The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

The Hidden World of Romance at Women’s Colleges

Historian Christie Anne Farnham, who researched late nineteenth-century women’s education, claimed that lesbian communities could only develop among women with the economic independence to live unmarried (4).  Female educators in the North are therefore the primary focus of studies surrounding lesbian culture in this era.  Some would argue, however, that this attitude leads historians to overlook critical parts of homosexual history, including the widespread practice of romantic friendships in women’s colleges.  Called by many names—including crushes, smashes, and raves—these passionate relationships and courtships were “common to the Anglo-American experience” among college women (Farnham 155).  Although their nature is fiercely debated by modern academics, romantic friendships played a significant role in the culture of women’s colleges and the individual lives of nineteenth and twentieth-century students.  

Intimate homosocial relationships, though referred to by many nicknames, were a universal concept throughout women’s college campuses.  Termed a “crush” in Barnard’s 1907 yearbook section “The College Dictionary,” it is described as “an epidemic peculiar to college girls…characterized by a lump in the throat, a feeling of heat in the face and an inability to speak” when their object of adoration is near (Wilk 20). These crushes, though usually nonsexual in nature, imitated the fervent romance of heterosexual couples with grandiose declarations of love, gift-giving, and exclusive courtship with one another (Farnham 158).  Underclassmen would typically “crush” or “smash” on older female students, as Vassar student Elizabeth Babbott expressed in a letter home in 1912.  She excitedly writes that her “freshman devotee” has gifted her “fascinating sunset roses and maiden hair tied with shimmery ribbon” as a sign of her love (“Letter to mother”).  Such traditions also took place at Newcomb College, according to the scrapbook of student Beatrix Fortune.  In 1906, Fortune wrote that “silly freshmen” would often pick the garden flowers to give to their “lady love.”  She alluded to more intimate relations in a description of her dorm room, writing that the little beds were “sometimes big enough for two” or the closet “sometimes big enough for human beings.”  Occasional references to sensuality in romantic friendships provide evidence that such relationships may have been homoerotic at times. 

Rather than perceiving college crushes as threatening to social norms, the public generally accepted romantic friendships as typical of the college experience, and even compatible with heterosexual marriage (Smith-Rosenberg 8).  Because erotic desire between two women was inconceivable, physical displays of affection were not looked on with suspicion.  In fact, parents approved of the emotional support and intimacy that romantic friendships provided, viewing them as a positive influence rather than a corrupting one (Farnham 156).  Public opinion of crushes was also reflected in college novels, which frequently depicted a passionate relationship between two female students. The sheer quantity of these written stories reaffirms their normalcy in student life and societal tolerance of them—that is, so long as they remain non-sexual and only on school campuses, where they can be “closely scrutinized by institutional and state authorities” (Inness 50).    

The culture of romantic friendships on women’s college campuses was remarkably homogenous throughout the country, despite regional differences.  Newcomb alumni Beatrice Frye, who graduated in 1913, says that there was little to distinguish Newcomb’s values and characteristics from other women’s campuses: “the same code of ideals must exist in all colleges” (Tucker and Willinger 87).  This appears to be true, as smashes were so typical among college women that scrapbooks included title lines like “My Upper Class Love” and “Diary of Senior Dear” to post pictures beneath (Fortune, “Scrapbook”).  Barnard College even had a “Crush Chorus” perform at the 1911 Freshman show, in which lyrics scolded those unaware of crushes as “unversed in college ways” (Wilk 20).  The pervasiveness of romantic friendships in Northern and Southern schools indicates that college campuses operated as their own cultural bubbles, more similar to one another than their regional surroundings.   

Past and present theories seek to explain why romantic friendships were so prevalent during this time and what role they served in women’s lives.  College administrators would dismiss this “extraordinary habit” as merely an outlet for feelings of yearning while away from male society (Inness 51).  However, both Barnard and Newcomb Colleges were adjacent to male universities, where potential romantic partners were plentiful.  Regulations controlling the whereabouts of students, particularly around potential male suitors, may have prevented women from seeking romance with men, but it seems unlikely that female courtships were just a substitute for male attention.  Oftentimes, these relationships were believed to be “on a higher plane than heterosexual relationships,” since they did not typically rely on erotic desire (Farnham 155).  Rather than replacing male companionship, romantic friendships provided a level of intimacy and support that men could not offer.  The clear separation of male and female spheres meant that women could relate more easily with other women; their interactions with men, by contrast, were overly formal (Smith-Rosenberg 9).  Since women were more familiar with each other’s domestic values and experiences, they fostered deeper relationships with one another than with boyfriends or husbands.   

Despite the indisputable role of romantic friendships on the culture of women’s colleges, they remain an elusive and contentious topic within academia.  The seemingly paradoxical nature of these relationships, being “both sensual and platonic,” is something very foreign to the modern era’s binary interpretations of love (Smith-Rosenberg 4).  Today’s generation wants to categorize romantic friendships as either platonic or sexual—depending on whether physical intimacy occurred or not.  Using modern perceptions of love to define nineteenth-century crushes, however, ignores the distinct historical context in which these relationships happened (Smith-Rosenberg 8).  Sexual orientation is defined by the individual, and although people see strict boundaries between friendship and love today, students of the time were unlikely to draw such a distinction.  Even if they did, the concept of lesbianism had yet to be labelled at the end of the nineteenth century (Farnham 163).  Whether or not these women would identify as homosexual in the modern era is nothing more than speculation. 

The popularity of romantic friendships throughout women’s colleges illustrates a shift in how people define love and romance over time.  Actions deemed “unself-conscious homoerotic behavior” by today’s interpreters may simply be connections beyond our modern labels (Tucker and Willinger 88).  Regardless, the prevalence and impact of homosocial relationships on late nineteenth and early twentieth century students are irrefutable.  Further analysis of community reactions to romantic relationships may help distinguish when society deems homosocial relationships acceptable and when they are deemed a threat. 

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