Ursula Joins a Cast of Hundreds

“Miss Maurine Bell, who will sustain a character symbolizing Sight in the Partheneia.” – "Oakland Tribune," April 6, 1920

“Miss Maurine Bell, who will sustain a character symbolizing Sight in the Partheneia.” – “Oakland Tribune,” April 6, 1920

As I noted in the last post, the excitement of recent world events had wound down by the time Ursula entered UC Berkeley, but the drama – literally – for her was just beginning. I learned from the activities listed in her senior yearbook entry that freshman Ursula was a member of the cast of the Partheneia, an original, open-air pageant or masque presented each spring term. It was the first of many dramatic productions in which she would participate during her time at UC Berkeley.

While the specific story of the Partheneia was determined each year by the results of a student-written script competition held in the previous fall term, the general theme was the transition from girlhood to womanhood. More than 300 women took part in the 1920 production, entitled “The Poets Answer,” which was based on the idea of Dante as the inspiration of the poet, and prominently featured dancing choruses. A two-day festival in April, it was the most elaborate Partheneia yet produced at the university, reported the Oakland Tribune, which also described it as “a charmingly colorful play of the Italian Renaissance period.”

According to Who’s Who Among the Women of California, the Partheneia pageant was considered representative of the best talent among the students of the current year.

“Women authors, women composers, women artists, women managers, women directors, women in the entire cast, in the male roles as well as the feminine roles; in fact women, exclusively, present the masque. They dye the cloth for their costumes, they design and make the costumes, they design the settings for the scenery-parts, they direct the orchestra.”

procession from the 1920 Partheneia

Photo of the procession from the 1920 Partheneia

The women presented the Partheneia outdoors among the natural scenery in the Faculty Glade. Again, from Who’s Who:

“Overhanging oak trees, a background of tall brush edging the creek over which are built practical bridges, form the wings of the stage where the students play their parts and register anew their appreciation of literature and the cannels for original expression.”

An Oakland Tribune news brief announcing the postponement of the second day’s show due to rain also noted, “This festival is regarded as one of the most successful yet staged by college girls.”

Not everyone was pleased, however. Perhaps emblematic of the time’s ingrained sexism women students had to contend with at the co-ed school, a male reporter writing in the UC Berkeley student newspaper panned the production in “most ungentlemanly” (and, I must say, funny) terms, drawing protests from the university’s female students. One thing he complained about was the lack of skin revealed by the fair young ladies! Here is a report of the controversy by the Oakland Tribune on April 9, 1920:

 From the "Oakland Tribune," April 9, 1920

From the “Oakland Tribune,” April 9, 1920

According to the University of California, the first Partheneia was presented on April 6, 1912. It was produced regularly until interest in pageantry declined generally and was discontinued in 1931.

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Brave Young Woman in a Brand New World

Wheeler Hall, the UC Berkeley building at the center of the College of Letters and Science, in which Ursula was enrolled

Wheeler Hall, the UC Berkeley building at the center of the College of Letters and Science, in which Ursula was enrolled

It was the fall of 1919 when Ursula began her freshman year as one of 5,250 students enrolled in the College of Letters and Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Just one year before, as World War I was ending, the University was contending with the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, according to a fascinating article in the Chronicle of the University of California. Almost a quarter of the campus community had contracted the disease, which took the lives of 20 students. The story reports:

“The most serious influenza epidemic to date would witness university buildings converted into make-shift hospitals, a segment of the campus quarantined, women students working as assistant nurses and “flu mask” manufacturers, public activities curtailed, classes canceled and spring semester delayed.”

By the time Ursula embarked on her college career, the Berkeley campus was back to normal. But that didn’t mean the drama was over; for Ursula — leaving home and donning her new independence — it was just beginning. In fact, the drama for her commenced two weeks before the start of school. As the Oakland Tribune reported on August 26, 1919:

From the "Oakland Tribune," August 26, 1919

From the “Oakland Tribune” 

“For three weeks the social fate of many of the freshman co-eds at the University of California has hung in the balance, but now the strenuous rushing season is over, and the sororities have mailed the bids to the successful ‘rushees.’

It is the custom of the women’s organizations to ‘rush,’ or entertain, a number of freshman co-eds for two weeks prior and one week after the opening of the college semester…”

Upon paging through an online digital scan of UC Berkeley’s Blue and Gold yearbook covering the college year 1919-1920, I discovered that Ursula was one such rushee. There on page 523, row 6, I saw her face peering out from among more than 40 other young women. She had apparently passed muster (I’m not surprised), and was one of several freshman women accepted into Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA).

Ursula's photo is among the Zeta Tau Alpha member portraits for the academic year 1919-1920

Ursula’s photo is among the Zeta Tau Alpha member portraits for the academic year 1919-1920

This national sorority was founded in 1898 at the Virginia State Female Normal School. The UC Berkeley chapter’s handsome, two-story house was located just north of campus at 1700 Euclid Avenue; the cost of board and lodging would have been between $30 and $50 a month.

The Zeta Tau Alpha house where Ursula lived with her sorority sisters

The Zeta Tau Alpha house where Ursula lived with her sorority sisters

A 2012 article in the Daily Californian noted that the chapter had participated in such service projects as volunteering in all-campus Red Cross drives during World War I and “adopting” a French orphan, which entailed sending funds to an overseas organization for the child’s care.

ZetaTauAlphaSeal_1921yrBookThe ZTA charter states that the sorority’s purpose is “to intensify friendship, promote happiness among its members, and in every way to create such sentiments, to perform such deeds, and to mould such opinions as will conduce to the building up of a nobler and purer womanhood in the world.” I imagine and hope that, as a freshman entering a new and exciting world, Ursula found such friendship and happiness during her time with ZTA.

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