Docility, dress codes and curfews — but only for women

By Madison McCormick/El Inde

The 1950s college experience was rife with sexism and gender inequality. The University of Arizona, like many colleges in the mid-20th century, was a prime example of the social injustices that permeated American culture. Myriad rules were forced on female students, while the men enjoyed nearly uninhibited freedom. Kaye Byerly, a social studies major at the UA during those years, was baffled by the severity of the discrimination against women. Now 85 years old, she has proven her ability to persevere and supersede gender roles, an ambition which began with her experiences as a university student.

Byerly was a slight, athletic woman with chocolate-colored eyes, dark brown hair and a lust for life. She wanted to be a doctor, but knew she would never have enough money for medical school. Though she would likely deny it for the sake of humility, Byerly’s family and friends said she was skilled enough to play softball at the collegiate level. Despite these aspirations, intramural sports became available for women only until the passage of Title IX in 1972.

Byerly took advantage of the athletic opportunities that were available to women at the time: playing intramural sports and taking golf classes. This passion led her to pursue a physical education minor. But exercising came with stipulations of its own for the female students at UA, as women could only wear shorts once they entered the gymnasium, not while walking to or from it. They were permitted to wear pants only in the evenings and were required to wear dresses or skirts during classes and on campus. Byerly said men had no explicit dress code.

The sexism didn’t stop there. She suspects such measures were implemented in an effort to prevent unplanned pregnancies and keep men from getting “distracted.” This theory rings true for girls in middle schools and high schools even today. Modern school dress codes suggest, for example, that a girl showing her shoulders or wearing shorts that don’t come down to her knees is the primary reason that male students are unfocused. Though fashion has evolved since the ‘50s, dress codes today remain a testament to the double standards and inequalities that permeate American society.

In their efforts to keep men and women separated, UA even went so far as to have separate food lines for men and women. Byerly recalls heading to the cafeteria with her roommate for their first meal on campus. “We didn’t realize it, but we were in the football line and they had a game that day and they fed them steaks,” she said, “and the line just kind of etched off and it was the same room. The guys were all talking to us and flirting with us and everything, and all of a sudden, somebody told us ‘This is for the football players.’” So Byerly and her roommate had to leave their line and go to theirs — and there weren’t any steaks there.

In the 1950s, the UA required first-year students to live in the dorms. Byerly described the women’s dorm culture as prison-like. They shared rooms with two desks and two closets, sometimes for three people, and slept in screened-in sleeping porches without air conditioning, sweltering in the oven of the Arizona desert. She said the male dorms never had more than two students per room, and in general, the facilities for men were far better than those for women.

Female students were required to check in and out of their dorm building so they could be monitored, and they were told not to go beyond a certain distance from campus. Ironically, the close supervision of women living in the dorms was conducted by other women: the “dorm moms.” Byerly said each female dorm had a dorm mom — some of whom were kind and lenient, while others were intent on upholding the sexist university policies. Unfortunately, her dorm had the latter, a stern woman who seemed to enjoy “policing” the students on her floor. “It was like she was wanting to catch you doing something,” she said.

According to Byerly, one of the most shocking and frustrating acts of discrimination she experienced during college was the female-exclusive curfew. Women had to check back into their dorms by 9 p.m. on weekdays and 10 p.m. on weekends. Breaking curfew warranted a visit to the Dean’s Office and possible disciplinary action. Byerly, a self-proclaimed “rebel,” learned this the hard way. “I know that there are a lot of women and a lot of girls that really think they know what ‘their place’ is and it’s a worse place than being a man — but it’s still ‘their place,’” she explained. “I’m sorry, I’m not like that.”