Student Culture at New Jersey College for Women in the 1930s - Amanda Winter, Douglass College '03
In Campus Life, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz defines college life as "a complete environment containing alternative student cultures, each with its own standards and values. These particular undergraduate worlds give form to students' lives and meaning to their experience."1 This concept seems particularly applicable to the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century male college environment on which Horowitz focuses. A case study of New Jersey College for Women (NJC), now known as Douglass College, during the 1930s, however, reveals a more limited student culture. The faculty's enforcement of rules that upheld a conservative interpretation of social values and the college's proximity to New Brunswick prevented the students from feeling isolated from the rest of society. This lack of isolation severely limited the students' ability to create their own culture. Instead, the culture that existed at the college was similar to that of its surroundings with only slight variations. By examining the diary of Theresa Kerr, a student at NJC from 1931 to 1935, and other publications from that time period, it is possible to obtain one perspective on the students' values regarding religion, social activities, and relationships with the opposite sex.
Theresa (Kunst) Kerr, who donated her diaries to Douglass College in 1994, grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, and graduated from NJC with a political science degree in 1935. After graduation, she married Campbell Kerr and raised three children.2 By looking at the first entry in Theresa Kerr's diary, one can see that religion played a key role in her life. In this entry, she comments on how she believes Jesus will be even more important in her life while she is at college.3 From July 8, 1932, she begins each diary entry with a verse from the Bible and mentions that she reads the bible before going to sleep.4 While at college, Kerr organized Bible class meetings. At home, she was a member of the Presbyterian Church, where she participated in the Christian Education (C.E.) Bible study group, and taught Sunday school.5 On more than one occasion, she mentions discussing religion with other students and attending different services.6 In one entry, she describes being dissatisfied with a modern preacher and says that she went to a Presbyterian sermon to "hear something real."7 The importance Kerr placed on religion can be seen in her relationship with her boyfriend, and later husband, Campbell Kerr. "Eddie's (a boy she has a crush on) an awfully nice boy but he lacks the wonderful Christian backing that is Cam's. (Campbell)"8 In a different entry, Kerr thanks God for her boyfriend and prays that God will help them stay together and live a life that is pleasing to God.9
Kerr's religious faith was most likely something that was instilled in her by her devout German- American family. At NJC, chapel attendance twice a week was mandatory,10 showing how the college worked to reinforce the values of the society of the time. Kerr's attitude towards this rule was not without ambivalence, however. On more than one occasion, she mentions that she did not attend chapel. Her reasons vary from studying for examinations to her roommate being sick.11 In one instance, she did not attend chapel in order to spend time in "Jimmy's" small pine forest on campus. Claiming that admiring God's beauty was better than listening to someone preach, she spent two hours in a small pine forest admiring nature,12 suggesting that she placed more importance on inner spirituality than on the formal aspects of religion.
Kerr's social life supports the idea that the college culture that existed was very similar to that of young middle-class women as a whole. Her behavior during the time she spent at home was the same as her behavior at college. In both places she spent a great deal of time with friends, going to parties, attending C. E. meetings, and going to the homes of different friends. On campus, she attended dances, Bible class meetings, went to hear speakers, and participated in traditional college events like the Yule Log Christmas celebration and the Junior Show. The only difference in her activities was that because they attended different colleges, she spent most of her time with her boyfriend Campbell when she was at home. College life seemed to present only minimal challenges to Kerr's values and behavior. Although she did participate in some college activities, perhaps Kerr best fits Horowitz's subculture of the "outsider," a group that focused on academics and maintained the cultural values of their families.13
Another important aspect of Kerr's life, which is mentioned numerous times in her diary, is relationships with the opposite sex. She discusses her relationship with her boyfriend Campbell as well as her classmates' relationships with various men. In general, Kerr appears to have been happy in her relationship with her boyfriend. However, on more than one occasion she writes that Campbell suffered from "too much passion."14 In one entry, she confesses that "..he did something (very bad) that he shouldn't have and I SENT HIM HOME!"15 After this incident, she discussed her concerns with Campbell and they resolved the problem. Since Kerr did not go into great detail regarding her relationship with Campbell, it is difficult to determine the type of relationship she had with him at that time. Based upon her reaction to Campbell's "passion," it does not seem that she approved of premarital sex.
In her diary, there are a few examples of relationships or actions of which Kerr did not seem to approve but accepted as occurring, suggesting that she recognized the emergence of an embryonic student culture in which she chose not to participate. One example took place when she and her roommate went downstairs at night to see the Christmas decorations. To their surprise, they found an NJC student and her boyfriend sitting alone in the living room.16 Kerr expresses embarrassment at having found them but does not seem surprised that they were there alone. The rules in the Red Book (the student handbook) of the time severely limited the amount of time and the places in which a student was permitted to be with a member of the opposite sex.17 This regulation upheld the belief that relationships between unmarried couples should be controlled. Although the NJC student and her boyfriend were not supposed to be there, Kerr seems to have accepted this act of defiance against the college's rules and authority.
Another example of a situation of which Kerr disapproved concerned a student who was sent home for being pregnant. Kerr does not express shock at the pregnancy, but seems surprised that the girl did not leave sooner despite the fact that people had begun to notice her condition.18 She also describes how a family friend had a baby only four months after her marriage.
According to Kerr, there was something "not quite right there."19 Based on these comments, Kerr seems to agree with society's disapproval of premarital sex; however, her comments also suggest that she has been influenced by the limited college culture that existed. Her lack of surprise that such things were occurring show that she accepted that different rules might apply on campus and in other areas.
The way in which Kerr chose to describe anything which violated social norms, such as premarital sex or Campbell's "passion," shows how she attempted to hide any contradiction to society's values. In her diary she refuses to give details, claiming she simply couldn't write what happened, or wrote in code. According to Kerr, the code she used is simple to understand but her decision to employ it at all shows how ingrained the conservative values of the time were within her. Although she may have accepted that certain things were occurring, she still disapproved of them. Perhaps if a strong college student culture had existed or dominated student opinion, she would not have been so reluctant to discuss these contradictions.
Spring Formal, undated.
By looking at the Red Book that was used while Kerr attended NJC, one can see the powerful if not always successful attempt by the college to regulate young women's lives. The Red Book used in 1931 to 1932 contains rules controlling almost every aspect of student life. According to Douglass historian George P. Schmidt, "Few outside the Dean's office or the ranking government association officials managed to master them all, faculty members paid attention to it in proportion to their interest in student affairs."20 The fact that few people were able to remember all the rules is not surprising since there were rules against walking on the grass and against leaving one's room disorderly. Other rules controlled appearance and behavior: students (particularly freshmen) had to wear stockings at all times, hats or berets in certain locations, had to hold open doors for faculty and upperclassmen, needed parental permission for off-campus events, and could only see gentlemen callers for ten minute periods.21 How well were these rules observed? It is probable that those regarding student safety, such as having a student indicate where she was going and when she would be back before going out at night, were more consistently enforced. Kerr only mentions one instance of a student being suspended for two weeks and confined to campus for six weeks,22 showing that punishments for breaking the rules were enforced at least occasionally. Kerr does not refer to the Redbook rules or their observance frequently, however, suggesting that she and her friends accepted them as a normal part of life.
Although Theresa Kerr's diary only provides one student's perspective on college life in the 1930s, it offers an idea of how students viewed religion, relationships with the opposite sex, and the importance of social activities. The 1920s and 1930s were a time of ambivalence and conflict over what constituted proper behavior for young women. At colleges and universities, young people strove to develop a culture that distinguished them from the rest of society. Signs of this conflict appear from time to time in Kerr's diaries, but for herself she accepted the increasingly old-fashioned college rules and remained oriented towards her home and family. Hopefully, the emergence of other student diaries and letters will eventually give a fuller and more nuanced portrait of college life during this period.
Douglass College '03
1 Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Campus Life, p. 4.
2 Obituary, Newark Star Ledger (November 7, 1999).
3 Diary, September 22, 1931 Theresa Kerr 1931-1935, NJCana Collection, Mabel Smith Douglass Library, Rutgers University Libraries.
4 Ibid., July 8, 1932 and March 1, 1932.
5 Ibid., November 17, 1931, January 31, 1932, and January 20, 1932.
6 Ibid., September 22, September 26 and November 18, 1931.
7 Ibid., November 8, 1931.
8 Ibid., October 24, 1931.
9 Ibid., September 4, 1932.
10 Red Book 1931-1932. Special Collections and University Archives. Rutgers University Libraries p. 42.
11 Diary, Theresa Kerr, December 13, 1931 and February 28, 1932.
12 Ibid., March 3, 1932.
13 Horowitz, p. 14.
14 Diary, Theresa Kerr, August 3, 1932.
15 Ibid., September 11, 1932.
16 Ibid., December 19, 1931.
17 Red Book 1932-1932, p. 29.
18 Diary, Theresa Kerr, January 20, 1933.
19 Ibid., August 13, 1932.
20 George P. Schmidt, Douglass College: A History (New Brunswick, N.J., 1968), p. 124.
21 Red Book 1931-1932.
Return To: Introduction | Table of Contents