• U.S.

Education: Family Talk

3 minute read

Not long ago, the girls at Vassar College had rules governing everything from smoking to being chaperoned. Now Vassar’s 1,450 almost-women hustle off alone to New Haven, Yalemen streak into Poughkeepsie, and everyone freely (or almost) trips across the road for martinis. Yet if behavior has changed, the school’s general criterion regarding it has not: the student handbook says, “The college expects every student to uphold the highest standards.” While reviewing the book last fall, the student government got to wondering: What are the “highest standards” nowadays?

The girls asked President Sarah Gibson Blanding. 63, the gentle Kentucky lady who has run Vassar for 16 years (and will retire in 1964). Miss Blanding might have answered lightly. But in part because she was indignant at magazine articles condoning sexual experimentation, she stood up at a compulsory assembly and got explicit.

It is dishonorable not only to get drunk and disorderly, said she, but also to have premarital sexual relations—on or off the campus. Vassar College, she added, does not and will not condone “offensive or vulgar behavior.” Any student unable to live up to “decent” standards should withdraw before she is asked to leave.

When she made this pronouncement a month ago, Miss Blanding sparked a red-hot campus debate. Is a Vassar girl’s sex life any of Vassar’s business? Vassar’s weekly Miscellany News took a poll. It showed that 52% of Vassar girls loyally backed Miss Blanding. “The college must take a stand for the dignity of young women,” explained one of them. “Drunkenness and premarital relations mean a gap in one’s responsibility toward society.” But 40% of the girls dissented. “If the speech were taken seriously,” said one girl, “probably two-thirds of the students would withdraw.” Said another: “If Vassar is to become the Poughkeepsie Victorian Seminary for Young Virgins, then the change of policy had better be made explicit in admissions catalogues.” More to the point, the question of whether personal morals concern Vassar only when they bring the college into “public disrepute” got an affirmative answer from 81% of the students.

Because Miss Blanding’s lecture was a kind of private family talk, it went unreported until the Miscellany News poll caught the eager attention of the New York Herald Tribune. Last week the Trib, with other papers falling in line, played the story big, in recognition of the fact that women’s-college presidents who dare to insist on old-fashioned chastity for their girls are fairly rare nowadays. Having won cheers from almost every Vassar parent, Miss Blanding was undaunted. Said she: “The girls wanted to know what the standards were. I told them.”

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