Fall 2017 - Articles

The Cater Mystique

The Cater Mystique, Sunday Ledger-Enquirer magazine featuring Dean Cater

Everyone in school at Auburn before 1970 talks about about the raincoats. Having to wear a raincoat even when it’s sunny is the kind of thing that sticks with you.

“That was back…when you couldn’t wear shorts across campus,” 1970 Auburn alumna Emily Perry says. “Everybody had a London Fog raincoat, because if you were going to gym class, you had to have a raincoat over your shorts.”

Dress codes, curfews, special permission to live off campus, in and out cards—once upon a time, coed rules and regulations at Auburn were some of the strictest for public universities in the country. Plenty of students were fine with them. Some weren’t.

Perry, for example, was art director of the 1970 Glomerata that railed against “an administration that would keep us sheltered.”

Fashion drawing of a woman in a raincoat with an arrow pointed at her

Looking back—“I know I’m sounding old-fashioned, but the way young women dress now on campus…”—Auburn women, Perry says, “were taught to respect ourselves.”

The woman who taught Auburn women to respect themselves was Katharine Cater, one of the most respected student administrators in the South (and beyond). Dean of women. Social director. Supervisor of women’s—and later also men’s—dormitories. She also sat on pretty much every AU committee formed from her first day in 1946 inside the building that eventually bore her name.

She was, as the Auburn Plainsman’s front-page headline put it the day after she died in 1980 at 65, a legend—and not just at Auburn.

Cater regularly received letters from other deans of women, and even university presidents, asking for copies of Auburn’s Co-Etiquette handbook—asking for her secret.

In her mind, the secret was simple: high standards. To Cater, telling freshmen to be back from a date by 9:30 p.m. wasn’t pointless puritanism. It was preparation. College instilled the responsibility the real world demanded. To finish college, young women needed to stay out of trouble. Trouble happened at night. Trouble happened when skirts were too short. Trouble happened down in scary places like Florida.

From the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, deserved or not, Florida’s state universities had a reputation for being less than accommodating to feminine virtue. Parents across the Sunshine State soon saw the Housing That Cater Built as a conservative alternative to Florida’s “taxpayer-funded whorehouses,” a term a Florida State regent, disgusted with the school’s male visitation policy, made headlines for repeatedly using to describe FSU dorms in 1971.

Even as Auburn slowly began relaxing its rules in the early 1970s, Cater’s files were filled with letters from fathers praising her for fighting against free love and feminism. Little did they know that Cater, the Prude of the Plains, was herself a feminist.

“Feminist” might clash with the image of Cater in the minds of many, but if you read the profile titled “Today’s New Woman” in the Sept. 27, 1964, issue of the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer Sunday Magazine, the one with Dean Cater on the cover posing at the old Ross Square fountain behind Samford Hall, it’s there.

Sure, there’s stuff about advising young women to “work hard and say no,” but the story, like much of her personal correspondence, mostly paints Cater as a civic-minded circuit rider preaching women’s rights across the South.

“It is evident that much remains to be done in this area (of women’s rights),” Cater told the paper before quoting John F. Kennedy, a personal hero she asked to speak at Auburn in 1957.

She ponders the gender pay gap, advocates for greater female representation in politics and, despite being a staunch Democrat, praises Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith for running for president that year, because why shouldn’t she?

Cater bemoaned what she claimed was a recent decline in female college enrollment, the dwindling number of women seeking advanced degrees and an alarming recent trend among married coeds: dropping out of school to support their husbands.“What is so tragic about this is, while she is sacrificing her education for his, he advances and leaves her behind,” Cater said. “She doesn’t continue to develop intellectually, and literally as well as figuratively, she is left behind!”

Cater understood that many women needed “the intellectual stimulation of outside work,” but also insisted that there was “no area of activity in which women participate that is more important than that of the home.

“In spite of all of the other accomplishments that women have made and in spite of what some writers have said to the contrary, homemaking remains their most important activity.”

Dean Cater and Opposition to Male Visitation push a door closed on Progressive Women's rules.

And why wouldn’t it be? To Cater, the home was “the chief conserver of our moral and spiritual heritage.” Strong families meant a strong America. A strong America meant a strong world. To be a homemaker was to practically be a humanitarian, not a maid.

“Homemaking is important because this means human relations, learning to live with other people, the give-and-take of life, developing understanding,” Cater said.

At Auburn, the elected officers of Associated Women Students, a student governing body completely autonomous from the SGA, prescribed and even enforced standards for Auburn women—under Cater’s supervision.

“The girls have found that they can enjoy college life to the fullest at the same time they prove themselves to be responsible members of the student group,” Cater said. “Our women are willing to assume responsibility for their actions and to abide by rules and regulations.”

Then those rules and regulations became illegal.

Letter to John Kennedy from Dean Cater about him coming to visit

In 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act decreed that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex…be subjected to discrimination under any education program.”

At Auburn, the implications were far-reaching. No curfews for men. No curfews for women. But it was more than that, and it went both ways.

“Katharine Cater was kind of the quintessential iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove Southern woman,” said Charles Schroeder, tasked in 1973 with rehabilitating Magnolia Hall, Auburn’s lone, infamously dilapidated male dormitory. “She kind of ruled the roost, so to speak, and there was one tremendous advantage to that.”

That advantage was the living conditions for Auburn women.

“Just as the Auburn Athletics program had to provide access to intercollegiate athletics for women, Katharine Cater had to provide (male students) access to a residential experience proportionate to what women had at Auburn,” Schroeder said.

AU President Harry Philpott ordered two women’s dorms to be converted to men’s, forcing at least some triple occupancy in 20 of the 24 women’s residence halls. “Auburn,” Schroeder said, “was the only place in the country where (Title IX) advantaged men and not women.”

By 1975, it was over. The Plainsman’s top Oct. 2 headline?

Philpott explains Title IX; Sex Discrimination Must End.

To Katharine Cater, it might as well have been an obituary.

“The Women’s Dormitories have remained crowded, even though we do not require girls to live in the dorms any longer,” Cater told a former student in June 1976. It was one of the last letters she signed as dean of women. A month later, nearly 30 years to the day she got the job, her position was phased out. Cater was reassigned to be Auburn’s “dean of student life”; Title IX wouldn’t even allow her to keep her title.

“We have had very few rules and regulations this year and next year we will have even fewer since Title IX requires that men and women be treated the same,” Cater wrote. “I feel that in the rush for equality women are losing a great deal of their superiority.”

And London Fog lost a lot of business.