For my senior project, I wanted to find out how political and social issues were covered in issues of The Rambler from past decades. When I began with the oldest archives, dating to 1931, I hoped to find students grappling with sexism, racism, the world wars, and the Great Depression. Instead, I discovered that during the ’30s the paper was principally a venue for gossip, announcements, and endless discussions of what so-and-so wore to this dance or to this trip to the ski lodge.
Sure, a few articles touch on WWI, and there is one fascinating full-throated critique of capitalism, “The Girl’s Reply to Capitolist [sic].” But overwhelmingly, the articles from this time period were light, silly, frivolous, and often, though I hate to say it, downright boring. The article “A Plea,” which lists three demands of the student body, gives us a clue into what students’ priorities were at the time. First, more plays: “Not necessarily big plays but lots of cute small plays.” Second, more parties: “The girls want parties, any kinds!” And lastly, more games: “Nothing in the world is more fun than basket-ball games.” Today, Bush students call for more inclusivity and greater sustainability at our school. We go to anti-gun violence protests and think about how the histories of marginalized groups should be covered in U.S. History. By contrast, the school paper of the ‘30s depicts a student body whose main priority is having fun. Not a single article from this decade mentions The Great Depression.
Throughout my research process, I often found myself numb with boredom (another article about the ski lodge?) before I stumbled upon something utterly strange or original. Despite their comparative levity, the articles from this period still provide a fascinating glimpse into the values and norms of everyday Bush students. I’ll talk about some of these articles below, but I encourage you to browse the archives yourself, too.
Gender in The Rambler:
In combing through articles from the ‘30s, I found a strange combination of progressive and traditional ideas about gender. On the one hand, probably owing to the fact that Bush was an all-girls school back then, praise of female intelligence, kindness, and ambition is ubiquitous. At the same time, the paper constantly reifies beauty standards, and its emphasis on domestic skills and marriageability feels utterly of the time period.
While there are many instances of body-shaming in issues from the ‘30s, one clearly stands out to me as the most disturbing. In the 1936 Annual Dummy, a magazine devoted to honoring the seniors, blurbs about each senior girl list their name, ambition, destination, outstanding achievement, favorite saying—and weight. I’m still baffled as to why someone deemed it necessary to include this information along with the trivia and fun facts. Still, I was encouraged by the fact that some students critiqued the question through their jokey answers. One student responded, “3 tons,” while another wrote, “Rawther!!!” (whatever that means). Perhaps my favorite is the blunt response “WELL!!!” Still, the Annual Dummy is a sobering reminder of the oppressive beauty standards of the era—beauty standards that still dog our school today, even if we would never list girls’ weights in the yearbook.
The article “A Discovery,” from the 1935 Bush News, contains another instance of strange and dated misogyny. The article is formatted as a fact sheet about a “New Element: Woman!” This dubious premise gives us some truly cringe-worthy gender stereotypes, as in this line, under “Chemical Properties”: “Turns green when placed next to a better sample of the species. Fresh variety has great magnetic attraction. Ages rapidly.” This article is an important reminder that just because Bush was an all-girls school doesn’t mean that students didn’t internalize sexist ideas about women’s bodies. Possibly the most misogynistic line, which espouses a profoundly male-centric idea of the world, comes from the section “Occurrence”: “Can be found wherever man is, either combined or in a free state.”
Subversive Articles Related to Gender:
Still, there are several articles from this period that subvert traditional gender norms, if only obliquely and humorously. Perhaps most surprisingly, the advice column Nina Nix—usually a venue for mercilessly mocking students—contained a delightful feminist takedown in an issue titled Helen Bush School. A student, in reference to the infamously misogynistic Rupert Kipling poem “The Vampire,” asks, “Is it true that a senator says that a woman is nothing but a rag, a bone, and a hank of hair?” Nina Nix responds, “Well, what is a senator but a brag, a groan, and a tank of air?” Although we unfortunately don’t know the political context, as the senator remains unnamed, Nina Nix’s response still deserves the 1930’s version of a mic drop.
Another article, this time from a 1937 issue of the Bush News and Views, subverts gender norms in a deeper way. Titled “Capricious Code,” the piece points out that Bush students routinely break the rules that were “in force at Mt. Holyoke College exactly 100 years ago.” (The relationship this writer has to the Mt. Holyoke guidelines of 1837 is approximately the relationship I have to the Bush News and Views.) The author humorously lists the rules, telling us that Mary Lou is unable to kindle a fire and wash potatoes, that Adell doesn’t know her catechisms, and that Marion flagrantly violates the mandate that “No young lady is expected to have gentlemen acquaintances unless they are returned missionaries or agents of benevolent societies.” These students, seeing themselves as modern, were proud of the fact that their conception of teenage girlhood was much broader than that of one hundred years prior.
Lastly, I want to talk about possibly my favorite article in the entire Rambler archives—and believe me when I say that that’s a high compliment. “Mae West Shocks Entire School,” from the undated Helen Bush News, is a funny, daring look into the social norms of the ’30s. According to the article, Bush teachers think that Mae West, the famous actress and sex symbol, is “fat, vulgar, immoral, disgusting, vile, sickening, horrid, shocking, low, common, cheap.” Despite this hyperbolic condemnation, the students still love West’s movies, and the writer ends the article with the joyful yet rebellious declaration, “Moral: Don’t let the teachers know when you pupils go to such demoralizing movies. After all what people don’t know doesn’t hurt them, and we do like to please our teachers!” This article encapsulates a tension that I’ve observed in other pieces from the era: students profess an un-Puritan enthusiasm for boys, parties, and pop culture, but still want to be seen as polite people-pleasers.
Bullying and Gossip:
The extent to which the 1930’s Rambler was a glorified gossip magazine truly cannot be overstated. Recurring columns like “What If” and “Can You Imagine” were entirely devoted to poking fun at individual students. The vast majority are quite innocent—think “What would happen if Honey Lou sang with less volume in Glee Club?” or “What if Ann stopped making useful suggestions?” Nonetheless, there are others that, from our 21st century perspective, feel more like bullying than good-natured joshing around. I found two different examples of a writer calling out a specific student for being a drunk. (Needless to say, The Rambler would never—and could never—publish anything like those pieces today.) In the first ever Nina Nix advice column, from the undated Bush Bugle, the student Lesley Hampton asks, “Why was Armene Lamson so silly and light-headed the other day?” Nina Nix responds, “She was in her Dad’s cellar the night before.” A totally different column from the February 1936 Bush News asks, “What would happen if Martha N. was sober at lunch for a change?”
Perhaps not surprisingly, gossip articles from the ’30s also commonly eviscerated underclassmen. These pieces were more vicious than anything we’d think of printing today. An article from the December 1935 Bush News titled “A Corner from Santa’s “I Want” List” tells us that “Mrs Tyler would like a machine gun, – (and you’d better get some bullet-proof vests for the poor, innocent ‘Freshmans’.” Someone made a very similar joke exactly three years later: in “Dear Santa Claus,” from 1938, the author writes that she wants Santa to bring the school “some noiseless machine guns for use in the library to quietly murder those who cause the continual buzzing during study hall.” And, because bullying of underclassmen is a perennial theme in The Rambler, she also writes, “And please Santa, please bring the Sophomores mufflers for their voices.”