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Fredonia Academy

Fredonia Normal School

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Fredonia Normal School, 1867-1942

As the Civil War began, so did the decline of the academy, and in 1867, it was reborn as one of four New York State Normal Schools established that year. The normal school functioned much like the academy, but with a stronger emphasis on recruiting teachers to stay in New York State after their training. Not charged for tuition or textbooks, all students signed a declaration to teach within New York State after completion of their studies. Programs ranged from kindergarten to high school, with special certificates in art and music. At this time pianist Jessie Hillman joined the normal school faculty. By sponsoring "teas," the talents of her music students were shared with the community. A gifted teacher, she was also known for her quiet generosity to students in financial need. Today's Hillman Memorial Music Association and the college's annual Hillman Opera are named in her honor.

The earliest personal interviews conducted were with women who attended the normal school in the 1920s and '30s. At this time, the country was fighting to emerge from the Great Depression and women were struggling for equal rights. Women suffered the effects of the Great Depression as marginalized persons in a collapsing economic and social order. Women and children, especially women of color, comprised the majority of the poorest sector of American society. Many were homeless, ill-nourished, and unable to find desirable work. The women of the normal school were privileged to receive an education and respectable jobs as teachers.

The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote, was adopted only eight years before Claire Weatherby Aldrich, Class of 1931, first attended the normal school in the fall of 1928. The Prohibition movement, in decline at that time, had been intertwined with the drive for women's suffrage and served as an avenue for women to express their political and social beliefs, while meeting and organizing around a common concern: the safety of women. The new "flapper" culture expanded the norms for young women, and even in a small town like Fredonia, women were listening to new music and bobbing their hair. Aldrich remembers the "waves of fashion" that came from "The City," and recalls how women were wearing short skirts, smoking, and going out dancing. Despite this new freedom, Fredonia women endured dress codes. According to the Student Handbook issued in the fall of 1939, they were not permitted to wear pants, and "must always wear dress shoes, skirts, or dresses." Hats were preferred. Women with long hair were encouraged to keep it "neat and tidy in a bun."

Students lived with local families or in large, crowded houses with dorm mothers. They usually paid rent by working around the house, babysitting, and serving meals. Dean of Women Mary Cranston ran an employment office for women students looking for jobs. Dean Cranston would give permission and also set the hours the women were allowed to work. Women students had a 10 p.m. curfew Sunday through Thursday, which extended to midnight on Friday and 12:30 a.m. on Saturday. Male visitors were allowed only on the porches or family rooms of the student houses. The rules were very strict and obeyed because the college acted "in loco parentis." Many of these regulations were not changed until the early 1970s.

Madalyn Henneman Lefferts, Class of 1942, came to Fredonia in 1938. She resided in a house with 26 women. The women ate dinner together and took turns cooking and grocery shopping. Since Lefferts came from a family "where women did not go to college," she supported herself by working 40 hours a week babysitting and housecleaning for a professor's family.

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