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Recollecting the Penn my daughter called her own.

By Sally Friedman

The boldest thing I ever did as a Penn coed back in the late 1950s was to join a group of rebels who wore Bermuda shorts to class. We felt so daring and brave as we marched into College Hall and stripped off our raincoats, kneecaps exposed.

We were, you should know, the generation that wore mid-calf pleated skirts and demure sweaters, and coaxed our hair into careful pageboy fluffs. Our aspiration was to look as much like advertising’s Breck girls as we could, mimicking that silky hair that seemed to turn under on its own, naturally blonde and virginal.

I was a member of that Silent Generation, the one that worshipped the twin gods of caution and conformity. We liked Ike, dated Penn men who were going to be engineers and lawyers, believed in Revlon, and figured that if we were lucky enough to be at the University, we’d better not make any ruckus. If the best room in Houston Hall—the one with the oriental rugs and an in-tune piano—was off limits to coeds, so be it. We weren’t about to storm the barricades.

In the School of Education, which might as well have been a nunnery, I can’t recall a single class with men. Ladies-in-waiting for the brass ring—marriage—we had been programmed by our mothers to get that teaching degree because it was something you could always “fall back on.” And those three words were really code for the poor souls among us who might never marry, or might suffer divorce or widowhood—a cruel departure from the standard script: marriage, kids, the end.

So it took some adjusting for this member of the Class of 1960 to send a daughter off to Penn in the era after Betty Friedan had awakened women to the startling notion that the world was larger than a baked potato, and that marriage, lovely as it was, was not the finish line. Aspirationally, Amy and I might have come from different planets. At 18, her worldview was so much vaster than mine had been that it was sometimes tough to tease out the strands that connected us as mother and daughter.

Amy went off to Penn in 1982, buoyant and confident, 22 years after I had graduated and married within the span of two weeks. She lived in the Quad, plunging into the place as if she’d been waiting all her life for the day they gave out the room keys to the Mask & Wig dorm, with guys everywhere, including the next bathroom over. It was her first Penn home, 18 miles from her old one, and we never saw her. The family joke was that Amy had fled to Siberia, never to be heard from again.

I missed her like crazy. Of our three daughters, Amy had been the sparkplug who ignited home life for the rest of us. But sprung from quaint, Quaker Moorestown, New Jersey, to this urban paradise, our daughter had found a homeland.

Then, one day early in her sophomore year, she called home, breathless with excitement. She had gotten into Bloomers, she told us. Bloomers! 

There was a silence at our end of the line. What was Bloomers, and what made it such a big deal that Amy had actually called to tell us about it? 

Amy assured me that nothing in her life to date had ever been as momentous as this. She had survived auditions that left some of her friends shaken and weepy. She was in.

I thought I understood the what of Bloomers. It was an all-female comedy troupe created in 1978 that wrote and performed its own material—a breakthrough on a campus dominated by Mask & Wig. But the phenomenon only came into real focus when Amy’s father and I took our seats in an upstairs space in  Houston Hall and watched a dozen or so young women prove that they could be clever, funny, outrageous, and racy. Very racy.

We were dazzled. Amy was in the thick of it, and I couldn’t help wondering how much of the material had come from her pen.  I wanted to know these zany young women who were now Amy’s soul sisters. I wanted to shed my own 1950s inhibitions and just plain celebrate the liberating notion that college girls—oops, women—could be snide and salacious and saucy.

By her senior year, Amy was the chair and director of Bloomers, which meant that we truly never saw her. The group had claimed and framed Amy’s Penn life.

It had also touched mine in surprising ways. Along with playing den mother when the troupe needed a home-cooked meal and a place with some soft furniture, I was coming to know them as intriguing people. And I was seeing, up close, how the world of Penn had changed for my daughter’s generation. There was a certain fierceness about these 20-year-olds, a kind of raw courage about life that I’d never felt. Nor was Penn a place where they felt like guests at somebody else’s party. It was their place; no by-your-leave, do-we-dare hesitancy. I was awed—and envious.

Recently, all of that came into sharper focus at two separate, yet oddly connected events.

Not long ago several of the local women of my Penn Class of 1960 came together for an informal lunch. It was at a classmate’s lovely Center City apartment, a far cry from the pizza joints where we commuters used to gulp down lunch. Talk of wars, terrorism, and a world in economic upheaval made our former lives seem downright prehistoric.  Yet we met knowing that there was far less time ahead of us than behind us, so there was a yearning just to pause, to reflect, and to remember. It was a wonderful day. But it was tinged with a deep sense of regret for some of us that our personal landscapes had been so flat, our futures so predictable, the sexism we faced so rampant. Four of the ten women seated around that table had married at 19 or 20. The rest had tied the knot before 30, and the majority of us were still in those first marriages.

All these years later, we were haunted by “what-ifs” about our place on the timeline.

Amy, who married at 37, also went to a reunion recently, this one to mark Bloomers’ 30-year anniversary. Decked out in her sleek Manhattan career wardrobe—and an ancient black Bloomers T-shirt—our daughter, now a children’s TV executive and mother of two, with some silver threads among the auburn, joined others in remembering Penn through the lens of the performing group. Several of their parents huddled in the back of the room at Houston Hall, just watching. I was one of them.

Our daughters hugged, reminisced, and of course re-enacted their zany skits. They were so happy, so proud of the Bloomers legacy. They loved their place on the timeline, harboring no regrets about when they came of age. They were accomplished women now, many with careers that they insisted reached back to Bloomers roots.

Amy felt like a Penn woman with deep affection and connection to this place. I felt like a stranger.

As I walked out of Houston Hall late that afternoon, I paused at the door of that room that I’d never entered during my four years at Penn—the one bedecked with those oriental rugs and that piano.

It looked smaller. Less awesome. And a group of women students were sitting around with the guys inside, looking absolutely at ease. I stared for a while. Then, head held high, I walked across the threshold.

No trumpets blared, no cymbals clashed.

But it still felt like a giant leap for an alumna of the Class of 1960.

Sally Friedman Ed’60 lives in Moorestown, NJ. A longtime essayist who contributes to national, regional, and local publications, she is also the mother of three daughters and the grandmother of seven astounding grandchildren.

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