, p. 320).
In 1921 Baylor built the S. P. Brooks Hall for men, yet men were not required to live there. The hall was built in response to the increasing number of men on campus after the war. However, it was much more luxurious than the preexisting women’s dorms. According to a Lariat article, the architecture was superb including “ornamental points,” feature lighting and telephones in each corridor, and a breakfast room and club room for socials (Lariat, 1921). Along with these amenities, student self-government was responsible for maintaining discipline in the dorm, rather than the Dean of Women in the girls’ dorms. The new men’s dorm also came furnished with a mattress, pillows, and other furniture, unlike the girls’ dorms. Men also had the option to board with private families, an option that was not available to women. The luxury and autonomy given to men in regards to dorm life proves the disparity between men and women’s experiences on campus.
Women experienced increasing opportunities to fully immerse themselves in the college life at Baylor in the 1920s. The changes and progress in women’s access at Baylor University during this decade are remarkable, considering the time and place they occurred. Situated in the South, Baylor faced pressure and expectations from conservative constituents and onlookers, many of whom were still not on board with women’s education, much less their equal education.
Overall, Baylor was and continued to be a leader in coeducation. Baylor opened the door for coeducation in the South and by the twenties women constituted over half of its population. However, the apparent access for women at Baylor contrasted the actual access they experienced once on campus. Lingering societal pressures kept women suspended in a state were they were only allowed to progress to a certain point in their educational and co-curricular pursuits. The quote from the Baylor Bulletin about the policy of coeducation being “justified by experience,” did not fully translate into equal access in educational opportunities, student organizations, athletics, or dorm life for women. Women continued to be seen as physically unequal to men and were thought to be distracting to the male population. However, the dean of women at Baylor during this time started to help break through the stereotypes and press on for equal opportunities. Women’s access would only continue to improve at Baylor.
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