SINISTER SUGGESTIONS by Dr. Karen Stephen: The World As It Was in October 1961

Clips from the October 1961 issues of the Stanford Daily tell it all. This is the world that greeted this author as a freshman at Stanford University that fall. It is also the world inhabited by the fictional characters in Sinister Suggestions, the author’s first book in the Stanford Daily Mysteries series, centered on young journalists on the campus newspaper solving crimes on and off campus. View suspenseful book trailer.

The LOOK for the men on campus. Levi Jeans with rolled up cuffs, loafers, and an attitude for less than a latte now days.

The look for the women on campus. This author never was and never would be that thin!

Main character Mattie Thorne has her own dress style: Back in her room, [Mattie] threw on her teal and charcoal plaid, pleated wool skirt with its matching neck scarf—that she had laboriously sewn in a Singer sewing class back in her high school days—and trotted down to breakfast.

World politics at your fingertips if you weren’t busy trying to get a date (which would have been this author’s daily endeavor), trying out for Rally Club (my dormmates), or studying for your Chemistry exam (which should have been me!)

And the even scarier international news. The Russians STILL seem to be the problem!

Reaction on campus: By Monday morning, all staffers were being encouraged, no, ordered to return to covering other stories of the day. It wasn’t hard to find one worthy of attention. News had broken via an early morning television alert that Russia had exploded a 50-megaton bomb in the atmosphere. Joe was doing his bit to mobilize a massive protest—a 24-hour “lie-in” on the main library lawn. Similar protests were being organized at Cal Berkeley and San Francisco State. Petitions to ban atmospheric nuclear tests were being distributed across all three campuses as well as across the nation. Even Palo Alto was scheduled to have a peace march in the morning for elementary through college students.

Stanford students were introduced to the classics with luminaries like Dame Judith Anderson coming to campus at bargain prices.

At the same time, students were encouraged to smoke with huge advertisements on almost every page of every issue of the Daily, including this very sexist series sponsored by Pall Mall. And, yes, this author smoked at the time.

And last, but not least, we have the new Dean of Women, who appears center stage in the novel with her sexist lectures on the role of women at Stanford. The very one who, in real life, sent this author a letter at the end of the year requiring me to get counseling if I was to return to Stanford the next fall (which I didn’t do). A novel excerpt taken from a Daily article on character Mattie Thorne’s reaction to the Dean’s speech to freshman women:

As Mattie read through the account, she realized she had been there. She remembered being outraged by the first question the Dean posed—the same evil woman who, weeks later, would be sending her threatening letters about not attending class. The offending question was quoted verbatim in the article. Can an educated woman be a person of charm and integrity, a scholar, a helpful wife and mother, and a loveable woman? What had occurred to Mattie at the time was why the hell would any self-respecting woman want to be all those things? She hadn’t gotten a combined SAT score of 1490 and fought her way into Stanford to attend charm school, nor to find a husband and pump out babies, although perhaps some of the other girls had.

Mattie had come from a long line of educated women. Her mother, to her credit, had graduated from the prestigious University of Chicago in 1937 with a degree in Political Science—although the mores of the day never allowed her to pursue her dream of becoming a city manager. Instead, she had worked as a medical secretary all her life—until, that is, she married her well-to-do dimwit second husband when Mattie was sixteen. Even more significant, Mattie’s maternal grandmother had received a bachelor’s degree from Ohio Wesleyan University in the early 1900s and taught Latin and German prior to her marriage. Following in the family tradition of educated females, Mattie had applied to Stanford with the intention of carrying through to medical school and finding a cure for cancer. Wow! She just remembered her goal in life. Now all she had to do was figure out how to undo the fact that she had screwed herself over on ever reaching it.

She read on, her animosity toward the Dean growing with each word. The Dean had described the stereotype of an educated woman as cantankerous, unreasonable, and an expert only in knowledge. Whereas 20th century men had the image of their fathers to look up to—fathers who were versatile people, good hosts, sportsmen, fathers, husbands, as well as competent executives. Mattie guessed that her own alcoholic father, who had abandoned the family shortly after her birth, broke the mold. When the Dean ended her presentation by suggesting the women could meet in small groups with her for further discussion, Mattie remember thinking at the time, the hell I will. Right now, however, she would give her right arm to meet her face to face and give her a piece of her mind for sending out threatening letters to young women who were in dire straits.

SINISTER SUGGESTIONS by Dr. Karen Stephen – The Stanford Daily Archives: A Treasure Trove for This Novelist

Although I have my own memories of attending Stanford as a freshman in the Fall of 1961, my memories are selective (and fading!) and do not fully reflect the historic times nor the nuances of life on the Stanford campus and in the world during that early Sixties era. Which brings us to the Stanford Daily Archives, which touts its online, searchable collection of 18,931 issues dating back to 1892–well over a million articles written and edited by Stanford student journalists.

One of the most pertinent articles in terms of the storyline of my novel was an Campus Opinion piece written by Bill Griffin on October 25, 1961. I have a clear memory of the buzz in Roble Hall (one of the women’s freshman dorms) the day of the annual Full Moon event, a campus tradition that had been long touted as a means for a Stanford “girl” to become a “woman”–by being kissed by a Senior in the Inner Quad on the night of the Harvest Moon. For the first time in my young life, I had an honest-to-goodness boyfriend, and by some miracle, he was a Senior. Not that he hadn’t been working on my “womanhood” on his own for the past few weeks, but even he declared that the event was too raunchy and felt it inappropriate for me to attend. He explained how frosh men had traditionally disrupted the event. I never knew the full extent of the sexual violence that took place that night until I read Bill Griffin’s account in researching my novel (I wasn’t much of a reader of the Daily at the time–too busy majoring in “boyfriend”). The up side? Given my history of childhood maltreatment, it would have certainly been a traumatic experience had I attended.

Here is a portion of Griffin’s first hand account:

The girl, surrounded by a pack of animals screaming “Rape her! Rape her!” and other unprintable slogans, panicked and ran.

SHE WAS CHASED into one of the garden circles on Quad, and again surrounded. She there became trapped in the thick bushes, while the freshmen shined flashlights on her and continued their screaming.
Several of these brave defenders of their class’ honor fought their way through the bushes, grabbed the girl from behind, and dragged her out into the open, where she was thrown down, then picked up and held so more freshmen could throw their water on her.

By the time her date and myself had gotten to the center of he mob and the girl was freed she had lost both her shoes, had skinned both knees, torn her clothing, and was extremely frightened.

AND ALL THE while the mob of “mature, intelligent, well rounded individuals” stood around screaming for “Rape!” and “Hold her up! Do it again!” 

There were subsequent follow-up articles in the Daily, including a front-page headline story on October 27, 1961, written by then Editor Jerry Rankin, minimizing the incident and providing rationalizations that are employed to this day when defending incidents of sexual violence on college campuses. As if dousing women with buckets of ice water was inconsequential, much less screaming “rape them” and physically attacking them.

Here is a portion of Rankin’s article:

THE MATTER CAME to light when The Daily published a column Tuesday by Bill Griffin. Griffin was with the German girl and her German date (both Stanford students) when they were set upon by a group of freshman men.

[Head Wilbur dorm sponsor Jerry] Puttler said The Daily column was factually correct, but overstated the case. He noted that “very few” of the freshman men on Quad were involved in other than the usual water-bombing. Puttler listed three causes of the incident:

• An article in The Daily Monday morning telling of the full moon tradition and which, he said, gave many frosh the impression that their role in it was to turn out and water-bomb the seniors.
• The desire to let off steam after the morning Western Civ test.
• Failure of the sponsors to see the situation developing and to take action to head it off. “We should have seen it” coming, he explained. “We didn’t.”

The final outcome was that 150 freshman men “confessed” to being present and paid an average of 70 cents each for damage to the shrubbery and a broken window. No mention was made about the victims involved who were neither compensated, nor counseled, nor made amends to, although a few subsequent letters to the editor alluded to the inappropriateness of the event.

Looking back, the courage it took for a male student journalist to write that initial article is quite astounding. An act that we seldom see over sixty years later.

There were many other relevant articles about campus incidents and world events that wound their way into my novel. One of the most astounding being Bobby Kennedy’s statement that his brother, JFK, was considering using nuclear force against East Germany over the Berlin wall. My thought, wouldn’t than rain terror down on both sides of the Berlin Wall? Although my account involves Daily staffers solving two fictional unexplained deaths on campus, the true story of campus life, world events, even the sexist cigarette ads, the aptly named films, and the distinctive fashions of the day enlivened my novel in a way fiction never could. The Stanford Daily archives were a treasure trove indeed!

The Archives are indexed by date and are searchable. Pick a date that has significance time-wise for you, and read all about it. Even if you never set foot on the Stanford campus, I’m sure you’ll find relevant articles that will stir your own best and worst memories.

Enjoy watching my heart-pounding book trailer for SINISTER SUGGESTIONS.

SINISTER SUGGESTIONS is available in Kindle or paperback versions at Amazon