An Afternoon Tea: The stark traditionalism of Martha Cook dorm

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 - 7:00pm

An Afternoon Tea

An Afternoon Tea Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

As I pass through the doors of Martha Cook Residence Hall at the University of Michigan, I enter a hallway clad in wooden panels whose austerity of color and design evokes past eras. Brightly lit by ostentatious chandeliers and archaic windows, the space draws the eye to the Venus de Milo statue situated at the end of the hallway. To the left, near the windows, there’s a table that displays silver platters with perfectly manicured pyramids of cucumber sandwiches and chocolate pastries. The sound of laughter and the clinking of glasses echoes through the main floor. The effervescent atmosphere in the building can be felt as women stroll in and out of rooms in their formal dress: It is Friday afternoon tea time.

Walking into Martha Cook is like traveling back to the early 20th century. The halls and impeccable entertainment chambers feel unfamiliar and incongruous with the happenings and progressive values of our modern campus. The building, standing almost unchanged from the time of its inauguration, seems to be a world away from the University, yet it occupies a central place on our campus.

Coming to campus as a woman of color, I never questioned my place at this university. I believed myself to be as qualified and deserving of a world-class education as any other student who vowed to never step on the bronze block ‘M.’ Like most, I took a tour before officially enrolling as a student. My tour guide briefly signaled Martha Cook as a women’s only dormitory, but any thought or preoccupation with it was forgotten by the time we walked past. I was highly ignorant of the history of women on this campus and completely unaware of the origin of the word “coed.”

It wasn’t until one of my professors assigned a reading on Martha Cook that I first considered the history of women on campus. It should not have come as a surprise to read about the long-lasting paternalism faced by women on campus. However, the most jarring aspect of learning about this history was becoming aware of every blind tradition and system of oppression that has prevailed. I came to see the dormitory as a constant reminder that, despite being an enclave for progressive thinking and inclusion, the University of Michigan still held onto small artifacts of its exclusive past. But in my incredulity, I wanted to see this community firsthand, not satisfied to simply read critiques of it on paper.  

A resident pours tea in Martha Cook's Gold Room at afternoon tea Friday.

A resident pours tea in Martha Cook's Gold Room at afternoon tea Friday. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

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Once inside, I was ushered by the Tea Chair  — the member of the house board who organizes Friday teas — into the Gold Room. Heavy curtains framed the windows. An antique piano, Elizabethan furniture and two fireplaces adorned the room, which is illuminated by the dim light of gilded lamps and the reflection of the snow outside. Almost every chair or sofa was taken up by girls immersed in conversation. The majesty of the room astounded me, but it seemed to be a given for the rest of the girls who were sipping on their tea and eating cucumber sandwiches off of crystal platters.

Most of the girls who come to tea every week, like Business freshman Jacqueline Kenny, use it as an opportunity to socialize.

“I knew I didn’t want to rush a sorority, but I still wanted an all-female community where I could live and make friends so Martha Cook sort of fit the bill,” Kenny noted.

Martha Cook’s lively tea tradition may seem innocent from an outsider’s perspective, but an intuitive University student or community member may realize that the dormitory’s walls are tainted with a history of female oppression as well as racial and socioeconomic divides. The girls that once inhabited its rooms and walked its halls came from predominantly white, upper-class backgrounds with much more rigid social norms.

Women were first permitted to enroll in the University in 1870, and the first cohort of women arrived the following year. At the time of Martha Cook’s inauguration in 1915, they were still relegated to second-class status to their male classmates.

“All the spaces of a college campus were assumed to be for men, unless they were specifically carved out for women,” Carla Yanni, a professor of art history at Rutgers University, writes in an architecture journal. In fact, women were referred to as “coeds,” because “student” had implicitly only referred to males during the era.

The idea for a women’s dorm came about when the University Women’s League — an organization representing female students — discussed inadequate housing situations for its members. Plans were drawn for the construction of the first University-affiliated dormitory, which would also be women-only. Upon hearing of the project, William Cook — a wealthy lawyer, Michigan alum and namesake of the Law Library — immediately offered a large donation for the construction of this building.

However, once he saw the ideas originally brought forth by the Woman’s League, he deemed them insufficient and set forth a plan of his own. In exchange for his large donation, Cook ensured the building’s administrators were to follow a specific set of rules to create an environment that fostered a “model for gracious living,” according to the “Martha Cook Building History and Traditions” pamphlet.

As a patron, Cook intended for his building to “create young women of outstanding sophistication and savoir faire,” according to Yanni. Though portrayed as a beacon of egalitarianism, Martha Cook, Yanni explains, “was intended as a quasi-domestic retreat within the setting of a masculinist campus.”

The result of these guiding principles, and Cook’s place in society as a white upper-class male, created exclusivity in the Martha Cook residence hall. Only upper-class Anglo-Saxon women who intended to become caretakers of their homes were encouraged to reside in Martha Cook.

At the time of Martha Cook’s establishment, women’s dormitories were places where “coeds” needed to stay in order to be subdued and kept on the domestic and bridal tracks. In a way, these buildings typified gender repression and ensured educated women were always reminded of their place in society. As residents of Martha Cook, women typically aspired to be cultured housewives, and these aspirations were encouraged by invitations to dances, teas and other socials and “baby days” where they would practice taking care of faculty members’ children. The norms and environment of Martha Cook thus promoted their social status as second-class citizens and as domestic, inferior beings only deserving certain types of education.

Other than exemplifying the stereotypical roles of women, classism was ingrained in William Cook’s beliefs and practices when it came to his patronage of Martha Cook, despite his intentions to keep room and board accessible to less privileged women. Decades after the dormitory first opened its doors, Cook reversed his original belief and promoted his building as an exclusive space only meant for women of high class. In addition, he expressed his distaste for “blue stocking” women, who were known to have a “taste for literature and scholarship” according to Yanni.

Many current Martha Cook residents acknowledge the contrast of its original benefactor's values to those of its present residents. 

“(Cook) thought that women should go to finishing school, but then he was like, ‘Well I guess if you’re going to go to college, we are going to let you be in a place that looks like a finishing school,’” said Engineering junior Jenni Jasperse, house board president.

Even though the building still looks like a finishing school — a place where women went to be prepared to enter high society as housewives — Friday afternoon tea no longer suggests this. The girls I saw sitting in the Gold Room were typical University students talking about the Shapiro Undergraduate Library and complaining about their computer science or business classes.

As LSA junior Jillian Hurst said it, “What is important is that the building evolves their curriculum and their space to be inclusive of other walks of life and to adapt to the modernization of feminism and the female experience.”

Inside Martha Cook.

Inside Martha Cook. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

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Though all three all-womens' dorms on campus — including Betsy Barbour and Helen Newberry — originated in the same decade, only Martha Cook retains such a distinctive reputation. Since its establishment, Martha Cook has operated autonomously from the rest of the residence halls on campus. Amassing its own alumni association, board of governors and detailed instructions from William Cook’s will, the building has imposed traditions, like Friday afternoon tea, that can’t be found elsewhere on campus. This autonomy has allowed the dormitory to function on the periphery of University Housing, serving a largely homogenous cohort of self-selecting girls living in a unique situation.

Residents, or “Cookies,” as they refer to themselves, reside in a limbo between the modern campus and the old-fashioned traditions that regulate their home. They are modern, intelligent and diverse women who have chosen — or, in the case of legacy women, have been prompted by their families — to live in a place that still upholds the traditionalist values of a man who lived a century ago. The surface Martha Cook experience, as exemplified by formal dinners, dress codes and century-old traditions, is being challenged every day by its residents.

Residential life in Martha Cook, like everything else on campus, has changed throughout the years. Today, women can freely use all campus facilities without second thought. For the most part, women are treated equally by professors, advisers and University staff. Teas are only once a week instead of every day, and women are now allowed to wear pants in the Gold Room. In addition, the women attending Friday afternoon tea today are not preoccupied with marriage or entertaining their male counterparts.

The Alumni Association of Martha Cook has instituted the “gap” scholarship which subsidizes the difference in the cost of housing between other University housing and the significantly more expensive Martha Cook dormitory. In this way, a woman from any class who wants to live in Martha Cook, and demonstrates financial need, is able to do so if awarded this scholarship.

Even though traditions have evolved since its inauguration, Martha Cook’s preservation of traditional values and gendered experiences poses many questions about its design and purpose. Its regulations still include “boy hours” — limiting the hours when members of the opposite sex could be present, and only if escorted by a resident — and a restricted meal plan that, except for Saturday evenings and lunch on North Campus, requires residents to have all of their meals in the Martha Cook dining hall.

This old-fashioned and mostly homogenous space stands in stark contrast to the experiences of other women on campus who are not residents of Martha Cook.

Women not originally intended or allowed to live in the building by William Cook now enjoy the perks and experience the challenges of being a Cookie. Hurst, who only happened to be at afternoon tea because she was fulfilling her required “tea service” hours, expressed her indifference toward the building’s history. 

“There are a lot of institutions on this campus that have roots in things that don’t benefit me as a woman of color, but I have to fight my fight elsewhere,” she said. “I think that the way I overcome that is just by living in this building and getting my education and working my way out.”

As I interviewed modern day Cookies, I learned this indifference is widespread. Cookies are not fully aware of, or at least are not preoccupied with, the history of their residence hall. They occupy its rooms and follow its traditions without thinking about the implications of its history. By overlooking this history, Cookies uphold Martha Cook's image of a residence hall peopled by, as expressed by Hurst, “predominantly upper middle-class women with values and interests I can only describe as traditional.”

As for me, visiting Martha Cook was an eye-opening experience. As a self-proclaimed feminist, the persistence of this building on our campus was initially alarming, but when I walked out and said my last goodbye to the Venus of Milo, I was more understanding of the value given to the building by its residents. I realized that the residents and staff didn’t dwell on its history, and instead viewed the dorm as their home and a place to be proud of.

William Cook’s beliefs still permeate the environment in the dorm; however, they seem to be set aside by the members of the Martha Cook community. Modern Cookies are a part of the everyday campus, but at night, when they retire to their rooms that stand mostly untouched, they are living an alternative reality and in some ways, upholding old-fashioned values that contrast our modern campus.