Made to be Broken: An examination of the women’s code of conduct in Dormitory Women, with an appraisal of its accuracy and an analysis of its meaning
By Alex Lu (2020)
The novel Dormitory Women, written by R.V. Cassill and published in 1954, explores the journey of Millie, a seventeen-year-old girl, as she adjusts to college in the wake of her traumatic past. Millie’s adventures include joining a sorority, experiencing relationships with boys her own age, and finally stepping away from them in order to seduce her professor. Ultimately, the new environment proves too stressful for Millie in conjunction with her past experiences with sexual assault, and she sabotages her relationship with her professor before spiraling downward into mental illness. In following her experiences and struggles, the novel examines the difficulties and stressors of college life for a freshman woman, with one such difficulty being the expectation of behavior that the professors and deans put in place. It’s interesting to examine how this pulp novel portrays the standard of conduct that universities had in the 1950s. While the work demonstrates a code that is very different from many we see today, it is also different from the hardliner code that we, three quarters of a century later, might expect from the time period. While the code is theoretically strict and contains written provisions for female behavior, most notably in the form of codified “curfews”, the novel portrays its women as breaking these rules regularly with little or no consequences.
First though, when considering if the novel’s portrayal of such a code is useful to understanding the past, it is necessary to raise the question: is this portrayal accurate and if so, what does it say about expectations of university women during this era? In order to answer this question, I needed a reliable source demonstrating not only the code of conduct that a real-world university implemented, but also the extent to which it enforced the code. As Dormitory Women suggests, certain rules existed mostly ceremoniously and were largely flexible in the case of extenuating circumstances. It was important to ensure that even if the fictional and real rulesets matched up in principle, they also did in practice, in order to demonstrate the veracity of Dormitory Women’s portrayal.
Because of this second requirement, I needed a reliable source from the 1950s. I knew that Duke’s East Campus hosted a female-only school known as the Woman’s College for the middle of the twentieth century (King). However, there was a slight problem: Dormitory Women takes place in the 1950s and it would not be a trivial task to find a knowledgeable witness from that period to interview. Fortunately, Duke keeps a collection of records of East Campus dorms Bassett, Brown, Pegram, and Alspaugh available for public research, with the records covering the time period from the early 1950s through the early 1980s. Within these records exists a president’s notebook, which is full of illuminating information about Duke’s real code of conduct for its women.
One major concept that appears in both sources is the idea of a curfew. In the novel, the university imposes a curfew on the women, but it is largely flexible. At one point, Millie breaks curfew because she’s out with a boy. When that boy dies later that night in a car accident, her friends observe the toll that it takes on her psyche and recommend that she meet with a counselor to help her work through her feelings about the incident. Millie later on, while misleading her counselor, claims to be upset about missing curfew but internally recognizes that violating the curfew rule isn’t a huge deal. She says: “I admit I didn’t get back to the dorm on time, but then everything was so disorganized…If I’ve done something against the rules I want to be punished for it just like anyone else” to which her counselor replies “Millie, you know I’m not concerned with whether you got back to the dorm on time or not. I’m concerned with you…No one wants to punish you” (Cassill 34-35). Millie’s counselor, while acknowledging that Millie did in fact break a rule, is much more concerned about Millie’s well-being in reaction to the death of this boy than she is about the rule infraction. The rule, in her eyes, is trivial when compared to Millie’s mental health and she brushes the violation off without much thought in order to help Millie resolve her feelings about the death. If the curfew rule were more important, her counselor would have made some effort to subtly warn Millie about the consequences of violating it in the future, or she would have helped her find ways to better comply, just so that Millie would be aware that the rule was important going forward (even though surely this violation of the rule would be excused in light of the current tragedy). Millie herself even knows that missing the curfew isn’t a big deal, which the counselor calls her out for. Thus, the novel portrays this curfew rule as flexible and subservient to the well-being of students; Millie’s counselor openly discusses how it’s unimportant that she broke the rule, but what is important is that Millie feels okay after what happened while she was out.
The Duke University records corroborate this fictional portrayal of the curfew rule’s objective. Bassett House also had a weekend curfew shortly after midnight in the 1950s, however, one might be surprised to discover that during the entire spring of 1954, every appeal against a violation of the curfew rule resulted in the appealer receiving an excuse with one exception, in which case the offending girl was only given a warning (Bassett Residence Hall Records). One such case reads: “One case was before council: [She] was 14 min. late Sat. She had been in Raleigh and on the way back had gotten on the wrong road. She was excused because she had done all in her power to get in touch with the desk” (Bassett Residence Hall Records). In spite of her violation, the council pardoned this student because she made a good effort to get in touch with the dorm to let them know she was on her way back. This decision shows that the council’s main concern prior to the hearing was that the desk didn’t know where the student was, and since she demonstrated that she had tried to inform the dormitory of her situation, she was off the hook. Thus, for the residents of Bassett, the rule existed not so much a hard deadline, but as a tool to ensure that each student got home safely. A similar pardoning happened in each other case as well.
View of the Duke University Woman’s College, 1950s
(Source: Preservation Durham)
It’s worth noting that the university had the “council” (a body made up of students) proceed over ordinary lateness cases rather than mandating faculty to do so. Thus, while the university did think that each violation was important enough to receive a hearing, it did not think that every violation of curfew was so important that deans or faculty needed to be involved in order to dole out a particular punishment.
So, what can we gather from these separate portrayals of a curfew rule? First, the two agree that female students coming home late doesn’t merit punishment in special circumstances. Both Duke and the fictional university of Dormitory Women are not expecting perfection in that the students must never violate the deadline. Second, the universities are not trying to use curfew rules to stand between the formation and continuation of relationships between boys and girls. We see this in Millie’s counselor’s lack of concern about the fact that Millie was out with a boy while violating curfew and in the multitude of excusals for curfew violations in the Bassett House records. The rule is generally concerned more with protecting the students’ safety than restricting the behavior of the women to some standard. To summarize: both Millie and the house council are aware that the curfew rule does exist for a reason and the girls are expected to follow the rule in spirit, although in extenuating circumstances, infractions are excusable and flexibility is possible.
Another instance in the novel during which the students violate the rules of a code of conduct is the “panty raid” at the start of the novel. To clarify, a panty raid is a prank popular in the 1950s where the male students raid the dorms of the female students to steal things, most famously women’s underwear. During the raid, the university officials try to calm the boys down by promising to let them off the hook. Millie reports: “I heard them turning up the volume of the sound truck as the president kept trying. ‘MEN. GO HOME. GO HOME NOW. THERE WILL BE NO PUNISHMENT IF YOU GO HOME NOW…GIRLS. PLEASE GET OUT OF THE WINDOWS. GIRLS’” (Cassill 11). The president is “trying”, well aware that he will not succeed in stopping the raid. If anything, he’s resigned to the reality that this raid is going to happen, because it’s a cultural norm of the time. The girls even seem to want the raid to happen, as they flock to the windows. Millie then observes: “Flora shouted, ‘Come on up, cowards,’ and I realized that all along the wall other girls were shouting the same thing. More underwear was fluttering down” (Cassill 11). The portrayal of this panty raid suggests that the girls are enjoying the raid and, like Flora, even encourage the boys to enter. Around the dorm, several of the girls toss out their underwear to the boys as a way to rile them up and as an implicit way of signaling acceptance of the panty raid. The novel also has the boys, by and large, getting off the hook, with the university only wanting to calm things down, and with Millie providing no description of the university disciplining the boys.
While Duke’s records do not contain any rendition of a “panty raid”, historical experts at the University of New Hampshire shed light on the accuracy of this portrayal. Virginia Stuart, an alum of UNH who attended during the 1950s, remarks: “Women students not only unlocked doors for the marauders, but also sometimes tossed items from upper-floor windows (with contact information attached, no less)” (Stuart). In light of this, it seems likely that Dormitory Women portrays the execution of the panty raid accurately, with the women delighted and actively participating in the exciting raid.
So, what does this raid reveal about expectations toward women during the period? Well, for one thing, if such an event as a panty raid was common, then the administrators of the time were not taking huge steps in order to stop women from participating in the raids. They recognize the panty raids as something that “happens” and, as in the case of the curfew rule, enforce punishments as needed because they are expected to enforce them, but aren’t so harsh as to deter the panty raids from happening. The understanding is that the girls and the boys are young and trying to have a good time with each other, so the university allows the participants to continue to attend the university even after being involved in such an event, rather than condemning them to expulsion. In Dormitory Women and in Stuart’s article, the method of stopping the raid is a firehose. Stuart claims that when a raid happened at her school: “Eventually, the police and fire department were called in to quell “the disturbance” with fire hoses…photos of the perpetrators, who were later disciplined, made it into the local newspapers.” This reveals two things. First, the primary objective of the university is the stop the disturbance, hence the use of the fire hose, a weapon which serves as an effective deterrent in the moment only, and doesn’t seek to harm the boys physically. Second, and this is very obvious, but still relevant: UNH only took disciplinary action against the men who initiate the raid, and did not seek to punish the women for any participation on their end.
So, as the novel suggests, despite the fact that the women engaged in tossing underwear out the window, this did not constitute an offense of what the university expected of them. In the context of universities in the US, the action that the women took, while perhaps not ideal, was acceptable, and did not merit punishment on account of improper conduct. As with the curfew violations, the university understands that the rule is there for safety and should be respected, however violations of the rule do not result in extreme or intense punishment. Finally, it’s important to realize that the outcome of many panty raids was for boys and girls to meet each other and then possibly engage in sexual encounters. Millie, for one, leaves with one of the initiators of the panty raid, and while the two of them don’t have sex, it’s clear that the boy’s intentions are for them to have sex (Cassill 22). Her university recognizes panty raids will lead to situations like this, and yet, as previously discussed, does not take harsher steps to prevent them from happening, which demonstrates acceptance that this type of sexual behavior will occur among its student body.
In conclusion, the Duke University Archive Records and the UNH Alumni Association corroborate Dormitory Women’s portrayal of the curfew rule and its portrayal of the panty raid. We can gather from this fictional depiction of university life that while the rules were strict in theory, the understanding was that the students, particularly the female students, were able to break them from time to time without much consequence. It’s possible to extract from this conclusion that the two universities were willing to look the other way about the students’ resultant sexual choices so long as the students didn’t force them to take action by egregiously violating the codes. Finally, while the rules still were problematic and restrictive, this flexibility reveals a more open attitude about behavior for female university students than we might expect from the period.
Bassett Residence Hall Records, Duke University Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, 1979.
Cassill, R. V. Dormitory Women. New York: New American Library of World Literature, 1959.
King, William E. “Duke University: A Brief Narrative History.” Duke University Libraries. Duke University, October 29, 2018. https://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/uarchives/history/articles/narrative-history.
Preservation Durham. “Trinity College / Duke’s East Campus.” OpenDurham. Preservation Durham, August 22, 2011. http://www.opendurham.org/tours/trinity-college-dukes-east-campus.
Stuart, Virginia. “UNH Magazine Online.” Pranks a Million. University of New Hampshire Alumni Association, 2011. http://unhmagazine.unh.edu/f11/pranks_2.html.