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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Challenging Gender Stereotypes during the Depression:
Female Students at the University of Washington

by Nicolette Flannery

Female students at the University of Washington took on new campus roles during the Depression that challenged gender stereotypes around education, sports, and domestic and social responsibilities. Pictured here is the UW women's fencing team in 1939, made possible by women's entrance into collegiate athletics during the 1930s. Click image to enlarge. (Photo by Ken Harris for the Seattle PI, courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry)

The Great Depression swept over America in the 1930s with great force and, like falling dominoes, every aspect of American life was affected. Poverty and unemployment grew, along with homelessness and social unrest. Every small town and city in the United States was impacted by the stock market crash and subsequent downturn of the economy, and unfortunately the residents of Seattle, Washington were no exception. Students at the University of Washington were affected by budget cuts, increases in tuition, and program cutbacks which encouraged an overall feeling of uneasiness on the Seattle campus. These issues left students rattled and spurred many to high levels of activism. Students united and protested unfair and unjust treatment. In particular, female students, united through their gender, rallied together and began to question the limited roles and opportunities that were available to them as students. During the Great Depression decade at the University of Washington, female students took on new roles that challenged traditional gender stereotypes in all parts of their lives: the pursuit of higher education, involvement in sports activities, and attitudes toward domestic responsibilities.

The Depression era prompted increasing numbers of women to pursue new avenues of education that had previously been unavailable, and had seemed unlikely and unpopular for their gender. Prior to the Depression, many women did not pursue higher education by enrolling in college courses. The women that did engage in academia often limited their involvement due to the fact that if they planned to marry (as most did), they would not be permitted to work thereafter. But with the 1930s economy in shambles and unemployment on the rise, many men were finding it difficult if not impossible to obtain work. This lack of employment made the majority of men unlikely candidates for marriage, causing women to become more concerned with their own education as a means for financially supporting themselves. Women began to explore educational opportunities at the University for classes that would be practical and useful for future careers and jobs.

In 1934, Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington William Wilson encouraged women to challenge the stereotypes of the female student and take advantage of the scope for creative learning that higher education allowed. His speech addressing an assembly of female students argued that “young women have earned membership in this underclass scholastic honorary through [their] docile attitude and diligence in doing what [they] are told on assignments. But now is [the] chance to forget that and really get an education by looking beyond the daily assignment.”[1] Professor Wilson’s speech broke new ground in its motivation to  women to reexamine their role as students and start to reevaluate their educational goals. His speech promoted and emboldened women to perceive their studies as valuable for their personal advancement and enrichment, not just a forum in which to demonstrate their diligence and ability to follow instruction. For the first time, women were being encouraged to act in their own self-interest in terms of their education, and to abandon their stereotypical role as a docile student.

Female students were a rapidly growing part of the University of Washington's population during the Depression, as this headline from the student newspaper, the Daily, from January 15, 1935, shows.

Wilson’s advice was heeded by many women students, who began to seek out different courses, regardless of what was thought to be popular and “typical” for women students. Due to increased demand, by 1935 the University of Washington began to offer courses and programs specifically designed to advance women in business, as seen in an article advertised in the Daily newspaper encouraging women to disprove the stereotypical “gum-chewing secretary who wears her old formals around the office and answers the telephone with a nasal twang”[2] by enrolling in the University’s business program for women. Female students became increasingly interested in a business education and eagerly challenged the stereotype of an ill-read, useless secretary. Higher education among women in business as well as other areas of academic interest began to increase nationwide, and the University of Washington was at the head of this movement: by the beginning of 1935, the University of Washington boasted the second largest female enrollment among colleges nationwide.[3] The Great Depression era at the University of Washington thus saw attitudes about women, education, and women’s academic goals shift dramatically.

During the Great Depression, female interest and participation in sports began to steadily increase at the same time that women expanded their academic involvement. As women continued to become more active in the scholastic aspect of college life, they increasingly pursued physical education as well.[4] Women were especially involved in the sport of swimming, both competitive and intramural. Female students at the University of Washington began to see overcrowding in the women’s pool due to the mounting popularity of the event and the women’s pool’s limited hours of operation. In October of 1934, female swimmers banded together and petitioned the physical education department to increase the hours of the women’s pool.[5] Stressing the growing popularity in swimming as a sport, female swimmers had their demands met when the athletic department permitted the pool’s hours to be increased. During the rest of 1934 as well as into 1935, the Daily newspaper ran various articles citing women’s continued—and successful—efforts in urging extended pool hours as swimming continued to draw more popularity. Female students were beginning to participate in sports in increasing numbers, as well as challenging the regulations and facilities of women’s athletics.

Students at UW's Campus Day festival in 1931. Click image to enlarge. (Photo courtesy of the University of Washington Library, Special Collections).

In October of 1934, the University’s rifle shooting coach was interviewed due to the escalating popularity of target practice among women. The involvement of women in this largely male-dominated sport prompted many students and spectators to question if women were, in fact,  capable of participating in this sport. But the coach vehemently argued against these doubts in his interview. When asked whether or not women were allowed to shoot on his range, the coach stated: “Certainly. And there are some fine women shots, too. The University’s women’s rifle team won the intercollegiate title last year... and I’d rather coach women than men... They’re willing to learn and they take readily to constructive criticism.”[6] Later in the season, Coach Daughtry extolled the virtues of the women’s team again, boasting that “before the season is over we expect to have twice as many meets as we now have arranged.”[7] Female students were challenging the gender-based idea that they had no place in sports and could not be successful in physical competition by becoming involved in previously all-male athletics, such as the rifle team, and by excelling.

The University of Washington’s Daily student newspaper also began to capitalize on the increasing popularity of women’s athletics by running sports-themed advertising targeted toward the female student. In November of 1932 the “Innovations Column” began to run an advertisement for new, more comfortable sports clothing for “the coed who loves to feel dainty and feminine even while she’s dressed for sport.”[8] The appearance of sports clothing advertising targeted toward women demonstrates not only increased demand for sports-related products among women and women’s increasing interest in sports, but also how rapidly women’s participation in sports could change daily culture and social expectations on campus.

Female students in 1918 learned home economics and methods of canning, cooking, and preserving food, pictured here. This course in "food administration" was required for all female students to graduate, reflecting a particularly domestic idea of how women would use their education. In the 1930s, female students pushed for a broader education beyond domestic responsibilities. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry)

Just as women were redefining their academic and athletic spheres on campus, they also began to broaden ideas of what female domestic responsibilities entailed, challenging traditional stereotypes about marriage and families. With increased academic and physical involvement at the University, women were becoming progressively independent and more comfortable in questioning what was expected of their gender in society, challenging the social expectation of becoming a mother and a wife. In May of 1934, Professor of Sociology J.F. Steiner cited a national decline in the birthrate as well as dwindling family sizes, insisting that women were becoming decreasingly likely to marry and were spending more time “playing bridge and drinking tea rather than raising families.”[9] Though Professor Steiner was perhaps alarmed at this shift, some women on campus welcomed having a choice.
One performer at the University of Washington, Lucretia Bori, chose a lifestyle post-graduation in which she did not marry and raise a family. She was interviewed on the Seattle campus in November of 1934, and when questioned if romantic experiences had been necessary for her success she replied, “Nonsense. A little intelligence, brains and sensibility can go a long way...”[10] Bori stated that her own success was owed to her education and pragmatic sense, and that she did not need to adhere to traditional roles of domesticity in order to live a successful life, and neither did she feel compelled to marry right after college. Bori’s independent attitude was reflected by many other female students who made their college careers a time of domestic independence.

The Great Depression era also saw an increase in female students’ self-sufficiency in terms of livelihood. The 1935 University of Washington’s female student census reported that women were becoming more and more independent in their living situations.  From 1929 to 1935 the amount of women who were living on their own without the support of their family or a husband had more than doubled.[11] Women were becoming more likely to obtain work and support themselves while they were pursuing their educations, thereby demonstrating their increased sense of independence and eschewing notions of stereotypical domesticity. The census also revealed a steady decline in sorority affiliation, indicating that female students were not choosing another sort of communal dependency over boarding with a family or a husband but rather were choosing to live independently.[12] Along with their entrance into new academic and social spaces on campus came a sense of independence, reflected in these statistics.

The Great Depression in America was a time of social upheaval in which many ideas were questioned and many social roles re-examined. The University of Washington’s campus was a setting in which women began to challenge their roles in the academia as well as society in general. Female students pushed boundaries in terms of educational pursuit and incited demand for new academic programs. Women began to participate in sports programs that were previously unavailable to them and pressed for resources to create more opportunities for the female athlete. And finally, women across campus and throughout society challenged the gender norms of domesticity, marriage, and living situation. The Great Depression era proved to be a time of increasing involvement and independence among female students that would inspire feminist movements for generations to come.

 Copyright (c) 2010, Nicolette Flannery
HSTAA 105 Winter 2010

[1] The University of Washington Daily, October 17, 1934: “Wilson Addresses Women Scholars.”
[2] The University of Washington Daily, February 14, 1935: “Business Women Extension Subject.”
[3] The University of Washington Daily, January 15, 1935: “U Women Form Second Largest Group in Country.”
[4] October 4, 1934 The University of Washington Daily.
[5] The University of Washington Daily, October 23, 1934: “Pool Open Monday, Wednesday at Noon.”
[6] The University of Washington Daily, October 18, 1934: “Rifle Coach Prefers Women as Students.”
[7] The University of Washington Daily, October 31, 1934: “Coed Rifle Team Plans 30 Meets.”
[8] The University of Washington Daily, November 13, 1932 “Innovations.”
[9] The University of Washington Daily, May 3, 1934: “Women Gadabouts Menace to Birthrate.”
[10] The University of Washington Daily, November 8, 1934: “Bori Inventory: Big Brown Eyes, One S-c-h-n-a-u-s-e-r Dog, No Children.”
[11] The University of Washington Daily, March 19, 1935: “Over Half of U. Coeds are ‘Just Home Girls’: Sororities Play Small Part in Housing”; and March 19, 1935 The University of Washington Daily.