We live in a world where social expectations for men and women differ and that is beyond denial, but over the years those expectations have changed quite a bit. In my final semester as an undergraduate at Clark I had a chance to explore the archives of the university’s student newspaper, which gave me some interesting insight into how expectations for women at the school have changed over the years. My work focused on the sixties, which was a transitional time in American culture. Most Clark students today are not aware that there used to be strict limitations on when members of different sexes could visit each other’s dorms and would be confused as to why it was controversial for a young woman to wear dungaree jeans. But in the early sixties these issues were highly visible and highly controversial for students.
By today’s standards, the norms of the sixties seem outrageously repressive. This was an era when elite colleges like Yale and Princeton were exclusively male, and women at a co-ed institution like Clark had to deal with a paternalistic and patriarchal attitude toward them on the part of the school. The university acted in loco parentis for both its male and female students, but the women were seen as in need of an especially acute level of monitoring and regulation. A special set of curfews applied to women and men were allowed to set foot in women’s dorms for only a few hours each week, during which time doors were required to be open. Over the course of the decade students grew increasingly bold in challenging the university’s in loco parentis policies. One editorial in the student newspaper called such rules “an anachronism left over from the time of the Puritans” and demanded a change. By the end of the decade student had obtained a much larger degree of influence over campus and dormitory regulations.
On the other hand, women who chose to wear blue jeans, which were then considered only to be attire for workingmen, risked being called “sloppy” or worse by their male peers. Men on the campus were confused by the women’s increasingly unconventional style of dress in an era where women wearing pants was still uncommon. Men were quick to lobby against the restrictive policies in the dorms, perhaps for reasons that may have had more to do with self-interest than women’s liberation, and many men criticized women who did not conform to traditional standards of dress.
Later in the decade, more than 100 female students joined birth-control rights activist Bill Baird march on a local department store and attempt to purchase birth-control products in defiance of a Massachusetts “Crimes Against Chastity” law that made it illegal for unmarried women to purchase contraception. Such laws were the product of the paternalistic culture that women and men tried actively to dismantle during the sixties.
In our present era, it is less common to see the kind of blatant gender discrimination that was commonplace and institutionalized before the sixties. However, it is worth considering how it still manifests itself in our current culture. As American culture became more liberal over the course of the sixties, it did not necessarily eradicate the cultural legacy of discrimination against women. Women still hold high-powered positions far less frequently than men in society, and still have to deal with a particular set of judgments from paternalistic elders on one hand and chauvinistic peers on the other. By understanding the historical antecedents to our current culture we can put our present moment in context. It shows us how far we’ve come and how far we still have yet to go.