The Cater Mystique

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The Cater Mystique

This is what a feminist looks like.

Everyone in school at Auburn before 1970 talks 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 told me when I interviewed her several years ago about her time at Auburn. “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 the art director of the 1970 Glomerata, the opening section of which railed against “an administration that would keep us sheltered.” 

Looking back, she’s convinced that the administration may have been on to something. 

“I know I’m sounding old-fashioned, but the way young women dress now on campus is just…”

Auburn women, Perry said, “were taught to respect ourselves. In the way we were taught to behave, we were taught to respect ourselves.”

And the woman who taught Auburn women to respect themselves was Katharine Cater.

Cater was easily 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 council and committee formed from her very first day on the job 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 passed away in 1980 at just 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 to study, asking for her secret. 

In Cater’s mind, the secret was simple: High standards.

To Cater, telling a freshman she had 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 at a man’s apartment. 

Trouble happened 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. 

Orlando native Deb Stringfellow, Miss Auburn 1973, remembers it well. 

Somewhere Not In Florida, USA.

“I remember the University of Florida had just allowed coed dorms and I went to visit a girlfriend that was going there, and I’ll never forget—I got up to go the bathroom and a guy came in, and I was like ‘ahhhhhhhh,’” Stringfellow said. “It was just too weird, and there was no curfew, and Auburn at that time was very strict. You had to sign in and out and you had to be back in the dorm, I think, at 10 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends, and if you were not in, they locked the door and you had to go see Dean Cater, and it was, you know, a big deal. And I was totally fine with that. I did not want guys to be in my dorm, and I didn’t want to have to worry about being decent going to the bathroom, you know?”

Stringfellow wasn’t alone. Parents across the Sunshine State soon saw the Housing That Cater Built as the conservative alternative to Florida’s “taxpayer-funded whorehouses,” a term a female 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 — an extended curfew here, an extra off-campus apartment permission there — her file cabinets steadily filled with letters from fathers praising her for fighting against free love and feminism. 

Little did they know that Dean Cater, the Prude of the Plains, Auburn’s Viceroy of Victorianism, was herself a feminist. Though that might clash with the lasting image of Cater in the minds of many Auburn alumnae, if you read the three-page profile titled Today’s ‘New Woman’ in the Sept. 27, 1964 issue of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer Sunday Magazine, the one with Dean Cater on the cover, in full color, posing at the old Ross Square fountain behind Samford Hall, it’s right there.

Sure, there’s stuff about her advising young women to “work hard and say no,” but the story, like much of her personal correspondence, mostly paints Cater (who traveled to conferences and conventions constantly) as a civic-minded circuit rider preaching women’s rights across the south’s shifting cultural landscape. 

“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 actually asked to speak at Auburn in 1957 as part of the Concert and Lecture Series (which, yes, she started). 

Kennedy, she said, “warned against being complacent about past progress and recommended action that women’s basic rights be respected as part of our nation’s commitment to human dignity, freedom, and democracy.”

Later she ponders the gender pay gap, advocates for greater female representation in politics, and accordingly (despite being a staunch Democrat) praises Republican senator Margaret Chase Smith for running for President that year, because why shouldn’t she?

She also bemoaned what she claimed was a recent decline in female college enrollment, the dwindling number of women seeking advanced degrees — Cater had master’s degrees from Mercer and Syracuse, and an honorary doctorate from Limestone College, her alma mater — and what she saw as an alarming 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!” 

If any of that sounds like something out of “The Feminine Mystique,” published just a year earlier, it’s because it kind of is. 

Cater not only read Betty Friedan’s manifesto of modern feminism, she bought it for at least one very influential colleague. 

“I certainly appreciate your sending me a copy of ‘The Feminine Mystique,’” Dianne McKaig, Southern Director of the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, wrote Cater shortly before the Ledger-Enquirer story ran. Cater had helped arrange McKaig’s May speech on the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women to the Alabama League of Women Voters; Cater sat on the League’s board, of course.

“You’re right that, in addition to being an interesting book, it is in line with my present work,” McKaig wrote. “I have been using ideas from the book in my latest speeches.”

… just maybe not in the speech she gave in Nashville that same year. 

When asked about automation’s effect on women in the workplace, McKaig joked that “they haven’t found a machine for having children, and when dinner time comes a man would rather have a woman (than a robot) opening the refrigerator and cooking at the stove.”

Cater still would have laughed. 

Because while Friedan deemed the home the cause of the existential angst supposedly sweeping suburbia’s kitchens, Cater deemed it the solution. Longing for professional fulfillment? Then embrace the most important job in the world, one women were uniquely qualified for due to their, in the words of Cater (quoting JFK), “great sensitivity to human need and opposition to selfish and corrupt purposes.”

It was a matter of perspective. 

Cater certainly understood that many women needed, as she put it, “the intellectual stimulation of outside work.” But she 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.” 

To Cater, that was just patently obvious — the home, she said, was “the chief conserver of our moral and spiritual heritage.” Strong families meant a strong America. A strong America meant a strong world. In other words, homemakers weren’t maids — they were humanitarians. .

“The primary efforts of women should be directed towards the protection of the human relationships in the home, the family unit,” she said, “for human relationships are more important than housekeeping methods.”

During Cater’s career, protecting human relationships in a rapidly changing world was tricky business. It got trickier every year. Between 1960 to 1980, America’s divorce rate more than doubled.

So… go to college!

“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 college one can learn a lot about life by contacts in the dorm, individual and group contacts, taking part in local affairs. Auburn is like being a part of a community.”

And at Auburn, women ruled their community. 

In fact, technically speaking, it wasn’t Cater, but the elected officers of Auburn’s Associated Women Students, a student governing body completely autonomous from the SGA, who 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. 

“We are proud… of the fact that our women students are willing to assume responsibility for their own actions and to abide by rules and regulations.” 

Six years later, those rules and regulations became illegal. 

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 Dr. Charles Schroeder, the man tasked in 1973 with rehabilitating Magnolia Hall, Auburn’s lone, infamously dilapidated male dormitory. “She was very strong in terms of her convictions. 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 add, proportionately, sports for women to provide access to intercollegiate athletics, Katharine Cater had to provide (male students) access to a residential experience proportionate to what women had at Auburn,” Schroeder said.

It was an administrative nightmare. 

“We just went for a long period of time with the feeling that we were only building rooms for women,” Auburn University President Dr. Harry Philpott told the Plainsman. “If anyone compares Magnolia and South Women’s dorms, we’ve had it.”

To comply with the law, Philpott ordered two female dorms 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.”

When representatives of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare came literally knocking on Auburn’s door to gauge the university’s compliance with Title IX, Cater and Dean of Student Affairs James Foy, her partner in what was now literally considered a crime, did what they could to stall. Meetings. More meetings. Requests for clarification. Extensions.

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

Philpott explains Title IX; Sex Discrimination Must End. 

To a feminist like 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 wrote 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, the position was phased out. Auburn reassigned her as something called 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.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Auburn Magazine

from The War Eagle Reader

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