Women in College during the 1950s – Social Change Interviews (2022)

Interview with Barbara Anderson, History 150 Spring 2020, Conducted by Carter Gilbert, March 9, 2020.


I interviewed my grandmother, Barbara Anderson. Barbara Anderson graduated fromWesthampton College, which was a part of the University of Richmond, in 1959 after studying chemistry. She worked at Medical College of Virginia (MCV) for eightyears,where she was in a cardiovascular research lab, and helped doctors with their research.They did experimental procedures, for the time, such as heart transplants on dogs.She quit her job and beganstaying home to take care of her childrenafter her time at MCV.


During the 1950s it was not common for awoman to attend college, it especially uncommon for them to study science.In this time period, only 1.2% of women in America went to college, so the amount that would pursue a career in science would be almost 0%. There was a belief that many women during this time attended college in order to find a husband, rather than obtain an education. This led to many women facing discriminatation since people felt women were in college for the ‘wrong’ reasons. However, many women, such as my grandmother,still became educated in order to enter their desired field after college.

Hammond, K. (2019, April 9). American Women in the 50s. Retrieved February 17, 2020, fromhttps://www.theclassroom.com/american-women-50s-9170.html

“Mrs. America: Women’s Roles in the 1950s.”PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-mrs-america-womens-roles-1950s/.

Interview Transcription:

Carter Gilbert: Ready? Describe it was like to be in college as a woman during an era when it was not that common.

Barbara Anderson:Well in the in the 50s there were only about 5% of the people in the in America that went to college as it was, and college was mainly for the bright and the wealthy and the ambitious.But in those days, you got to remember that college was very inexpensive. I paid $500 for a semester at a private college and you could probably with room and board spend between 1500 and $2,000 for college, and I went to a predominantly girls school, West Hampton was part of the University of Richmond, and the classes that I had were mainly with girls on that campus. But, since I was a chemistry major,all ofmy science classes were on the University of Richmond side. And they were mainly all those classes were male dominated classes, I would say I was maybe one or two girls in all of those classes, biology, physics, and chemistry, they were very few girls who were into major sciences in those days.

Carter Gilbert: So,would you say that you were treated differently than the male classmates in your classes? Or?

Barbara Anderson:No, I was not treated any differently

Carter Gilbert: Okay

Barbara Anderson:No.

Carter Gilbert: And then were your professors mainly male or female and did this matter?

Barbara Anderson:On theWest Hampton campus where the girls were, they were mainly women teachers, and at the University of Richmond, especially in the sciences. They were all male.And also, in philosophy, they were male. So, on that campus, thethemen’s campus they were 99% me n teachers and, on thegirls,they were women teachers.

Carter Gilbert: So why did you choose to major in chemistry?

Barbara Anderson:I came from a medical background, my father being a physician. And at the time my brother was in medical school. So of course, I heard a lot that went on in my household with scientific terms and all kinds of things. And I always loved science, even in high school. I love science. And chemistry was my major that was my favorite subject in school.SoI think it’s because of my background with a medical background. I sort of fell into it.

Carter Gilbert: Okay. What were the social expectations of a woman in the 1950s in college?

Barbara Anderson: Well Believe it or not, in college, a lot of women, a lot of girls start smoking. And that was very unusual because this this day in time, you I dare say you would have detail men [a sales representative of a drug manufacturer who introduces new drugs especially to physicians and pharmacists] from tobacco companies coming to the campuses and offering free cigarettes. So when we were all playing bridge, in our free time, which is what we mostly did between classes, the they would offer us free cigarettes and that’s how a lot of girls got started smoking and for activities, what we enjoy doing, we like to play tennis. We like to go bowling. There were separate clubs in Richmond on Broad Street, where we used to go dancing, and in that particular era, the twist was the popular dance and so we would go on the weekends dancing. And we did not have sororities in our school. We had class spirit. We had con song contest between the classes to unify the school, but we did not have sororities.

Carter Gilbert: Did you have a dress code?

Barbara Anderson:We did have a dress code. In those days we had a dress code that the girls could only wear skirts and dresses to class. In a since I was majoring in chemistry, Iwas allowed towear slacks. On a Saturday when I had chemistry or physics lab, Iwas allowed to wear slacks, but we were not allowed to wear them during the day to classes. We usually wore pencil skirts and twin sweater set and we wore Weejuns, penny loafers, socks.We were very conservative in those days very conservative dress.

Carter Gilbert: What would happen if you broke the dress code?

Barbara Anderson:We had a very strict dean of students. And if she saw you on campus, not only with the dress code, but with, say you were sitting next to a boy on a bench and you had your hand on his leg, you would get he would get called to the office, very strict, very strict code.

Carter Gilbert: So,you couldn’t communicate with boys very often, like what about in the dorms.

Barbara Anderson:The boys were not allowed at all into the girls’ dorms. For a date the girl had to come downstairs to the littlelittleparlor there and the boy would meet her there. And during the week you had to be in at 11pm and I think set Saturdays you could stay up till midnight. Very strict.

Carter Gilbert: Was getting a job after college difficult because of your gender.

Barbara Anderson:I had no problem getting a job after college. Most kids, if they had a bachelor’s degree, could find a pretty good job in those days and make pretty good money. I had no problem getting a job in the medical field whatsoever. I started working down at MCV, and I could have picked any job I wanted. I had a lot of opportunities, no problem whatsoever.

Carter Gilbert: Was your job just as important as an equal like male job do youthink,or do you think it was more menial tasks that you were doing?

Barbara Anderson:I think that even in that day in time, it was equal, equal Pay and equal. Equal job. I never noticed any difference if there were

Carter Gilbert: Just because there were so few people in the field do youthink.

Barbara Anderson:Yeah, we were there was so few girls in the field, soI really didn’t notice it at all.

Carter Gilbert: And then after you had children, did you want to continue working?

Barbara Anderson:No. After I had started my family, my husband wanted me to stay home and raise the children.Soit was more or less his decision as well as mine, that in those days and times after a woman got married and started a family 99% of all the women stayed home. There were very few two income families in my era. All my friends stayed home after the after they had their family.

Carter Gilbert: But that didn’t bother you. You were happy staying? I was I

Barbara Anderson:Yes,I was happy then because I had worked for a fairly long time.

Carter Gilbert: How long did you work for?

Barbara Anderson:Let’s see. 8 years

Carter Gilbert: And you worked at MCV the entire time?

Barbara Anderson:Yes.

Carter Gilbert: Cool.What did you do there? More specifically?

Barbara Anderson:I was in a cardiovascular research lab, I ran a cardiovascular research lab and worked for several doctors. We did experiments. We did experiments on heart transplant. That was before heart transplants came in. And we would work on animals transplanting hearts, in animals. And we worked with Dr. Lauer. When he came over from California. He brought his heart transplanted dogs and we tested rejection drugs on them and then went to Pensacola Florida. Study with NASA Havana down there that Naval Air Station went to Bethesda Maryland. We did a lot of experiments; different places and I enjoyed every bit of it. Very a lot of fun.

Carter Gilbert: Is there anything else you have to say about your college experience? Maybe your work experience that you think is interesting.

Barbara Anderson:I think it’s interesting that there were very little politics in those days as far as all we did was go to class. We had books that we learned went to the library to study. The teachers wrote on blackboards with chalk. Very no social media. But it was a very simple type of life I think I would consider and very little stress not like today because in those days, if you got through college, everybody could get a good job you didn’t have to, in your field, their job in your field, good professional job. In other words, you didn’t have to at first graduate and then maybe do waiting. Wait, waitressing or Wait, wait or waiting, you know, tables in restaurants or pick up a different job before you got into your field. Today I think you have to go further with the BA doesn’t get us far as it did in those days that got you quite far. And it was a simple time and fun time and I enjoyed every, every minute of my college life in the 50s.

Carter Gilbert: That’s great. Well, thank you so much. I Appreciate it.

Barbara Anderson:You’re welcome.


I conducted this interview in person at my house. My grandmother came over before lunch and we recorded the interview using my phone as the recording device. I did not have to edit the recording at all as the interview went smoothly for most of the duration. The mainobstacleI had to overcome was keepingher on topic when we spoke beforethe interview she seems on topic, however during and especially after she seemed to lose focus. I found this interesting however I was worried it would not stay true to the project so I did not record the almost20 minutes of her talking about her favoritemusic during the time.I think my interview went well it was not exactly what I had planned, however, this made the interview significantly more interesting in my opinion and the few questions I went off script for kept the conversation flowing smoothly, so I would not change a thing.

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