Beneath the veneer of the seemingly idyllic 1950s America lay an undercurrent of social unrest, as postwar expectations of gender roles, particularly·in regards to receiving a university education, sought to reinforce traditions that had all but been upended in the previous decade. Prior to World War II, admissions at Indiana University Bloomington saw men outnumbering women three-to-one in the classroom. During wartime, women outnumbered men two-to-one.
Thanks to such measures as the G.I. Bill, the postwar years saw the majority male student population return to Indiana University, and images of female empowerment of the previous decade (perhaps best represented by the iconic Rosie the Riveter campaign) were replaced by images of docility, compliance, and traditional femininity, as women were once again being primed for futures as wives and mothers.
Your Daughter at I.U., a 1953 college recruitment video marketed toward the parents of prospective female students, serves as a striking representation of how gender roles were being negotiated in the postwar years. As the film’s (male) narrator cheerfully proclaims in its opening moments, “modern life is complex…to meet it, our daughters need a many sided-education.” The result of such a well-rounded education? “A woman may be the center of the home, bringing up a healthy, well-adjusted family in comfortable, attractive surroundings.”
The film’s exploration of career paths for Indiana University students highlights professions viewed as traditionally feminine – nurses, teachers, and other positions related to home economics and domestic work. The university is depicted as offering courses in “basic subjects” including “arts and crafts.” Further, such curriculum options are deemed necessary not for the student’s betterment, but for the eventual support of her husband and family: “[the woman] will do most of the family buying, and she will be her husband’s partner in major decisions; therefore, she must understand financial matters and how to deal with them.”
Yet Your Daughter at I.U.’ s representation of traditional gender roles was incongruous with notable campus developments of the time. Only one year before the film’s release, the Indiana Memorial Union Board began admitting women for the first time, despite the fact that the organization had been active since 1909. Also of note is the publication of Alfred Kinsey‘s controversial Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953, which challenged conventional beliefs about female sexuality. The hiring of Eunice Roberts as Indiana University’s Assistant Dean of Faculties cemented the university’s status as one of the few colleges at the time employing a woman full-time to develop educational programs and services for women.
Such achievements in redefining gender norms were in direct contrast to university policy, which aggressively policed female students’ behavior. According to a 1947 social guidance booklet distributed by the university, female students were instructed to wear sweaters, skirts, ankle socks and loafers, and were forbidden from wearing slacks or shorts in the campus dining halls. Jeans were also prohibited save for a few exceptions – lounging on Saturdays, at hayrides, or at picnics. Further, the Association for Women Students published a yearly handbook of mandatory moral and social standards, guidelines that were perhaps best expressed in the curfew policy. Nightly curfews applied to all women, and expressly stated that women had to be in their dorms or houses by 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and by 12:30 a.m. on weekends. Social Standards and House Regulations were distributed to dormitory residents in much the same way these other social guidance booklets were.
Arguably, the Indiana University of the 1950s was something of a microcosm of the United States at large, simultaneously reinforcing and questioning cultural expectations of gender roles, which would soon be on the cusp of significant transformation with the emergence of second-wave feminism in the early 1960s. Your Daughter at I.U. is an important work in understanding the intersection between conventional gender role expectations of the postwar era, how these expectations were reinforced in the context of receiving a university education, and perhaps most importantly, the gradual yet significant unrest in maintaining them.