In 1907, student Florence Wyeth solidified her status as the College’s premier actor with her triumphant performance as the dashing François Villon in the junior-class show, If I Were King. It was not unusual for Wyeth, Class of 1909, to play the hero — a man’s part — because men were not allowed to even watch Barnard theatricals in the earliest years of the 20th century, let alone participate in them. Nor was it strange that members of the Class of 1911, 1909’s “sister” class, all had one collective, huge crush on the mesmerizing Wyeth, both onstage and off. Even years later, at its 60th Reunion, that class remembered how they had all fallen hard for the “tall, glamorous actress Florence Wyeth.”
In our more liberated and accepting times, this might strike the modern reader as surprising. But social values are not fixed in time. In fact, in the pioneering study of women’s romantic friendships, Surpassing the Love of Men, the historian Lillian Faderman notes “the extent to which sexuality and affectionality had been fluid and flexible in other eras.”
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the crushes women had on other women were incarnations of a larger range of women’s emotional and romantic attachments that were celebrated and encouraged; a Barnard student in the early 1900s would have found the passion of women for other women to be the most natural thing in the world. And while these relationships may defy our modern-day labels — the “sexual” part of sexual identity would have certainly given a late-Victorian woman pause — they offer a sense of how different social mores and a homosocial culture (such as that of the early women’s colleges) combined to create an atmosphere that enabled women to openly express their love, admiration, and even desire for each other.
Women’s colleges, in their early years, created an environment in which romantic friendships and crushes flourished. Juniors and first-years were paired as “sister classes,” with the older students providing models to emulate and admire. All-women dances provided an opportunity for close, physical contact. Star athletes, actors, and student leaders were ripe for adoration.
Indeed, the modern observer cannot help but notice the ubiquity of the crush in college life. It showed up in college theatricals, such as the Class of 1906’s skit “Crushitis.” In the Class of 1911’s Freshman Show, the “Crush Chorus” sang:
When your heart goes pitter-patter
Just to meet Her on the stairs,
When She smiles upon you kindly
Tho to speak you do not dare
When you jealously, when you jealously
Look upon a rival claim…
Yes, that’s a crush.
Yearbooks from this time mined the crush for good-natured humor, satire, and fun, gently mocking the fevered tone of the crush — though, pointedly, not the choice of a woman as an object of affection.
“The College Dictionary,” a spoof found in the Class of 1907’s Mortarboard yearbook, included this entry:
“CRUSH: an epidemic peculiar to college girls. It usually appears at some time during the freshman year and lasts anywhere from 20 days to 3 months. It is caused by a Junior or Senior microbe and is characterized by a lump in the throat, a feeling of heat in the face and an inability to speak. No remedy has been found for this disease. It must be allowed to run its course. Common sense, snubs and sage-tea have proven ineffectual.”
A mock advice column in 1913’s Mortarboard had a first-year student asking the editors if sending a bouquet of American Beauty roses would be an appropriate way to show her affection for her crush. They responded that it wasn’t, citing the case of a junior who had gone so far as to “jump out a window to escape a little sister … bringing her a floral offering.” They suggested instead giving up a seat in the crowded lunchroom, or looking up history references.
Meanwhile, in 1912, the committee raising money for a new students’ hall tried to harness the power of the crush to financial advantage. It put an ad in the Barnard Bulletin, the school newspaper, eagerly urging students to buy a brick for the new building as a way to make an impression on the object of one’s affection: “Don’t take her to the theater — that is such an out-worn trick/ Just take her to the box and — BUY A BRICK!”
And, although couched in exaggerated terms, the Bulletin reported on a party involving the sister Classes of 1917 and 1919. The article, titled “1919 Proposes and 1917 Disposes,” described lovelorn overtures from “wooing Freshmen” that were intentionally dismissed by “arctic” juniors, with one member of 1917 declared a “champion heart-breaker.”
These relationships were not necessarily relationships between equals. In many ways, crushees were at the mercy of those they adored. A sign of returned affection or acknowledgement could send a young admirer into ecstasies of bliss, while rejection could provoke gloomy misery; the power wielded by upper-classwomen was formidable. The crush “linked an erotic element to a power relationship” — one that usually involved an older and a younger student — as historian Helen Horowitz observes in her superb study of women’s colleges, Alma Mater. But, she notes, for the most part, “College opinion against ‘the crush’ demanded only that the upper-class student not misuse her position or the freshman take it too seriously.”
This inequality, along with immaturity, sentimentality, and obsessiveness, were the most criticized aspects of the crush; the same-sex element was not. The strongest critics in these years saw the crush as a failed ideal of friendship, with some critics holding out the possibility that the crush could develop into something nobler. A 1909 Bulletin editorial declared, “An evil has been growing year by year, in our life at Barnard …. This is the institution of the ‘crush.’” The editors conceded in only the second paragraph that “the crush is here, so let us try to bring good out of the evil. It is capable of maturing into a true and lasting friendship, when the crushee has grown older and put aside the first foolishness of her devotion.”
Dean Virginia Gildersleeve (whose companions included professors Caroline Spurgeon and Elizabeth Reynard) spoke to students about college friendships in 1914: “Not only do they make the rest of your life more joyful, but they add a lustre to college and make you love it.” On the path to true friendship, however, pitfalls abounded: “One is sentimental indulgence, which makes you mope in corners and withdraws you from broader activities. One is the losing of your individuality. . . . Another is the over-demonstration of affection.” Most college women probably recognized these as the hallmarks of a crush.
By the 1920s, as the works of Sigmund Freud and British physician Havelock Ellis began to influence American understandings of sexuality, college culture skewed more toward emphasizing heterosexual romantic relationships. Certain structures that had supported the crush, such as pairing first-year and junior classes, remained. But dances and theatricals more consistently involved mixed company. More importantly, societal attitudes toward same-sex relationships of any kind were changing, especially as Freudian theory propelled sex into public view. These changes affected the College as they affected the rest of society.
Still, the strong emotional and sometimes sexual bonds created by Barnard women in the College’s earliest years enable us to glimpse different affectional possibilities. We can learn from, and celebrate, these bonds — while we recognize and honor the ways in which students display their passions for each other today. •
Rona Wilk is a freelance writer, editor, scholar, and longtime Barnard historian.