Women at Carleton

This page discusses various facets of the experiences of women at Carleton throughout the school’s history. It begins by discussing the history of the Women’s League, the group that ran the Women’s League Cabin (WLC) and also acted as a strong governing body for female residential and social life, and then compares it to its counterpart, the Men’s League. It is followed by a section on the attitudes towards gender at Carleton throughout it’s history, and a discussion of how gender impacts architectural design (comparing Gridley Hall, the first women’s dorm, with Burton Hall, the first male dorm on campus). Finally, there is a brief discussion of how some of the theories of Gender Archaeology relate to our findings.

Click on any of the links below to skip to a portion of the page, or scroll through it.

The Women’s League

1. Inception

2. Its Organization and Duties

3. Involvement in the Wider World

4. The Men’s League

Attitudes towards Gender at Carleton

1. The Early Years

2. A Dormitory for Women

3. Social Change in the ’60s and ’70s

4. Present Day

The Architecture of Gender

The Archaeology of Gender


Inception of the Women’s League

The women students of Carleton College originally conceived of and advocated for the women’s league as a pushback to the many rules that governed female students boarding at the college. The school had a strict code of conduct including, curfew, dress code and when and where women were allowed to socialize with men. The women wished to have more control over the rules that were to govern them. As an article published in the Carletonia, the school newspaper, explained:

“It is not many years since almost all colleges…planned out with full detail the conduct of the girls in their charge and strove to develop womanhood by enforcing these ideals in a purely external manner. The principle has been losing ground steadily for several years. Today instead we find that in most of our best institutions the girls themselves determine, and by their own voluntary action show what things are becoming to a real woman.”

These sentiments prompted the first iteration of the women’s league, the introduction of student government to Gridley Hall, one of the main female dorms on campus. On October 3, 1911 it was reported that the girls of Gridley Hall had unanimously voted in favor of student government. This meant they would have control over the rules regarding curfew, order and quiet, lights out policies and aspects of dormitory discipline. The women elected an executive committee consisting of a house president, and one member of each upper class (sophomore, junior, senior).

Front of Gridley Halljpg
Front view of Gridley Hall, 1907, Carleton College

The hope of the government was that students would be more motivated to follow rules closely if they were in control of the expectations put upon them. The women planned their own conduct and were honor bound to abide by the restrictions. Although there was still some school supervision the organization was created to allow female students to decide on rules and punishments as much as possible. Throughout their first year there is evidence that the student government helped change curfews and mealtimes.

The campus response appears positive considering the aforementioned article and the unanimous vote for the organization by the female cohort of the student population. The students of the newspaper were hopeful that this would mark a real change saying that the times were changing and “the actual condition is now one where girls largely plan their own conduct, and then on their own honor obey the laws they have established.”

The organization, although facing controversy about its duties, remained a strong part of the community and expanded as the years went by. It was first referred to as the Women’s Student Government Association on February 6, 1917 in the Carletonia and that remained the name, occasionally abbreviated to W.S.G.A especially in newer documents, until 1928. In 1928 the Carletonia reported that the women students voted in an amendment to officially change the W.S.G.A to the Women’s League. This process was apparently hampered by a missing comma in the original constitution of the governing body that led to some confusion over what specifics of the voting rules were.

Organization of Women’s League and Duties

By 1934 the Women’s League had a much more extensive organization of governance. Their constitution stated the purpose of the league as being to “maintain conditions favorable for study and to establish high social and moral standards”. The entire female student body automatically joined the league upon matriculation and the league had officers and multiple councils. These officers included a president, vice president, treasurer and secretary and the main council included representatives from the junior and senior classes, the house presidents, a representative from the students living in town, the officers, the chairman of committees, the president of the local Y.W.C.A and the president of the local W.A.A. Each dorm had its own separate house council and these councils were brought together in the inter-dorm council.

The organization of the league had clearly expanded throughout the years and they had set meeting times for houses and councils and officially published amendments. The league decided on many disciplinary actions with minor actions being addressed by the house councils. There was an officially elected fire captain in Gridley Hall and annual dues paid by every member, similar to the student activities fee Carleton students still pay out of their tuition. The responsibilities and systems of the league were expanding.

Documents from 1964 explain the system of government more clearly, further explaining the divide of power between the league’s council, court and cabinet. The Court was where cases were reviewed and decided upon in the event that any female student had infringed upon the rules. This branch of power was also where rules themselves and punishments were considered and criticized. The Cabinet controlled the more social aspects of the league, like managing the Women’s League  cabin and organizing events like picnics, fashion shows, teas and dances. The Council did the governing and had bi-weekly meetings with the Cabinet, the minutes of which were posted in the women’s dorms. They managed rules as well to an extent in these meetings and discussed things like budget allocations and other logistics. The league handled a sizable part of student living on campus, arranging social events, creating rules and doling out disciplines. The league also, along with sending female students to various conventions on women’s issues and running the cabin, controlled the running of the Cave for some years starting in 1940. They also played a critical role in helping new students acclimate to campus in large part by playing a large role in managing new student week (with the Men’s League once it existed), and creating programs like the big sister-little sister program that paired upper-class-women with freshwomen.

The power and purpose of the women’s league was contested from its very inception, debating how much power the students had versus the administration. The league was criticized by members and non-members as simply “East-side rule enforcers”, enforcing rules they did not have a hand in creating. Seniors in the class of 1912, first class to graduate after the introduction of self governance system, said although students behaved better it was simply because they were enforcing rules mindlessly on themselves that they used to flaunt when the administration was in charge.

Finally in 1967 the league officially voted to redefine the Women’s League’s role as solely representative of the women students of the college instead of trying to balance the administrations wants and rules as well. All actions, issues and regulations acted on would be driven by and voted on by students. This choice was highly controversial and caused parts of Evans to leave the league.

Involvement in Broader Picture

The women’s league, although an autonomous club created by the college, was a member of the national organization of Intercollegiate Association of Women Students. This organization brought together women’s student government organizations from colleges and universities around the nation, the only organization of its type in 1965.

It’s goal was to connect the women’s student government of all the universities and colleges in the country and help empower women students to take a larger role in the governing of their communities. Their stated purpose was to “prepare women to govern themselves throughout their college careers and thereby increasing their ability and desire to fulfill the role of educated and competent women in a democratic society.” The association created rules and resolutions that the colleges were encouraged to add to their own governing tactics. Instituted in 1913 and served by the National Education Board, it included such Minnesota colleges as Carleton, St. Olaf, Macalester, University of Minnesota and more. Nationally it included 275 schools and universities and there are records showing that the Women’s League of Carleton sponsored women students to attend their conventions, presumably every year.

Men’s League

The men of the college also had a league to manage their affairs, but this was not created until 1923. Although there is no explicit explanation of why this was created when it was, its establishment does correlate directly with the first major male dorm on campus. Especially in its beginning the Women’s League dealt primarily with dorm related rules and regulations. It seems likely therefore that the Men’s League (or as it was first called Men’s Students Government Association) did not exist because a major presence on campus. Even after they moved on campus it seems doubtful that they had as many rules for living as their female counterparts so there may have been less of a fervor.

In October of their founding the entire council resigned overnight leaving the men theoretically “without rules or regulations” because “the council was generally dissatisfied with conditions, and felt that it was incapable of doing anything as long as student sentiment remained  indifferent”. This sentiment was parroted by an earlier letter published in the Carletonian that passionately called all Carleton men to action, begging them to engage in student government. The association was similar to the Women’s League in organization and responsibilities to control all conduct and affairs of men especially in dorms, although appeared smaller and was more closely linked to the already existing Alma Mater Association (AMA). The Men’s League regulated relations between classes and connected all men’s groups and activities on campus. They too looked to better the life of their members (all male students) on campus and acted as liaisons to the Student-Faculty council and later on, CSA. In 1927 the student council expanded including members from the AMA, MSGA, WSGA, Carletonian and other campus groups. This expansion happened shortly before it converted to CSW in 1930 and became a governing body for the school as well.

Attitudes Towards Gender at Carleton
The Early Years

Carleton is fairly unusual among American colleges in that it was founded in the 19th century and still managed to be co-education from the beginning. Of the eight initial students, three were women (Leonard 1904). An oft-repeated note about the co-educational nature of the institution is the fate of its first graduating class—Myra Brown and James Dow—who married not long after graduating (Greene and Ashmore 1988). In the beginning, men outnumbered women (the class of 1870 had 75 men and 35 women, according to Leonard [1904]), but this soon changed and by the early 1900s Carleton was searching for more male applicants, as part of a national trend towards men going straight into work and women attending college prior to marriage (“Carleton and Women”). In the first years, women and men seem to have mixed regularly due to the small size of the school; those who did not live in Northfield stayed in Willis hall, the school’s only building, and it seems likely that they studied together (Leonard 1904). However, the 10th rule in the student handbook of 1872 did prohibit “calls between the different sexes” in any location other than the reception room (Greene 24 January 1986). Notably, while this mixing of the sexes does not appear to have been intentional, neither did it appear to be a source of concern for anyone sending their children to study there. In fact, Carleton successfully marketed itself as a particularly good place to send daughters.When the college purchased a new building in around 1869, women were to be housed one floor away from the men,although there were only 12 women enrolled at that moment[1] (Leonard 1904). Margaret Evans Huntington, the Dean of Women, recalled that men were forbidden from entering the women’s floor, but that all took their meals together and participated in co-educational literary societies. Also worth noting is that many of the students in the early years either already lived in Northfield or took lodgings with people there instead of staying in dormitory-like conditions at the College itself. Notably, at least one of the instructors in 1869 was a woman: Mrs. Hattie Seccombe “teacher of music” (who was married to Rev. Charles Seccombe). In 1870, the college counted another female instructor, “Miss Sarah A. Dow, A.M., Preceptress, Instructress of Latin and English Branches.”

Carleton women played a behind-the-scenes role in many areas that are usually described in historical narratives as male-dominated events. Two cases of this are in the defeat of Jesse James and the funding of the college’s early years. Evans recalls expecting the gang to come to the college after leaving the bank, and describes how she “hastily prepared for the them. Every girl was to take an axe…determined to make a good resistance.” (Huntington 1916) Additionally, the early years of Carleton included a surprisingly large number of female donors to the College, such as a Mrs. Blatchford, who donated $5,000 in memory of her daughter (Huntington 1916). Martha Wilkinson was said to have donated to Carleton in its early years a total only surpassed by Mr. Carleton himself.

A dormitory for women

It was not until 1880 that the idea of having a dormitory specifically for women was suggested and a committee appointed to explore the option. The dormitory, or “finest educational building for women in the Northwest” was named Gridley hall and housed female teachers and over one hundred students as well as a dining room, parlors, and a kitchen (Leonard 1904). One should note the house motto “The ornament of a house is cleanliness/The honor of a house is hospitality/The blessing of a house is piety/The happiness of a house is contentedness.” However, men also often ate at Gridley hall in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and indeed Gridley hall is described as “easily the center of college life” by the history. Later on, meals were separate for men and women. Athletics were also segregated by gender.

The central force of Gridley hall can be in part attributed to some of the staff, such as the matron of the hall (who started in 1879), Miss Anna Lincoln, who is described as being “a potent social and refining force” (Leonard 1904).One of many examples of the consequences of divided living comes from an article in the Carletonian from the 23rd of November 1921, which notes that for Thanksgiving some “table parties…will accommodate those who voted for ‘co-ed’ eating.” A similar case in regards to academics can be found in a 1924 Carletonian, which makes note of a lively debate on campus about a proposed co-educational debating union (most extracurricular activities were gender segregated, and some female students claimed that the men often received better funding[2]). The women interviewed were generally in favor of it, stating that “it is a means of carrying out the purpose of a co-ed college by teaching the men and women to think together…an opportunity for the girls to show what they can do and then have never had this chance before” (Carletonian). The proposed debating union’s charter reveals a consideration of gender politics, as it required one male and one female secretary. This is important because the vast majority of leadership positions (other than Carletonian editors and the Women’s League leaders) went to men at the time (Greene and Ashmore 1988).


Social Change in the ‘60s and ‘70s

I have no recollection of there being such a cabin during the years I was there. I wonder if you had to belong to the Women’s League (if there was such a thing in the early 70’s) to go there – or even hear about it. We were so preoccupied with anti-war, anti-establishment, co-Ed housing-based equality, etc. that the subtler attractions and delights of a women’s cabin in the woods escaped us. (Mary Panke (nee Welna), class of 1975, Oral Histories page)

The proposal of making some dormitories co-ed once again became a major topic of discussion and sometimes acrimonious debate in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Much of the debate was found in the Carletonian, starting with a 1969 article that printed the preliminary report of the Social Policy Committee, which was discussing a variety of policy changes, including making the dormitories co-ed. The report notes the positive consequences of “recently instituted open house regulations” and that the “resulting opportunities for informal contacts between men and women…out of the ‘dating’ context seemed to the Committee to be very desirable…life in the dormitories is generally more humane,” but that many who did not know many students of the opposite sex were left out of this change in social life. The social situation described, with its noted “formal” tone, lack of interaction outside of dates, and where “couples who date a few times very quickly come to be regarded in some way committed to one another” (Carletonian 1969) is in many ways impossible to recognize in comparison to the current way the genders interact at Carleton.
Present Day
The overall trend over the course of the college’s history was for increased separation of the genders as the school became larger up until the 1970s, when a combination of changing societal norms and student pressure lead to more and more integration of the lives of men and women. In the present day, gendered divisions in daily life are in some respects more limited at Carleton than in many other parts of the United States: many bathrooms on campus are unisex, the vast majority of halls are co-ed, and mixed-gender rooms are an option, although a limited population uses them. While co-ed options are the norm on Carleton today, it is interesting to note that women are much more likely to opt for single-gender housing options, such as fourth Nourse (affectionately known as the nunnery), which houses around 20 women, and Women’s Awareness house, which offers living space for another seven women. While the first floor of Nourse is technically an all-male space, it houses only seven men and is single-gender not because of demand for that option but because of Minnesota building code regulations which prohibit mixed-gender spaces when there is only one restroom available (personal interview with Residence Life staff). This move towards women preferring intentional all-female communities might come as a surprise for Carleton women of the 1970s, who were on the whole quite enthusiastic for co-ed halls to be instituted, but is in-keeping with national trends in which Greek life (which is almost exclusively gender segregated) increased as co-educational settings did (Spain 1993, 162).

[1] Note that enrollment numbers varied wildly in the first years of the school, as many students attended sporadically. Additionally, some sources conflate enrollment in the preparatory academy that was linked with the College with total College enrollment.

[2] Certainly, the men did have the advantage of being allowed to travel as part of academic teams.

Architecture of Gender

In Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s, Helen Horowitz argues that architectural choices express “gender stereotyping and subordination” of women. Horowitz specifically discussed Vasser’s choice to create a single major hall for women that concentrated college functions in a main building, which is very similar to the set-up of Gridley Hall at Carleton. Additionally, she notes that the “paternalistic goal of surveillance” played a large role in architectural and administrative choices, including the use of female faculty and a preceptress to monitor the women and the structuring of social life and interaction with men around easily-monitored parlors and reception rooms.
Women in the Nourse Parlour
Women in the Nourse Parlour

As Gridley hall was the first building at Carleton built specifically for women, it is an ideal building to observe in order to elucidate the impact its intended gendered purpose had on design choices. Many of the architectural choices made are in-keeping with what would be anticipated for a women’s college building at the time, and make sense in the context of the usage of Gridley not only as a women’s dormitory, but also as the location for meals and many of the women’s extracurricular activities. Architectural plans from 1925 show the expected dining room, kitchens, and storage rooms, but also places for maids, a specific “boy’s waiting room,” and the gymnasium, which was a later addition that allowed women to exercise separately from the men. Also worth noting is the tunnel entrance: later on women could go between the different women’s dorms without going outside and presumably after normal hours for visiting men and academic buildings had ended. The upper levels include a number of reception rooms (which were used as meeting spaces and were also the main location men were allowed in), many of which connect to or a located near the matron’s room, the preceptress’s rooms, or rooms reserved for female professors. Stairways are usually located near the rooms or offices reserved for adults, further suggesting a building designed so that supervisors could regulate social interaction. Many of the rooms other than bedrooms varied in usage over the years. For example, one room on the third floor was for a while an art studio, suggesting that the school encouraged women to participate in traditionally feminine activities. Additionally, by putting the rooms where women’s groups met within Gridley, the college was able to further limit the reasons for women to be outside of the building in the evenings.

a room in Gridley Hall 1894
a room in Gridley Hall 1894

In contrast, Burton hall, which was designed as a men’s dormitory, has a completely different structure. Gone are the reception rooms and parlors, and nowhere are there rooms marked for adult supervisors or professors. Instead, the entrances open directly to one main hallway with student rooms and a “social room” at the end. Such a design and set of anticipated uses would have created a space with much more freedom of movement than that established by the set-up of Gridley Hall. Of course, intended use is not always analogous with actual use, but the complaints that women had about restrictions on their movement and social interaction with men appears to confirm what the architecture implies. Burton does have one type of room that Gridley lacks: smoking rooms. This makes sense, as smoking was for periods of time seen as a more masculine habit, to the extent that at one point, female students at Carleton were prohibited from smoking, while male students were not.

In the Lobby of West Hall
Image from c. 1922 shows a group of men in the lobby of West Hall (as Burton was then known). Image courtesy of the Carleton Archives.

The Women’s League Cabin is perhaps a less clear example of the architecture of gender, given that it was a renovated building, not one originally constructed with its use as a retreat for women. However, the architectural plans and the furnishing choices do reveal some information when viewed in the context of gendered architecture and design. For example, an examination of the plans reveals that, for example, the dressing room is much larger than one might anticipate. Overall, the cabin is designed with an emphasis on social spaces (the sleeping area is incredibly crowded, which we anticipated based on the plans and is confirmed by photographs of the interior of the cabin). This emphasis on social interaction is fitting with the intended use of the cabin as a space for women to bond. Further history of the Women’s League Cabin and its use can be found on the Oral and Documentary Histories Page.

The Consequences of Gendering Spaces

In Gendered Spaces, Daphne Spain discusses how “the institution of education was characterized until relatively recently by the spacial segregation of women and men,” which caused women to have a less easy access to resources (Spain 1992, 143). Arguably, such was the case at Carleton, due to the restrictions posed on women leaving their dormitories in the evenings without permission (even to go to the library). Policies like this were common; Spain notes Virginia Woolf’s “outrage” that she was not allowed to enter the library at Oxbridge College unless “accompanied by a fellow or if furnished with a letter of introduction” (Spain 1992, 143). Carleton was never as restrictive as that, and unlike many of the schools described by Spain, women at Carleton had the option of choosing any course of study. However, the reality on the ground was that many women at chose courses of study based on gendered expectations. The rising need for teachers and the status of teaching as a acceptable feminine job meant that for a long time teaching was one of the few jobs Carleton women often took after college (most female graduates in the early years and even through much of the 1900s were occupied in homemaking, teaching, or missionary positions after completing their education at Carleton).

Daphne Spain also notes controversy over the role of colleges in teaching women “domestic work” (1992, 153). While Mt. Holyoke did not, Carleton women themselves (through the Women’s League) made an abortive effort to institute some classes on more domestic tasks. In a May 1950 meeting at Dean Lewis’s house, they decided to “establish a special program in the home-making, personality, appearance line that would more or less fill in what our liberal education sometimes leaves out. By this program, the League hopes to offer to the girls some concrete help in learning about interior decorating, cooking, poise and social etiquette and many other too often neglected…” (Women’s League box, Archives). In doing so, Carleton linked itself to other institutions that chose to offer ‘home-ec’ courses targeted more towards middle-class women, but that also effectively resulted in academic segregation. Oberlin, founded in 1833, began as a co-educational institution, albeit one in which they were expected to contribute by “washing the men’s clothes, caring for their rooms, serving them at table…being prepared for intelligent motherhood and a properly subservient wifehood” (Spain 1992, 156). While women at Carleton appear to have been expected to take care of making their own beds and other domestic tasks, they were not expected to do so for the men (men had maids to do such work instead). On a national level, concerns about co-educational teaching and living were framed mainly based on the idea that “coeducation harms girls by assimilating them to ‘boys’ ways and work'” (Spain 1992, 159). In contrast, the concern at Carleton seems to have been more about women’s ‘purity,’ as it were, being impinged on.

The Archaeology of Gender

The story of gendered archaeology can be seen in bits and pieces from the Women’s League Cabin site. The Object Biographies page includes several entries, such as combs, that are gendered objects. To look at these through the lens of gender is one way to better understand the social context of these finds.

Archaeology of Gender is a way to look at archaeology both as a discipline and in the field and analyze studies through the lens of gender. It started as an “alternative way of reading the archaeological record” (Hamilton et al. 2007) and began by focusing more solely on women, but now has expanded to widely encompass ‘gender’ and how it plays out in all forms.

This way of looking at archaeological study examines the different complex way that gender controls and predicts societal actions. Marie Louise Stig Sørensen explains “gender is… a significant element of society’s organization, and it is used as a basis for further divisions and categories. The implicit argument is that to know and understand society we must understand its gender structures” (Sørensen 2000).

When looking at the spaces women inhabited at Carleton it is important to look at them through the lens of Archaeology of Gender. These spaces show both the many ways expectations affect how gendered spaces are created, and how these gendered spaces end up affecting actions. A space, like Gridley Hall or the Women’s League Cabin may be built in a way based on gendered expectations, but this may not be the way the spaces ended up being used. However, these assumptions still control how gender is acted out in the spaces to a degree; “while space produces and enables both the understanding and performance of gender, its classification, content and meaning are brought into being only as gender is enacted in space” (Sørensen 2000). The gendered spaces cannot be understood simply through the blueprints because the prescribed uses of space do not always show the most accurate picture. The reality of the way that gender is enacted in space only becomes apparent when it is used and therefore when studying them a researcher must try to continually ask questions and evaluate sources.

It is also important in this discipline to make a distinction between gender and sex. As Sarah Milledge Nelson points out, ‘sex’ refers to the biological male or female distinction assigned at birth while ‘gender’ includes a host of social, behavioral norms and assumptions that play into larger societal structures of power and socialization (Nelson 1997). Much of the differences seen in the architecture of the women’s spaces at Carleton are based on gender assumptions as opposed to sex differences. These reveal deeper patterns about the societal expectations for these groups of people and show more about the societal norms at the time than necessarily the actual behavior performed.


Men and women experienced Carleton differently with varying degrees of isolation of experience over the years. The school provided a different experience through different governing, discipline and expectations. The spaces were focused on gender and built with divergent expectations and assumptions of use in mind. This gender divide also played out clearly in groups like the Men’s and Women’s Leagues.

The study of Women’s Leagues or similar establishments in other colleges and universities would be an interesting way to further this research. Our research was extensive and did not even cover half of the material in the Carleton Archives alone and it seems likely other colleges would also have valuable, interesting archival information that is only available at the institution. The Intercollegiate Association of Women Students shows that these groups existed all across the country and it is unclear how similar these groups were and how they all worked in different schools.

This project shows important and intriguing information about the striking way gender affected experience in Carleton, but also as a microcosm of a larger picture of changing ideas about gender and education.




Page created by Julia Miller and Erika Farmer

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