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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Rules and regulations in a coeducational college in the South

Here, Arnow discusses her experiences going to Berea College (founded in 1855 as the first interracial and coeducational college in the South) at the age of sixteen. Arnow's recollections about student life are very revealing regarding what it was like to be a young woman attending a coeducational college in the South in the 1920s. According to Arnow, female students faced strict regulations on their behavior. She especially emphasizes dress codes, limited interaction with male students, and the high level of fear the administration expressed about female students' sexuality.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MIMI CONWAY:
You talked about some of the courses at Berea, but I wondered how you felt being at a place that was bigger than any place you'd been before, and being away from home, if you liked it? You were younger, too. That's the thing: you were sixteen.
HARRIETTE ARROW:
That always was a bother, but I'd been away from home two years in boarding schools. And I don't know, I think I was disappointed. I met so many students from small towns or the country. I wanted something new and big and different, you know, a city. And the college occupied only a small part of Berea, and we were so closely watched and so many rules and this and that, there was no danger of getting lost or anything like that. And our dormitory was a small wooden dwelling. If I stayed there now, I'd be scared to death.
MIMI CONWAY:
[laughter]
HARRIETTE ARROW:
It was called Gilbert Cottage, as I remember. We were the overflow from the college women's dormitory. And there were only, I suppose, fourteen or fifteen girls in the cottage, and I soon knew them. I don't recall feeling particularly lonesome or even homesick. I did miss the woods. The thing that bothered me,we were not supposed to walk on the grass but of course had to walk the straight lines along the walks, and that just drove me crazy. I wanted to cut across and go in a circle or go near a bush and that sort of thing.
MIMI CONWAY:
Was Berea the strictest school you'd been to up to that point?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Yes, it was extremely strict. I think Berea made me want to smoke. I thought anything that's worth a fifty-dollar fine must be wonderful.
MIMI CONWAY:
[laughter]
HARRIETTE ARROW:
And boys were never allowed out with girls, except on certain occasions or except in a group. And there were so many clothing rules. Burnside was a small place, and when you graduated from high school, oh, forty or fifty people would give you a small gift of some kind. And I received, among other things, eight or ten pair of silk hose, silk, because nylon. . . . Well, you're too young to remember the first nylon or rayon hose that were no good. And these were silk. Well, of course, I couldn't wear them at Berea. But the girls with money could in the college store buylisle hose from England, cotton lisle such as the English ladies wear in playing golf, for, I think it was $2.65 a pair, a horrible price then for hose. Or maybe it was only $1.65. And our dresses had to cover our knees. We couldn't roll our stockings. And in gym we wore these big bloomers. We were not allowed to walk across the campus even with a coat over those bloomers. We had to change in the gym to a dress.
MIMI CONWAY:
Were you allowed to dance, or was that strictly forbidden?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
We did have a class in folk dancing, but this was girls, girlsalone. At that time dancing with boys at Berea was unheard of. And once a week we were called up and talked to by the Dean of the College Girls. And she was always telling us not to wear anything that was suggestive or do any act that was suggestive. Well, I was so dumb, because I'd been in schools with other girls who never talked about such things-and of course you learned nothing at home-that I did wonder, "Well, suggestive of what?"
MIMI CONWAY:
[laughter]
HARRIETTE ARROW:
But that was the burden of her talk: "Don't wear suggestive clothes; don't show your knees"-that is, the knee was already covered with hose-but you don't show them; you don't show too much bare arm. You could wear short sleeves in summer. And since I didn't know what "suggestive" meant, I'd always feel guilty: "Well, have I been wearing something suggestive?"
MIMI CONWAY:
[laughter]
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Really. All that emphasis on sex, sex, sex. She never came out and used the word.
MIMI CONWAY:
If you were only sixteen-I mean, you were much younger than the others-had your mother talked to you about that before you...
HARRIETTE ARROW:
No. Girls and mothers-or at least in our little town-were very different from today. Our mother explained nothing. Of course, I learned a little from farm animals. We had cows and chickens with roosters. At first I didn't know what the rooster was doing when he jumped on the hen. I learned a little that way and then chance reading in books, the few facts of life that I knew when I went to Berea. The bare outline. But I couldn't figure out what "suggestive" meant. That Dean of College Women talked to us as if she thought all of us were incipient streetwalkers or whores, I don't know.
MIMI CONWAY:
Wow, that's really. . . .
HARRIETTE ARROW:
She didn't use such crude words, of course.
MIMI CONWAY:
[laughter]
HARRIETTE ARROW:
But all that emphasis. I'd never really thought much about sex. I suppose I awakened very slowly.