Members of the 1903-04 Philalethean Literary Society. From the 1904 Debris Student Yearbook.

Acting Ladylike, by Devyn Maugel

Blog Entry One     //      Blog Entry Two     //     Blog Entry Three
To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

Blog Entry One, March 7th 2016
Lessons from Female Academics in the 1900’s

Purdue boasted more than five literary societies during the nineteenth and twentieth century. The Philalethean Literary Society, an all-female literary society, was one of these groups. This society appeared in various issues of the Exponent, and held annual presentations. The women in this group changed the campus’s atmosphere through their presence in media and through the events they created. Therefore, I plan to peruse the Philalethean Literary Society’s “Purdue Night” program, an object from the Philalethean Society Records, in order to explore the literature and performing arts of 1903.

1903 Philalethean Literary Society event program. From MSP 101, the Philalethean Literary Society Records.

1903 Philalethean Literary Society event program. From MSP 101, the Philalethean Literary Society Records.


The program itself is 8×7 inches and made of a glossy paper cover with a large gold “P” on the front. The “P” is set in a very elaborate serif font that speaks to the age of the pamphlet. A black ribbon binds the glossy cover to a rough paper material on the inside of the program. The program is fairly thin and contains two parts. The first part consists of an address by the president of the society, and readings of various types of literature. I believe all the pieces read were written by Purdue students. The second, and possibly the more intriguing portion, consists of a playbill for a playette called A Shakespeare Revival. This program can be found within the Philalethean Literary Society files; in this collection it is one of the many programs from the annual Purdue Night.


I originally chose to research the Philalethean Literary Society because I am an English major, and I find literature and other arts to be fascinating. However, when I discovered the “Purdue Night” program from the Philalethean Literary Society’s records I developed a new interest because the program truly represents a group of driven and intellectual women. Women were repressed and overlooked in various ways on campus during this time period. This underrepresented group deserves to be recognized for their achievements and aspirations, and by researching this literary society I hope to uncover what these women’s thoughts were about their lives at Purdue. Through researching activities these women participated in, such as theater and literature, I hope to uncover women’s experience early in the century as well as learn more about this society.

Initial Thoughts

The “Purdue Night” program originally caught my eye by its appearance. When I first looked at the program, I was immediately entranced by its second half. It appears as though a play was put on by students during the program. This section intrigues me because at this time in Purdue’s history it was still a small campus devoted to agriculture and engineering, and I wonder what sort of facility, if any, was used for the arts. It is very difficult for me to imagine plays occurring on campus during Purdue’s earlier years. I also think that these women must have felt repressed during their time at Purdue because they were not considered to be equal to men. The Exponent points to various issues that women faced during the year of 1903 and 1904, such as the refusal of the university to provide girls with a gymnasium and the lack of women allowed to become officers in coeducational clubs. I hope to learn more about the Philalethean Literary Society and the lives of the women in this group as I continue my research.

Next Steps & Questions:

I contacted the Convocations office about any information on performances during 1903 and 1904. They told me their archives only stretch back to 1915, which leaves me at a standstill.

I plan on diving into the archives at HSSE Library in order to uncover information on the literature students wrote for the Purdue Night, and I hope to come across a script for the play they performed. There are several questions I am looking to solve in order to learn more about my topic. I want to know what students wrote about from 1903 to 1904, and where students performed during those years.

Blog Entry Two, April 11th 2016
Female Poetry and the Literary Society Apocalypse

Thus far I have read two scholarly essays about literary societies, as well as many issues of The Exponent. The first essay I read follows the story of Ione Mulnix, a member of the Hesperian Literary Society at Iowa State University. In the essay the author talks of how men controlled the public sphere within the literary societies, while women were in charge of the private sphere. This is exemplified when Mulnix is asked to an event by a boy from another literary society with whom she is uninterested. Unfortunately, she is unable to decline the invitation because it would undermine his reputation within the public sphere. Mulnix continued to find trouble within the confines of traditional female gender roles when she was asked to dances. Mulnix was a conservative Christian who was not allowed to dance because it was improper for a lady to be in close proximity with a man, and she often told her suitors that she could not attend dances for religious reasons. However, Mulnix impressively overcame this issue when she decided to attend dances, but simply talk to her date rather than dance with him. Girls also faced other troubles during the early nineteen hundreds. During election season for society positions, girls utilized political maneuvering tactics like electioneering. Candidates would promise other girls positions once they were elected to a powerful position. Presidential candidates were extremely careful during these campaigns, because crossing political lines led to destruction of one’s career within the society. The first essay also addresses the typical events created by literary societies. These programs include theatrical productions, musical events, and debates. Debate topics from the male literary societies centered on governmental policy issues as well as local government issues, while female societies mostly debated over domestic issues. Events created by students were held in society halls in university buildings. These halls were often shared by brother-sister societies. While researching, I learned that the Philalethean and Carlyle societies from Purdue were brother-sister societies.

The second essay focuses on literary society life in a broader spectrum. Since both of the essays were written by the same person, much of the information was repeated. The author covers debates, brother-sister societies, and the events held by literary societies again, but he extrapolates on the importance of literary societies. These societies offered opportunities for musical and theater performance because many Midwestern universities failed to include performing arts in their curriculum. Along with performing arts programs, literary societies controlled the campus newspaper during this era. While looking in the e-archives I noticed that campus literary societies were mentioned more while they controlled The Exponent. I wonder if the decline in regularity within articles was due solely to the loss of control, or if perhaps literary societies were simply becoming less influential. My author stated that institutions like fraternities and sororities destroyed literary societies because people felt that the time commitment for both was too much to handle, so they chose Greek life. While the end of literary societies does not directly relate to my paper, I found the demise of these societies fascinating, and I looked further into the cause using The Exponent. In the newspaper, I found it ironic to discover an article covering the strength of literary societies on campus. The author states that while society membership slowed, there was no need to worry. According to the author, societies were strengthening because now only the people that desire to attend events are participating. This was not correct because not long after this was written societies were forced to conjoin and eventually die out.

Lastly, I discovered a piece of original poetry from a Philalethean Literary Society member, Ethel Cowing. This poem, published in 1904, reflects on the meaning of an extravagantly dressed woman. While this poem was written by a woman, I believe that it contained sexism. It was not an anomaly for girls to write about themselves in a deprecating manner during this time period, but when Cowing wrote, “You’ll know it is the silken gown that he has had to buy’er,” I thought that it reflected a lack of control that women felt over their own lives. Within the next few weeks I hope to find more female literature to help me illustrate the suppression felt by women from Purdue.

Poem written by Ethel Cowing, a Philalethean Literary Society member Cowing, Ethel. “I Wonder-Will He?” The Exponent 15, no. 17 (1904): 14.

Poem written by Ethel Cowing, a Philalethean Literary Society member. Cowing, Ethel. “I Wonder-Will He?” The Exponent 15, no. 17 (1904): 14.

With the information I now possess I am not comfortable concluding much, but I definitely know that women within this era at Purdue were being suppressed, especially within the social sphere. In contrast, women within literary societies seemed to obtain more control over their lives. They earned positions of power that allowed them to make decisions for their society as well as male societies. Moving forward, I want to prove that literary societies empowered women, as well as find pieces of original literature written by females from Purdue.

Blog Entry Three, May 7th 2016
Organizing the Literature of Three Women from the Early 1900s

Plans for Organization

For the remainder of my paper I plan to focus on honing my style and my organization. At this point in the semester it would be difficult for me to continue any research, even though I would love to keep working on it. Therefore, I have decided to focus on these two aspects because they are the most attainable with less than two weeks left. Since style is not extremely interesting to read about, I will overview the format of my paper.

My paper begins with a lengthy introduction of what my paper will cover. I would like to take this moment to thank Selena Romo for her work on my introduction. She wrote the bulk of my introduction during our peer review, and after she wrote the introduction I only edited small portions. The introduction of my essay will outline the three portions of my essay. Each of the three parts will analyze literature from three women attending Purdue in 1904.

The first part of this essay will center on a poem written by Ethel Cowing. The poem, entitled “I Wonder Will He” talks about the Irish tradition of a woman asking a man to marry her during the leap year.[1]  After I talk about the poem I use historic context to aid in its interpretation. I specifically discuss a meeting about the Memorial Gymnasium, which is mentioned in The Exponent. This gym was built to commemorate those who lost their lives on the way to a football game due to a train accident. Women felt left out of this facility because nobody talked about what the gym would offer them.[2]

The second part of my essay will cover the poem “The Eternal Feminine,” a poem by Ms. Jones: her entire name is not listed by her poem. This poem tells the story of a female scientist who discovers an elixir that transforms her into a beautiful woman.[3] I further analyze the poem’s meaning using information I found on gender roles. According to Michael Hevel, women belonged to the private sphere at the turn of the twentieth century.[4] This leads me to believe that Jones was trying to embed ideas of female equality into her poetry.

The final portion of the essay surrounds a short story written by Bernice Nelson. This story covers the history of Purdue up until 1904.[5] Nelson tells the history of Purdue in a way that empowers women because she depicts them as fun-loving and exciting rather than repressed. This leads me to my final piece of historical context about The Exponent from 1904. Early this year they decided to add a girls page to the newspaper, and two male editors left the night that this decision was made.[6] This rude behavior seems to not have phased Nelson because she wrote about empowerment rather than oppression.


I believe that this project is important because it changed my view of the way women lived at this time. When I began this project I assumed that I would find information on how women were oppressed. However, I realized that while women were oppressed they still enjoyed Purdue. They did fight to prove that they were equal to males, but this did not define them. I now realize that they were not victims as much as they were trailblazers.


[1]Cowing, Ethel. “I Wonder-Will He?”  The Purdue Exponent 15, no. 17 (1904): 14.

[2]“Memorial Gymnasium.” The Purdue Exponent 15, no. 18 (1904): 14.

[3]Jones. “The Eternal Feminine.” The Purdue Exponent 15, no.19 (1904): 11.

[4]Hevel, Michael S., “Preparing for the Politics of Life: An Expansion of the Political Dimensions of College Women’s Literary Societies.” 488.

[5]Nelson, Bernice. “The Purdue of Yesterday.” The Purdue Exponent 15, no. 3 (1903): 5.

[6]“Shall We?” The Purdue Exponent 15, no. 18 (1904): 10.


To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

About the Authors

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