As in other co-educational institutions, Oberlin faculty and administrators acted in loco parentis (literally “in place of parents”) to regulate and supervise interactions between male and female students, enforcing women’s curfews, bans on opposite-sex dancing, and a host of additional social rules. Until the 1890s, two-lane wooden sidewalks in Tappan Square prevented men and women from holding hands, while a wide central aisle separated the sexes in coed classes. For a number of Oberlin’s early utopian years, students were prohibited from consuming pepper, tea, coffee, and meat in an effort to subdue their “carnal passions.” Mandatory daily chapel and Bible study courses, two required Sunday church services, and bans on alcohol and tobacco also shaped campus life in the early evangelical community. These regulations were not only imposed from above; students themselves valued separate campus spheres for men and women and embraced Oberlin’s evangelical mission.
The administration and students also generally held differing expectations of the sexes. While Oberlin men were prepared for careers, many in the ministry, Oberlin women were trained to be devout mothers and wives, often of Oberlin men. Women were channeled into a special curriculum that omitted Greek and calculus until 1841 and were strictly forbidden to speak at public gatherings until the late 1800s. Expected to have a “civilizing effect” on college men, women waited on male students during dinner, washed and ironed their clothes, and tidied their rooms until the 1840s. According to James Fairchild, Oberlin’s president from 1866 to 1889, women could “not perform the duties of a public profession.” He viewed co-education instead as “a practical movement in harmony with the prevalent idea of woman’s work and sphere.”
Due in part to the physical and ideological separation of the sexes, friendships between those of the same sex were often passionate affairs, and easy physical affection was engaged in without any sense of impropriety. The friendship between Antoinette Brown (OC 1847, OTS 1850) and her classmate Lucy Stone (OC 1847) was probably typical of the “crushes” or “romantic couples” common and not stigmatized among young American women in the nineteenth century. In a letter to Stone in 1849, Brown wrote, “Someone asked me the other day if I thought Lucy loved me as well as ever & I replied emphatically that I knew she did. I shall not ask you if that is a truth of certain knowledge for my own heart will answer.” Describing a walk on Oberlin’s Pleasant Street boardwalk, where the two strolled together as undergraduates, Brown wrote:
Thoughts of you steal over me every time I walk that way particularly if it is evening & at no time is your memory brighter sweeter & dearer to me than then. O how glad I should be to have your arm around me & my arm around you & to walk with you again on that narrow plank even at the risk of slipping off into the mud.
Clearly defined gender roles may have also contributed to the use of cross-dressing in theatrical performances and other venues as a way of burlesquing the perceived differences between the sexes and reinforcing a group identity. The male cross-dressing at a 1907 Y.M.C.A. “stag” performance, attended by President King, for example, was described as “virile good fellowship among the men.”
Eyebrows were only raised—and the administration only stepped in as surrogate parent—if students showed signs of “inversion” in everyday behavior. This appears to have been the case in 1878, when William Darwin (OC 1880) was “summoned before” President Fairchild after dressing in women’s clothes. In a letter to Fairchild, Darwin’s mother insisted that her son “only meant a little harmless fun not considering how a wicked world would construe it.” But she was also aware that a “wicked world’s” interpretation of Darwin’s cross-dressing—sexual inversion—was a serious offense. “Please give me the worst,” she asked Fairchild. “Do not spare a mother’s feelings if you think it not best for Willie to continue at Oberlin.” It appears that Fairchild decided against expulsion; Darwin graduated from Oberlin in 1880 and later worked as an interior decorator in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he died in 1937.
It was not until the 1890s that Oberlin began a loosening of social rules—decades after most colleges had done so. The sidewalks in Tappan Square and the library became coed, women were permitted to speak at public gatherings, and students were even allowed to play cards. These liberalizations were part of a larger displacement of religious with intellectual goals as Oberlin shed its utopian past in an effort to become an elite college like those in the Northeast. In 1906, the rule requiring attendance at Sunday services was revoked, and Monday classes began to be scheduled in 1915, requiring study on the Sabbath.
Historian John Barnard has written that the growing popularity of organized athletics, the fine arts, and “polite society” among Oberlin students during this time signaled a “loss of unity” on campus, but also “created an opportunity for greater personal freedom.” This was a personal freedom that the majority of students chose not to exercise; it was not until the social disruptions of World War I that students as a whole rebelled against the “restraints of righteous living.” Student resistance to sex-segregation and social rules in the interwar period would be informed by changing relations between the sexes and a growing association of stigmatized homosexual desire with the traditionally homosocial campus conventions of the post-war era. This is detailed in the following section.