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Before the Second Wave: College Women, Cultural Literacy, Sexuality and Identity, 1940--1965

This dissertation follows career-oriented college women over the course of their education in liberal arts programs and seeks to explain why so many of them, in departure from original plans of combining work and marriage, married and became full-time mothers. Using diaries, personal correspondences, and student publications, in conjunction with works from the social sciences, philosophy, and literature, I argue that these women's experiences need to be understood in the context of cultural conflicts over the definition of class, status, and national identity. Mid twentieth-century college women, I propose, began their education at a moment when the convergence of long-contested developments turned campuses into battlegrounds over the definition of the values of an expanding middle class. Social leadership positions came within reach of new ethnic and religious groups at the same time that changes in the dating behavior of educated youth accelerated. Combined, these trends fed anxieties about a loss of cultural cohesion and national unity. In the interest of social stability, educators and public commentators tried to turn college women into brokers of cultural norms who would, as wives, socialize a heterogeneous population of men to traditional mores and values. This interest of the state to hold educated female youth accountable for the reproduction of a homogenous culture then merged with the desire of gender conservative students to legitimate their own identity in the face of challengers. In encounters with peers, women who aspired to professional careers and academic success learned that their gender performance disqualified them as members of an educated elite. Suffering severe blows to their self-esteem as a result of what I call "sex and gender baiting," they reformulated their goals for their postgraduate futures. Drawing on expressions of shame and fear in diaries and letters, I show through women's own voices the severity of the personal conflicts gender non-conformists experienced, offer insights into the relationship between historical actors and cultural discourses, and illustrate how the personal and the intimate shape the public and the political.
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