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Rutgers Professor Carla Yanni discusses the history of women in co-ed dormitories

Students moving into Stony Brook campus residence halls on Aug. 26, 2019. Professor Carla Yanni of Rutgers University gave a lecture at Stony Brook University on Oct. 10 on the “Health and Housing of College Women, 1830 to 1930.” SARA RUBERG/THE STATESMAN

On Oct. 10, Carla Yanni delivered a lecture entitled “Health and the Housing of College Women, 1830 to 1930″ to Stony Brook University students in room 1008 of the Humanities building.

A professor of art history at Rutgers University and an author of three monographs, Yanni’s lecture focused on the social evolution of women and architecture in co-ed housing in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Her 2019 book, entitled “Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory,” goes into more detail about the topic, going as far as to analyze vintage photographs, building layouts, diaries, interviews with college officials and architects, and journals from archives at Rutgers.

“I chose the topic because I felt the people at Rutgers had many misunderstandings about the dorms built in the 50s and 60s, and I wanted to do the research to explain why they look the way they do,” Yanni said.

Since the 1970s, more women have attended U.S. colleges than men; however, most women were unable to pursue higher education until the 19th century, according to ThoughtCo. Scientific studies at the time falsely claimed that allowing women into collegiate atmospheres would “wreak havoc with women’s bodily functions,” according to Yanni.

According to the lecture, Edward Hammond Clarke, a physician who wrote “Sex in Education” in 1873, explains that he believes that women and men “should not be educated together” because they are too “anatomically different.” Young women who would be “straining their bodies while using their brains would become barren [reproductively],” according to Clarke.

However, it was eventually acknowledged that university life helps women maintain healthy diets, exercise and social lives, and universities began to welcome women.

Institutes such as Oberlin College and Conservatory, The University of Chicago, the University of Michigan and Howard University were among the first deemed “co-ed” schools. They built dormitories in the early 19th century that housed men and women in separate buildings.

“It happened in stages,” Yanni said, answering a question about when men and women began cohabitating in the same buildings.

Many of these layouts often came from pre-existing institutions such as Oxford University, whose dormitories helped give American campuses an intellectual air with open courtyards and “traditional” styled pillars, porches and furniture. Some even created lounges that were fitted as social rooms for both men and women, granting these female-centered halls a “campus nightlife.” Cottages, which, according to Yanni, “provided a more domestic feel,” and boarding houses were also popular among women at the time.

Female principals, later dubbed “Deans of Women” and then “Deans of Students,” helped keep female students in line and watched over them during their years at the university. More often than not, students were subject to strict sets of rules in order to preserve their grace and femininity. 

Yanni explained that some rules even went as far as to state that “clapping should be the only response to serenades.” Photo albums from students also helped show the day-to-day life of these women, something rare for the time period.

Housing, however, was still subject to racism. William W. Cook, a major benefactor of the University of Michigan who helped construct the Martha Cook Building — a female dormitory — for the school was known as a racist and classist. Cook refused to admit low-income women, referring to them as “blue-stockings,” and even prevented an African American student from entering the dorm, even though the other women were fine with the arrangement, Yanni said. 

Howard University, however, eventually became one of the first historically black universities in the U.S., even hiring a black Dean of Women named Lucy D. Slowe. The university would eventually create co-ed dorms that became the most modern model for all other evolving colleges.

The audience, primarily made up of faculty and graduate students were engaged in the lecture.

“It’s very interesting,” Joseph Santarpia, a graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts program, said. “It’s my first time learning about architectural social history.” 

Elizabeth Pagliuca, a graduate student in Stony Brook’s higher education administration program, said that she found the lecture informative. 

“I’m glad this was the presentation I chose to attend,” she added.

When asked about the most significant issue in her research, Yanni said that she thought it was valuable to know “the importance of understanding the social history of women in order to understand the residence halls that they lived in.”

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