Commencement Day 1930: Old Notes and Bad Food

Fifty years ago, on a hot, muggy day in mid-June, about 200 young women filed into Agassiz Hall, their long white dresses peeking through their black robes as they marched to their seats. At the graduation rehearsal earlier that morning, Ethelind Elbert Austin '30 recalls, one of the matrons had informed the anxious group of Radcliffe seniors that, after eating some spoiled dormitory food the previous evening, serveral young women had been stricken with upset stomachs. The graduation caps, the matron suggested, would make convenient containers during the afternoon ceremony. Fortunately, all the caps stayed pinned to the graduates' heads. And the Radcliffe Class of '30, the 47th class to graduate from that college, crossed the platform to shake President Comstock's hand, stepped off the college stage and entered the sobering realities of the Depression.

"I remember the day in June 1930," Esther E. Osgood '30 writes in her class reunion book, "When I threw away my old torn green and black bathrobe (which had seen me through senior year and generals), tossed all my college notes into Whitman Hall's second-floor trash barrel, and looked forward to the rest of my life." But the outside world was anything but promising then. The stock market had crashed the previous fall, and Herbert Hoover--still in the Oval Office--was formulating the radical Depression plan suggested by his assessment that "nobody in this country is starving to death." But people were starving to death. And jobs and money were scarce.

"Everyone was grubbing really hard for jobs," Katherine Ernst Wulfeck '30 remembers. "There was no work." Most Radcliffe women of that time expected to get married or to become teachers, Wulfeck says, adding, "I decided not to become a teacher since all the women in my family had been school teachers. One of us had to be rebel." So Katherine Ernst took a small inheritance ("and it was small, even in those days") left by a grandmother and enrolled in a small secretarial school. "It was unheard of to go from Radcliffe to secretarial school," she says. "but when I went to classes the first day there were about six other women there from my class at Radcliffe. None of us had told anyone else."

There was little room for pride then: the Radcliffe liberal arts education had not provided its students with the skills they needed for survival. What Radcliffe had given its daughters, though, was a broad and flexible education. Dr. Elsie Field Doob '30 believes her experience at Radcliffe instilled in her an important need to accomplish "because I was in association with people who were ambitious or who had succeeded." Unlike many of her classmates, Doob continued on to graduate school. The daughter of a biologist and cousin of zoologist Howard Stabler, Doob was one of five women to enter the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in the fall of 1930. On a careful budget balanced by scholarships and part-time baby-sitting jobs, Doob and her husband Joseph L. Doob '30 managed to survive the Depression years.

Like Doob, Austin cherishes the high standards she acquired while at Radcliffe, saying, "You want the best from then on." Coming to Radcliffe from a public high school in Des Moines, Iowa, and "not knowing enough to be scared" by the academic competition, Austin calls her Radcliffe experience very positive. A member of Radcliffe's undefeated 1929 polo team (no other women's college in New England fielded a team), Austin doubts that the Radcliffe graduates of 1980 are much different than those of half a century ago. There has always been a strong sense of feminist independence, she says. "I remember the house mistress at Briggs Hall told us that we should wear hats with pins for protection. We were also told that we should wear hats in the Square to distinguish ourselves from the girls at a nearby physical education school. But we ignored all that."


Austin says she's all for co-residency at Harvard, saying that Radcliffe's isolation made it difficult for women and men to meet socially. "I think the informality is more like the way people actually live," she says. but many Radcliffe alums continue to maintain that the school should retain its heritage and a symbolic independence from Harvard, an independence which they say gives women an important, unifying identity.

Many women graduating with the class of '30, like their predecessors and many who have since left the College, had to contend with trying to juggle two careers--the professional and the housewife. Doob found the duality particularly frustrating. In order to raise a family, she retired from her medical practice. Only through the encouragement of her husband and daughter did she return to medicine after a 20-year professional hiatus. "I think that women today should be very careful in choosing a husband who would be willing take on a great deal of the responisibility of raising the family," she says.

Women of the Class of '30, nurtured on a solid academic, often pre-professional, education, confronted a society that conditioned them to focus primarily on the responsibilities of the family. Most of the women in the class accepted society's conventions and interrupted their careers to raise their children. Others either remained unmarried or did not have children.

Some, like Dorothy Harding Trower '30, who has spend more than 30 years doing a radio program on Brockton's WBET, became quite adept at straddling career and family. "A lot of people thought it was demeaning for me to go on the air. Somehow, though, I didn't give a shoot," Trower says, adding, "Now it's all different. Nobody's looking askance on women for pursuing careers today."

Yet even if a woman of the Class of '30 were able to make the necessary compromises and establish herself in a career, she often had to deal with the resentment and chauvinism of her male colleagues. Many chose (or were forced to choose, out of financial necessity during the depression) vocations that were more conventional and became secretaries or school teachers.

Lou Court Bartlett '30 says that she was one of the lucky ones," able to find a satisfying job that fell within the realm "of acceptable professions." After continuing her education at the New York School of Social Work and the Smith College School of Social Work, Bartlett, the first woman ever to attend Radcliffe from Nashville, Tenn., held jobs in different social work agencies around the country. It wasn't until later in her career, when she began to approach many of the issues and assume many of the same responsibilities of her male colleagues, that Bartlett began to sense any resentment among the men.

Doob agrees, remembering she first became aware of sexism when an internship she nabbed in New York City fostered ill-will from her male contemporaries. Doob and Trower believe that the system has evolved to allow mothers to pursue their careers. Doob cites split hospital internships that allow men and women time off for family responsibilities.

Though society continues to change, Radcliffe remains much the same for Trower; it continues to cultivate a strong-spirited woman. "Underneath there's not so much change. The education gives you stamina and backbone to approach the world. I remember a Harvard man saying to me, 'You know what Harvard taught me? How to find out whatever I want to know whenever I want to know it.' And that was true about Radcliffe," Trower adds.

Most of the women of the Class agree that 1930 seems to have unfolded into 1980 almost overnight. Ktherine Ernst Wulfeck '30 remembers "my aunts telling me how quickly life passes and not believing them. I always wanted to be as old as my sister, and my mother always told me not to wish my life away." After attending her 45th reunion, Doob vowed that she would never attend another: "All my friends were so old. I don't look in the mirror much, and I work around so many young people that I, too, usually feel very young." But Austin says she tries not to live in the past: "You almost feel like a different person this many years later. I try to live in the present." And, as she writes in the Class of 1930 reunion book:

The doctor measured my height and announced that I was shrinking. 'Oh that's too bad! I can't afford to lose an inch, or even half and inch!' 'Cheer up,' he grinned. 'All your friends are shrinking too.'

--But surely not, I thought to myself, in ways that matter!!