Learning Femininity in College

by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton

Weekend evenings on the dorm floor were loud and chaotic as women rushed around trading clothes and accessories, trying on and rejecting outfits in rapid succession. A focus on physical appearance was at the center of many interactions on the floor. Women discussed the attractiveness of celebrities, complimented each other on outfits, complained about minor physical imperfections, pored over fashion magazines, made plans to “do abs” together, and commiserated about the temptations of beer and pizza. Many of the fifty-three women living on the freshman residence hall floor we observed at large mid-tier public university spent more time on their physical appearance than on their schoolwork.Armstrong_blogimage

Like Tara—one of the young women on our floor—many sought to embody a traditional femininity. Tara was petite, slender but toned, and slightly bronzed 18-year-old, who just exuded youthful energy. Our field notes consistently refer to her as “bubbly.” She had naturally blue eyes, healthy blonde hair that reached well past her shoulders, and dressed in designer labels. She was charming when she wanted to be—to Laura but not to Elizabeth. Tara identified her favorite pastimes as shopping, “talk[ing] about boys, read[ing] magazines. I love doing all the girly stuff with girlfriends.” She was intent on joining a sorority and had no interest in high status masculine pursuits, like math, engineering, or any of the hard sciences. In fact, she had decided by her freshman year that the academic side of college was not for her—noting that “I’m not that smart but I have common sense, like I’ve never been book smart.”

In Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, we argue that for many women a focus on traditional femininity is not peripheral to college—but central. The university makes it possible for women to cultivate feminine tastes, personality styles, appearances, and interactional skills. This model of femininity is supported by a “party pathway”— a social and academic infrastructure with a powerful Greek system at its heart. The university offers a variety of easy majors in which being good at being a “girl” (for example, bubbly, engaging, and attractive) is reinforced.

The party pathway may even encourage those without much interest in traditional femininity to develop it. By interviewing women once a year over the course of their time in college we were able to see investments in femininity intensify over time. Hannah, for example, became markedly more “girly” over the course of college. She arrived refusing to wear designer duds—much less makeup. By her junior year she noted:

I feel like everything more is about name brands here…. I’m much more conscious of that. I feel like every—not like anything is a competition—but I mean I feel like it’s more…. Now I like to wear makeup. I don’t really like to go out without mascara on. I feel like I’m albino, like my lashes.

These transformations are deep, practiced as they are in virtually all aspects of the college experience—from the social to the academic.

Heavy investments in femininity can come at the cost of academic knowledge, job skills, and career credentials. In the model of family formation with which the party pathway meshes, this is not a problem. A privileged, feminine self is cultivated with the intent of ultimately marrying a high-earning man and eventually moving out of the labor market to be a wife and a mother. This model is different from the past, in which engagement before college graduation was the way to earn the “MRS” degree. Today’s elite marital markets do not swing into action until after college graduation, and men and women both circulate in these social worlds throughout their twenties, having fun before settling down.

Looking to marriage for economic security may, however, be risky even for those most successful at this style of femininity. The most marriageable men often spend their twenties and even thirties in MBA programs or in law or medical school, where they meet women with whom they may have more in common. Women who invest in femininity at the expense of human capital may not be able to compete with their more professionally successful peers in elite marriage markets, as high-earning men increasingly couple with similarly high-earning women. Thus, by supporting the development of traditionally gendered selves, the university may nudge women toward an approach to career and family formation that serves most poorly.

While the party pathway has always been a part of large public universities, reduced state funding of higher education has exacerbated the problem: Schools like the one we studied have been forced to raise tuition and recruit students who can pay—particularly those from out-of-state. The socially oriented offspring of the affluent are enticed by opportunities for the cultivation of traditionally feminine (and masculine) selves. Seeking tuition revenue, mid-tier publics find it difficult to ignore the agendas of these students—even when what they want may not always serve their interests. At the same time, catering to these students hampers the ability of the university to serve other students. The dominance of the party pathway did not just affect those who participated in it. It threatened to derail the professional and mobility projects of others on campus.

By Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton on their book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, reviewed in the February 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review, click here.



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