Double Standards Anyone? An Essay on the Societal Norms of the Arden Club and SMU, 1916 – 1918

Societal norms differ with each passing time period and culture. Whether it has to do with sex, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, family and economic background etc., these norms create a foundation for society and dictate how groups in society are supposed to act, less them taking the risk of being ostracized. Race and gender are the most prominent when it comes to the analysis of societal norms, but the one that was most prevalent in documents regarding SMU’s Arden Club referred solely to gender. The societal norms and contrasting sets of rules for males and females in the Arden Club, SMU, and Dallas as a whole are worthy to note as a source of context when researching the beginnings of SMU’s theater department and the Meadows School of the Arts. Such sets of rules, mainly for women, put certain restrictions on how they should look and conduct themselves on and off the stage which ties into how society viewed women at the time and it is important to notice these subtle hints of misogyny when reviewing the history of the Arden Club.

First, the time period and historical context must be addressed in order to understand the societal rules that came with it. The Arden Club began in 1916 and ended in 1969, but the focus shall be on the club’s first years, 1916 – 1918. During this time, The First World War had been going for two years since 1914 and the United States entered the war in April of 1917. Drafts of young men to fight for their country and anxieties during the war were at an all time high. It is difficult to think of how in a world at war, people still needed to worry about mundane tasks as well try to figure out a way to have fun so that they forgot about the chaos happening around them. Indulging in the arts and going to plays was one of the ways people got away from it all as well as established a united community during a time when everyone was worried about the state of their country and what the future would bring.

Second, there were also unspoken societal standards for males and females in general as well as the rules for SMU students as they attended the university. On campus, smoking was not allowed in any buildings, and girls were not allowed to smoke at all. This is one of the first encounters of regulated and legalized discrimination against women that was shown through researching the Arden Club. Never mind that smoking is unhealthful with its cancer causing properties. The fact that women did not have the choice to decide whether or not they wanted to smoke shows an ingrained societal bias against women. More encounters of subtle bigotry could be found in the following: girls [could] not wear their hair short, ride in an automobile unchaperoned, and girls had to dress nicely for dinner (Abbot viii). In addition, students were required to attend a daily chapel service during the week and everyone on campus was supposed to attend church on Sunday as well as sign in. However, while this may seem like a mandatory rule for all students, it can be proven that the restriction was more heavily focused on female students. According to Billy Mack Abbot who wrote his thesis on the history of the Arden Club in 1951, “If a girl had a date on Sunday night, it was with the understanding that she was going to church.” Let that sink in. Why is it that this supposed “understanding” wasn’t present for boys? Coincidence? I think not.

Lastly, even with all the limitations that were placed on women, it is important to note the pivotal figure and founder of SMU’s Arden Club as well as the trials and obstacles she had to face to get the club established and stay afloat. For without her, SMU’s theater department would not be like it is today. Mary McCord was a professor at San Antonio Female College who came to SMU to be the head of its speech department. However, when she arrived and began to teach her female students, they expressed a heavy interest in establishing a theater department (Abbot 3). Due to the constant imploring of her pupils, she went to the president of SMU at the time, Dr. Robert S. Hyer, and asked if she could begin the makings of a theater department. He turned her down flat and she had no choice, but to resume her teaching. Then, later in April 1916, Dr. Hyer approached Ms. McCord saying he wanted to have a Shakespearean play at commencement. McCord was baffled, and who wouldn’t be when she was completely and utterly dismissed just a few months ago when she had suggested the idea of a theater department, only to have Dr Hyer turn around and ask for her help in its founding.

The SMU newspaper The Campus which would later be known as The Daily Campus published an article on April 21, 1916 about the Shakespearean play As You Like It and wrote it was a “celebration of William Shakespeare’s death.” McCord said that she thought that Dr. Hyer’s sudden desire to have a play at commencement was “attributed…more [to] a desire on the part of Dr. Hyer to create a festive atmosphere at the first commencement and, at the same time, to enrich the cultural activities of the City of Dallas which had been sharply curtailed because of the war” (Abbot 5). The year of 1916 was also the “tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death” which was celebrated all around Dallas and Dr. Hyer knew this and it probably influenced him to suggest the play. Nevertheless, it is worthy of attention that McCord proposed a similar idea a while back and was ignored, only to later have to hurriedly produce and cut together a shortened and adapted version of As You Like It due to time constraints brought forth by Dr. Hyer’s sudden change of mind and the lack of experience from the cast (Abbot 5). This scenario heavily references the one where someone puts forth an idea and no one heard it or decided to ignore said person all together, only to have someone else announce the same idea later as if it was their own and everyone thinks it is the most amazing and clever idea in the history of mankind, completely disregarding the person who actually came up with it first.

McCord would continue on to recruit students, especially young boys for her plays and slowly but surely established the Arden Club with well performed adaptions of Shakespearean productions that soon were recognized all over Dallas and even Texas (Abbot 31). Even when the war drafted most of her male leads or due to a heavy downpour which caused a play they were rehearsing to be moved from the large outdoor space known as the Arden Forest to a smaller confined space that was the chapel on the third floor of Dallas Hall, McCord never gave up and continued to think of intelligent workarounds for these problems to produce plays that The Campus, fellow students, and Dallas citizens raved about. A review from The Dallas Morning News about the play is as follows: “ARDEN CLUB PRESENTS PLAY AT DALLAS HALL – STANDING ROOM AT A PREMIUM” with the comment “The play was presented in … a very effective manner ….  Every character was presented with the vividness and originality of experienced actors” (Abbot 26).

The early 1900s was a time of dissention, war, depression, recession, extravagance, and arts. Society was in disarray and did not really know what to do with itself as chaos ravaged and shook its very core. The contrasting standards between men and women were very real and very prominent, but for the times, people deemed them necessary so that some type of order could be established. The rules, spoken and unspoken, that were set for female students on SMU’s campus were subtle in their discrimination, but present nonetheless. Again this can also be attributed to the time period and the world is slightly different now, but it still does not excuse the fact that girls were constantly restricted in what they were allowed to do with their appearances and what they were allowed to do regarding their actions. In addition, it was also interesting to note McCord’s interactions with Dr. Hyer throughout the Arden Club’s first years and how she had to pick and choose her battles when it came to discussing ideas about the club to him. And she still as well as all the female students had restrictive regulations to follow or fear getting fired/disbanded. These findings are significant and should be noted when discussing and trying to understand the founding and inner workings of the Arden Club for historical context. Even though humanity has come a long way in tolerance, acceptance, and equality, it still has a long way to go, especially when it comes to equality both governmental and societal amongst the sexes. Double standards anyone? I’ll pass.

Kayla Griffis

Works Cited:

Abbott, Billy Mack. “A History of the Arden Club of Southern Methodist University from 1915 to 1942 …” Thesis (M.A. in Speech and Theater)–S.M.U., 1951. Print.