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Enzerink GS: Apple polishing the alma mater

"If apple polishing the shrewd professor has got you where you are today, how much more simple to apple polish a young innocent into leading you to the altar — the getting of a husband should be mere child's play."

These are the words that Israel Kapstein '26 PhD'31, an English professor at Brown, addressed to the students of Pembroke College in May 1939. The occasion was his election as favorite professor by the Pembroke student body, and the Evening Bulletin reported that he was honored by being married to the entire senior class in a mock ceremony. Indeed, the picture accompanying the article shows a broadly smiling Kapstein in a suit, followed by a host of equally elated young women in veils. The wedding seems an appropriate award, as the article reports that Kapstein "advocated marriage rather than a career" as the appropriate next step for young women in his commencement speech that same day.

A speech like this would be unthinkable nowadays. Universities, Ivy League universities in particular, were long the prerogative of young men. Therefore, on the 30th anniversary of the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, the University should be commended for its longstanding dedication to equitable education. A look at the history of women at Brown provides a window into the significance of the initiatives that have been formed. From a male bastion that was highly opposed to coeducation of male and female students at such an "inflammable age," to use the words of University President Ezekiel Robinson 1838 in 1886, the University transformed into an institution that truly accepts that, as Sarah Doyle so eloquently put it, "The woman's sphere is one of infinite and indeterminate radius."

As are the radii of all groups that have found themselves in a marginalized position. Of course, there are still areas that need to be addressed — for example, the male-to-female or white-to-people-of-color ratio — but the advance has been enormous. This goes for all categories of difference and helps to explain why the Pembroke Center has been able to broaden its focus. On a leaflet that was distributed prior to its opening in 1981, the center is introduced as a facility that will address "questions relating to sex roles and the status of women and men in society." Currently, the center dedicates itself to the exploration of all categories of difference across disciplines and in transnational context.

In this time where words like postracial, postethnic and postgender are thrown around like faits accomplis, it is tempting to forget that not 50 years ago — Pembroke College was only integrated into Brown in 1971 — the University's landscape was entirely different. Perusing the archives results in astonishing looks into a world of constrained feminine movement that seems so far removed from the current situation it is almost foreign.

The songbook for the Women's College, published in 1928, featured songs like "Get Me a Man for Prom" and "Poor Old Senior." The latter laments the fate of the senior women who cannot find a man because boys "like 'em young" and traded their girls for younger models. The most interesting line is perhaps that "the girls at home / they laugh and crow / ‘She got an education / but she couldn't get a beau.'" The song illustrates the ideology that domestic bliss was incompatible with participation in the public sphere.

This also extends to newspapers, in which Pembroke women were continuously cast in traditional feminine roles. A 1937 article centered on a ball that had taken place, and the article exclusively discussed the physical appearance of the women by summing up the outfits of a dozen women in a fashion that would not be out of place on E!'s red carpet shows. Juliette Bignet of Providence, chairman of the Ivy Night committee, was described as "attractive in black chiffon with a bright colored modernistic flower design" while Eleanor Murphy '37 P'64 of West Warwick, president of the senior class, "stood at the end of the line gowned in St. James rose marquisette with very full skirt and tiny puff sleeves."

Other articles showed the women practicing a dance for the May festival, having a pageant for "inanimate pets." One particularly entertaining headline reads "Pembrokers go Sleighing — 16 on Ride Take Advantage of Snow as Excuse to Consume Hamburgers." A photo that does show young women browsing an academic schedule is accompanied by the title "Study — But Mostly in Expression," and the subscript typifies them as nonchalant, plainly worried and fairly bewildered. Any positive reference to academic attainment is erased.

The initiatives of the marginalized groups themselves and the willingness of the University to cooperate in founding organizations to address difference have to be credited with the radical change reflected in these articles and the situation today. Happy 30th to the Pembroke Center!

Suzanne Enzerink GS is a master's student in the American studies program.

All sources used here can be found in the archives of the Sarah Doyle Women's Center.


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