Filed Under Laura Kuykendall

Laura Kuykendall's Progressive Ideas

A first-wave feminist and advocate of student culture

For being such a beloved and respected figure within Southwestern’s leadership, Dean of Women (1918-1935) Laura Kuykendall was very progressive and even oppositional on certain matters. She advocated for myriad topics, such as broadening the “acceptable” fields for women to study, increasing sex education, encouraging a professional lifepath for women, normalizing youth culture, condemning beauty standards of the time, and advocating for women's mobility rights. Despite all of this, Laura Kuykendall has still been lost in the current campus’s collective memory. I wonder, how could a person so influential to the community, making so many bold stances for social progress, be forgotten?

Most prominently, Kuykendall was an advocate for expanding the boundaries of female higher education. She worked for the expansion of what fields were “appropriate” for women to engage with: “In addition to the traditional subjects, such as stenography, typewriting, and the various domestic science arts,” Kuykendall urged women to explore “bench work, cabinet work, factory woodwork, wood turning and pattern making, forging, automobile mechanics, machine shop practice and printing, mechanical, architectural and engineering drawing.” She saw these fields and subjects as viable for women and she saw women as completely capable of pursuing them with success. In her Master’s Thesis, Kuykendall asserted that “it has been a lack of opportunity that has caused women to seek the selection of certain subjects rather than her lack of ability to master them."

Additionally, Kuykendall, herself a professional woman who had never married or had children, advocated that a professional life path is a valid option: "Only a few years ago a woman found two avenues open to her. One was the way of marriage. the other the path of the spinster aunt… But today a young girl has the choice of a profession as a third way out." Kuykendall actively worked to normalize this woman’s professional path as a valid lifestyle for young women, and fulfilled/embodied this progressive stance herself, all her adult life, as a professional educator and Dean.

Along with this, Kuykendall also supported increased sex education. In her Master’s Thesis, Kuykendall dedicates an entire section to sex, detailing how a Dean should navigate the topic with her students. She posited that “if the boys and girls more fully understood their impulses the problem would be lessened." Although she references sexual activity as “a problem” here, she’s still actively advocating for a world in which it is socially acceptable, and encouraged, to discuss the topic so that students can be more educated on the matter. She began to break down the taboo nature of sexual discussion within private, church-affiliated institutions.

It should be acknowledged that Kuykendall’s thesis was written with the intention of being read by individuals–male individuals–in the upper administration or faculty. Though Kuykendall does challenge normative ideologies within the document, she largely had to adhere to the mission and vision of Southwestern at the time. So, this document resulted as less progressive than some of her other documented opinions from her time at Southwestern.

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One of Kykendall's more-progressive statements occurred while she served as a guest speaker at the convention of the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs in El Paso in 1927. During this speech, Kuykendall stated that “it is far better to have a petting party in a car, parked at the side of the road, than one in the shade of the trees, with the horse and buggy.” So, she herself admitted to having had sexual encounters, and even shared how to best get away with it! As for youth culture, Kuykendall said that “boys and girls are going hand in hand. I wish to tell you that is alright,” thus again, expanding the norms of relationship and sex culture at the time.

Building off of this, Kuykendall was a staunch advocate of youth culture. She believed that day’s younger generation was higher in intellect and fitter in physique, being “less credulous and keener to detect insincerity,” than past generations. She asserted that “one cannot expect the girls and boys to have the same manners and customs as those of their forefathers if present-day methods of living are different.” So, Kuykendall was very against the critique of young folk, advocating for the differences in their lifestyles from past ones to be accepted.

Kuykendall also disagreed with many of the body standards of her time, and supported youth fashion/beauty choices. In her same speech to the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs in El Paso in 1927, Kuykendall questioned the real difference between “the abbreviated skirt of [the youth] or the low cut yoke of olden days,” further stating that “the short skirt is not so bad.” Bobbed hair she called hygienic, and “the skins of the youths much better looking,” due to safer makeup formulations of the recent time.

As for female body standards, Kuykendall was very passionate about condemning the standards. She stated that “the mania for slimness of lines may be responsible for the fact that 80 percent of the girls are underweight.” In one of her personal scrapbooks, Kuykendall saved a poetry clipping given to her by one of her students. The poem, The Marry-Go-Round by Helen Rowland, points out the hypocrisy and extreme standard that women at the time were held to, specifically regarding maintaining one’s weight and figure. The poem ends with the line, “verily, verily, eternal suffering is the price of a Perfect Silhouette” (see full poem below).

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Clearly, Kuykendall was progressive in many of her opinions. We won’t ever know today whether or not her opinions were treated with respect or disagreement, but we do know that through all of her progressive opinions, Kuykendall was still highly regarded at Southwestern. Parents viewed their daughters as safe under her care, students viewed her as a close mentor and friend, and the rest of the administration recognized and appreciated all the various hats that she filled at the institution. In 1923, Kuykendall was even rewarded with a wage increase, to the same level as the male faculty!

Through all of this affection, Kuykendall was still able to make her radical opinions known. She did so, I believe, by strategically picking her battles, and giving her everything to Southwestern by fulfilling her various roles as Instructor, Dean, and event planner. With this much contribution to the Southwestern community, and with all the progressive opinions she held, Laura Kuykendall has still been lost altogether in today’s collective memory on campus. I wonder, how could a person so influential to the community, making so many bold stances for social progress, be forgotten?

Images

LK Passes Her Driving Test Laura Kuykendall pictured in a Ford Model T Touring Edition car from the early-to-mid 1920s. Source: SU Special Collections & Archives Creator: unknown Date: mid-1920s
Buggy Worse Than Auto Newspaper clipping referencing Kuykendall’s speech at the convention of the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs in El Paso in 1927 Source: Laura Kuykendall’s Scrapbook in SU Special Collections & Archives Creator: unknown Date: 1927
Portrait of Dean of Women Laura Kuykendall Source: SU Special Collections & Archives Creator: J.R. Stone Date: circa 1920s
The Marry-Go-Round poem Poem about body standards, given to Laura Kuykendall by student Annie Edward Barcus Source: Laura Kuykendall’s Scrapbook in SU Special Collections & Archives Creator: Helen Rowland
Laura Kuykendall's Thesis The front cover of Laura Kuykendall’s Master’s Thesis, entitled “The Dean of Women and Her Problems as Found on a Small University Campus” Source: SU Special Collections & Archives Creator: Laura Kuykendall Date: 1926

Location

Metadata

Teddy Hoffman '24, “Laura Kuykendall's Progressive Ideas,” Placing Memory, accessed June 15, 2024, https://placingmemory.southwestern.edu/items/show/11.