Women at Geneva

“A Time for Change: Women  in the 1920s”

by Anna Gerard

The purpose of this paper is to explain what women were doing and liking in the 1920s as well as relate said topic to the context of women at Geneva College in the 1920s.  I will explain more in-depth some of the topics that are explained on the “Women at Geneva” pages and subpages.

In the early 1900s, women were just starting to explore the realm of politics, becoming involved here and there with new ideas that they deemed beneficial to either themselves or children.  1920 was the defining year for women in politics, as the Nineteenth Amendment was written in to the Constitution explaining that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”  After this milestone, many women’s political movement groups either disbanded or focused on smaller issues that surrounded women.  The most popular women’s political group was the “League of Women Voters”, which was founded in 1920 by Carrie Chapman Catt.[1]   This newly formed group helped 20 million women in the United States learn their new responsibility as voters.[2]

This newly formed group first bill supported was the Sheppard Towner Act of 1921, which gave federal aid to maternal and child care programs.  This was the first social welfare measure in the United States that was federally funded.  This bill was to reduce the child and mother death rates during the 1920s, but lawmakers were opposed to using federal funds.  Due to great campaigning though, this bill was passed.  The greater scope of politics in the 1920s and Geneva College is that there were women’s only debate teams on campus.  They were not just average debate teams, Geneva’s affirmative and negative sides won all but one debate.  And Geneva College had women debate teams throughout the whole decade.  Women in college were getting into politics, even though it may not be on a larger scale with huge women’s organizations.  It was still voicing an opinion to create change.

While someone women’s groups were only interested in betting women politically, other groups wanted to better women as a whole.  The Y.W.C.A., or Young Women’s Christian Association, was established in 1858 in New York City and by 1894, there were Y.W.C.A. organizations in 125 countries.  In the 1920s, the Y.W.C.A. focused on work reform for women.  The Y.W.C.A worked with many women who worked in industrial plants, and seeing the women work hard to earn a living, they lobbied for the “eight hour day law, prohibiting night work, and allowing the right of labor to organize.”[3] Also with this advancement, Y.W.C.A.’s offered women classes in typing and other jobs so that they could make a living if they were surviving on their own.

Y.W.C.A. groups in college were also very important.  This gave women in college the chance to give back to the less fortunate women in the community through playing games with the women or teaching them skills that would be useful to them in the workplace.  Also, because the women who were able to go to college were upper middle to upper class families, this allowed them to see what it is like living in poor conditions and not being able to educate yourself for a job.  The Y.W.C.A. was a group that was prevalent on Geneva’s campus in the 1920s.  As seen in the primary documents on this archive, the club had a decent amount of women in their club.  The Y.W.C.A. is an organization whose roots are deep in Christian values.  Geneva College was founded on those same values, and it would only make sense to have a club with the same values on campus.  In Pittsburgh there was a Y.W.C.A. headquarter, which allowed surrounding areas to have smaller clubs and branch Y.W.C.A. buildings.

As I have stated before, the women that were attending college in the 1920s were predominately upper middle to upper class families who could afford to pay for tuition and room and board.  Going to college meant that a girl has aspirations of something bigger than staying at home.  By 1920, 47% of women were attending college.[4]  What women studied in the 1920s was not that different from today’s curriculum.  English, mathematics, science, history and a foreign, primarily Latin, was the set curriculum.  But while most students should be studying these subjects, in the 1920s, it was more important to be seen than to get top grades.  The average grade students received in the 1920s was a “C”, and those who received higher usually had very few friends.[5]  For example, at the University of Chicago, more than one third of students spent less than 35 hours combined a week on going to class and studying, compared to the more than 20 hours spent on recreational activities.[6]  It was common to attend a campus event or sporting function with friends to just be seen.

While there were more men on campus than women, women were still very prevalent on campus.  Women at Geneva College found a way to balance studying and homework with extra-curricular activities.  Most of the women at Geneva College majored in education, but there were some who majored in things like music.  And the curriculum at Geneva College in the 1920s was similar to that as what was previously stated.

Dating was a popular recreational activity for college students.  Instead of a boy coming to a girl’s house and sitting in the living room or porch with her parents, a boy was able to go to a girls dorm to see her.  The boom of car production and cars becoming more affordable allowed dates to be held outside of the home, so much so that at Northwestern, female students made a pact to have set dateless nights so they could actually get some studying accomplished.[7]  Having a car meant privacy, and going on “joyrides” became the popular thing to do on a date.  While it may seem that women in the 1920s were only interested in dating as many men as possible, it was not true.  College women in the 1920s held out for the idea of love and marriage.

As I have stated before, Geneva College in the 1920s was not like other schools.  Men and women could not go as they please, but they could go out on dates.  Also, women at Geneva mainly dated to find the one they were going to marry.  Since the college is based on Reformed Presbyterian values, dating for the sake of going on dates is not common here.  Men and women go on dates to find the one they are going to marry and not to rack up more kisses than their roommate.  It is not known how many students had cars at Geneva College but because the railroad station was right down the hill from campus, I do not think that many students drove to class.

While women were having going on dates and school on their plates, some women had dating, school, and sports, particularly basketball.  Women’s basketball was established at Smith College in 1892 by the physical education teacher, Senda Berenson.  She read a journal about a new sport called basketball invented by Dr. James Naismith, and how it was played.[8]  She tweaked the rules a bit so it was not as rough and played in a smaller area.  Compared to Dr. Naismith’s version of basketball, the rules of holding, snatching the ball, and traveling were different for women.  Also, players that played in certain positions could not leave their area of the court.  Eventually the sport caught on and in that same year it was invented, the first women’s collegiate basketball game was played with University of California-Berkeley against Stanford.

Sports at Geneva College in the 1920s were very popular.  The college had one of the best football seasons to date in the 1920s.  The women’s basketball team was no different.  For example, the 1927 season had only two losses.  Although there was a scare in 1927 about whether the women’s basketball team was going to exist anymore, it did, and still continues to exist this day.


[1] League of Women Voters, “History.” Accessed April 11, 2013. http://www.lwv.org/history.

[2] Ibid.

[3] YWCA USA, “History.” Accessed April 11, 2013. http://www.ywca.org/site/c.cuIRJ7NTKrLaG/b.7515891/k.C524/History.htm.

[4] Greg Filene, Him/Her/Self: Gender Identities in Modern America, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 1998), x.

[5] Paula Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 172.

[6] Ibid, 173.

[7] Fass, 2000.

[8] Jenkins, Sally. WNBA, “History of Women’s Basketball.” Accessed April 11, 2013. http://www.wnba.com/about_us/jenkins_feature.html.

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