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Oh, sister: Sorority life in the time of girdles
It’s 1959, and Kathleen Andrews is doing what most girls her age are doing — what she can to find a suitable husband.
At her mother’s urging (or support, she hasn’t quite yet deciphered a difference), she’s enrolling in her first year at the University of Washington and pledging a sorority.
“Kathleen, your college years will be the best, perhaps the only period in your life to meet eligible men from good families,” her mother tells her.
And it’s like this that Cherie Tucker’s novel, “Hope Chest,” begins.
“It’s not an autobiography, but I lived it,” Tucker said.
College for Tucker and many girls during that time was about getting their MRS degree.
In the ’50s, women majored in either education or nursing as back-up professions until they met their future husbands. And Tucker joined a sorority with the same expectations as her book’s main character: a match.
A sisterhood in the ’50s was much different from the sisterhoods found on college campuses today. It wasn’t about philanthropy projects, study hours and fraternity parties with themes like, “Shots Around the World.”
Instead, an average sorority sister of the ‘50s would learn how to properly light a cigarette, whether or not she smoked. She was expected and required to wear a girdle. And exchange dates set up with partner fraternities were arranged by height, to avoid having a boy matched with a girl taller than him.
“This was during a time where there was no birth control for women,” said Tucker. “You held out until he gave you a ring.”
In fact, she said, there was a home on Lake Washington in those days for unwed mothers.
“Girls were expected to act and be a certain way, and no one questioned it,” said Tucker.
Nowadays they do what they call a “no frills rush” in the Northwest. It’s just a meet-and-greet, and you talk about philanthropy and grades. They don’t call it “rush” anymore, they call it recruitment. And the freshmen are called Potential New Members, not rushees.
“If you read it, you would be shaking your head every page,” Tucker said of her book.
Although “Hope Chest” is a fictional novel — except for the University of Washington’s victory at the 1961 Rose Bowl as it says in its first pages — it is informative for today’s young adults and a memoir for those who came of age during the ’50s and ’60s.
But again, it’s 1959 when Andrews enters college, and what school has not prepared her for is a transforming American society.
It’s a society that begins to accept married life isn’t always perfect, and single life isn’t always bad, explained Tucker. There’s life outside the expectations.
Also like Andrews, Tucker graduated from college in 1963, just as the second wave of the women’s movement was picking up pace.
“The women’s movement started when we got into the world,” said Tucker. “We watched the changes.”
All of a sudden, Nordstrom is advertising pantsuits paired with bow-like ties and briefcases. And women with daughters are seizing the opportunity to do things differently.
“It was hard for some people,” said Tucker. “It’s still hard for people.”
Tucker takes her readers on an introspective journey through the formative college years of the late 1950s and on through to the 1970s with her character Kathleen Andrews.
“[‘Hope Chest’] is about the eve of the women’s movement,” she explains.
Tucker’s self-published “Hope Chest,” is her first published novel.
Among her book writing, Tucker also owns GrammarWorks, where since 1987 she has specialized in teaching language skills to professionals. She has edited numerous books and writes a monthly column for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s online magazine.
Tucker graduated from the University of Washington where she took poetry under the instruction of Theodore Roethke and earned a B.A. in English. She now serves as an advisor to her college sorority.
Tucker will be at Eagle Harbor Book Co. at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 19 to speak about both her experiences in self-publishing and going to college at “the eve of the women’s movement.”