Founded in 1922, the Women Student Government Association (WSGA) was an alternative student government dedicated to make women feel comfortable on campus and to “keep them safe.” Early mentions of WSGA appear in 1930s issues of The Auburn Plainsman, telling of instances where WSGA raised money for social events and guest speakers. At the head was the dean of women, who oversaw the living conditions and comforts of the coeds.
The influence of WSGA, which became Associated Women Students (AWS) in 1965, was felt in every nook and cranny of a coed’s college experience.
Consisting of executive, judicial and legislative branches, the executive branch initiated programs and social functions (such as teas and dances) within dormitories and worked closely with the dean of women.
The legislative branch, comprising presidents and vice presidents of each dormitory, set the policies and “made the rules” that Auburn women followed. The judiciary branch enforced rules and administered punishments.
“If you were seen barefooted outside the dorm you had a weekend restriction,” Teresa “Terry” Rodriguez ’69 recalls. “We had to sign in and out of the dorm, be in by 10 o’clock. You got a weekend restriction if you left the dorm without permission. You had to sign out, saying where you were going, and when. When you brought a male in the dorm, you had to yell ‘man on the hall!’ Even if you went to places like Chewacla, you had to wear a raincoat over your pants until you got into your car.”
The WSGA both helped, and prohibited, Auburn coeds from reaching their goal of equality through the power to give and take away their privileges.
Coeds were punished for breaking any rule—staying out past curfew, missing mandatory convocation or meetings, dressing inappropriately, leaving the dorm without signing her “in-and-out card” and other infractions of the Co-Etiquette, the administration’s guideline for how Auburn women should behave and conduct themselves on campus. The thick pamphlet consisted of warm welcomes in the first three pages, then a list of rules for the remaining 40.
Auburn women wanted a chance at responsibility; as editorials flowed into The Auburn Plainsman from the 1950s to the 1970s, coeds requested (or demanded) the same freedoms that men already had on campus.
The “Women’s Liberation Movement” found its way to Auburn’s campus in the ’70s, influencing coed groups to form outside of AWS and promote equality for women.
In 1970, the unsatisfied coeds’ opinions of living on campus became clear after The Auburn Plainsman distributed more than 2,000 surveys to all coed dorms.
Of the approximately 40 percent of the surveys returned, 54 percent of respondents said they wanted all curfews abolished, 91 percent wanted to live off-campus and 93 percent felt that parents and the students themselves should decide where students should live.
The survey also asked whether the university should regulate social conduct for women. About 69 percent of the coeds said they needed regulation, but 94 percent believed that universities should not practice in loco parentis, or being surrogate parents. The survey revealed the desire for independence was strong, but not one-sided.
Within the dorms, AWS had its own system of communicating opinions and grievances through “Women Students’ Rules workshops.” The workshops were a method where coed residents went before the AWS legislative and judiciary branch, hoping to revise co-etiquette rules to become more liberal.
…they had been served cold food, bugs in salad, stale bread, warm or watered-down milk…
The changes went before the dean of women and Auburn President Harry Philpott for final decisions. On certain occasions, all of the proposals would be passed, but topics such as curfews and meal plans would end in rejection. Plainsman editor Beverley Bradford, in an editorial, beseeched coeds to vote wisely for the upcoming AWS elections, stating a strong AWS that supported rule changes could make the abolition of curfews
move quicker, “although a flat-out curfew abolition is ‘next to nil’ when it came to Philpott and the dean of women.”
Then the protests began. The Quad Center protest of May 1970 was one of the first that took place, and was aimed at food quality and mandatory meal plans.
Coeds often complained of poorly prepared food and service; in a letter to The Plainsman, several girls stated they had been served cold food, bugs in salad, stale bread, warm or watered-down milk or that meals would run out altogether. The protest for abolishing a compulsory meal plan included the burning of meal cards, signs and the chanting of “Alka-seltzer! Alka-seltzer!” to show disdain for the food’s taste. It was reported that Dean of Women Katharine Cater had a calm, but tense, discussion about the meal plans with the group. No change took place until summer.
A week later, a larger protest took place outside of Langdon Hall. During “Strike Day,” students marched to the president’s lawn, protesting coed dorm rules, social regulations and the meal plan. More than 1,000 students, male and female, attended, eventually moving to what was known as “Dorm J” of The Hill dormitories. Later the same week, several off-campus students, including 14 coeds, staged an anti-curfew campout on Philpott’s lawn.
In June 1970, several coeds found an alternative to protesting through legal action: a lawsuit against the university’s rules that discriminated against female students. The case was later dismissed.
In May 1971, a year after the campout, more than 200 coeds met behind the dean of women’s office in what is now Cater Hall to discuss ways of protesting for more rule changes. The group scheduled another campout—the plan being to have coeds stay out past their curfew by 14 minutes, a minute shy of receiving a penalty. At the time, the Women’s Educational Equity Act was pending in Congress for the third time.
The following week, about 50 coeds spent the night on the front of the Social Center lawn in protest of co-etiquette, deeming it unconstitutional. The protest ended, however, with many of the coeds returning back to the dorms by curfew. Views on the demonstration were mixed.
Amid the whirl of student discord, Philpott sent out a survey to parents to see if the removal of curfews would be acceptable.
Philpott asked parents whether changes should be made for coed policy on campus. About 34 percent said coeds should not have a curfew when they did not have one at home.
In time, curfews started to extend and eventually drop. In February 1970, seniors received permission to live off campus and “self-regulate” their hours. The decision was viewed as an indicator for a future without co-etiquette rules. This new freedom would lead to protests later in the same year for those expecting changes to be applied to all coeds.
As the class quarters went by, AWS, in conjunction with Cater and Philpott, extended curfew time to juniors, then to sophomores in good educational standing. In May 1970, the consideration of self-regulating sophomores was sent to Philpott. Curfews for juniors and sophomores were dropped in September 1970.
When Title IX was enacted in 1972, co-etiquette rules began to vanish. The dean of women was no longer necessary, so the position dissolved and AWS struggled as a result.
The group, noted in the 1975 Glomerata, “worked under fire” to stay relevant by expanding its platform on women’s issue such as birth control access and anti-drug campaigns.
It would not be until ’76, in the midst of Title IX making headlines nationally, that Auburn’s female government would merge with SGA to become one entity.