“In a Sense, It Is a Game”: Women’s Dormitory Life at Purdue University, 1939-1940

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Donna J. Drucker


Arriving on a college or university campus for the first time as a freshman can be nerve-racking for even the most self-assured new student. How to act, how to dress, where to go, what to eat, when to sleep, whom to become friends with, how to balance study and leisure time—even the most carefree must daily make new choices that will shape their experiences of adulthood. For decades, colleges and universities sought to regulate those choices by offering advice and imposing rules through the guidebooks they issued to students. For much of the twentieth century, they took an active interest in closely monitoring the lives of their female students. The role of everyday decisions in shaping student identity is brought into sharp relief when reading guidebooks such as the one sent to new women students at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, in August 1939. Before the female members of the class of 1943 arrived on campus, the director of women’s residence halls, Helen B. Schleman (1902–1992), and her upper-class student staff mailed each of them a guide to the standards by which they would have to live. The handbook and supplementary documents, reprinted below, draw a picture of the culture at an engineering- and agriculture-oriented university campus, the expectations and goals that administrators set for students, and, more broadly, the ideals of young adult womanhood on the eve of the Second World War. Together, the documents capture a precise moment in higher education for women and co-education generally. While women’s lives and opportunities on campus were more restricted than men’s, these documents illustrate the Purdue administration’s interest in providing women opportunities to develop skills, tastes, and interests beyond those needed for marriage and motherhood. 

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Drucker, D. (2019). “In a Sense, It Is a Game”: Women’s Dormitory Life at Purdue University, 1939-1940. Indiana Magazine of History, 113(1), 1-47. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/27369