Rules and Regulations: The Davidson Gentleman
“When a student registers for work at Davidson College [...] he signifies [...] his willingness to try and measure up to the standards expected of Davidson students. [...] This involves two things: (1) a willingness to conduct himself at all times as a Christian gentleman; (2) a desire to do a satisfactory quality of classroom work.”
Upon analyzing the Davidson “Rules and Regulations for Students of the College” pamphlets from 1928 and 1972, the image of the “Davidson Gentleman” emerges. Scattered throughout these handbooks are coded rules of conduct, gendered advertisements, and well-intentioned letters of advice – but what do they imply about the school’s expectations of what constitutes ‘normal’? Although the “Davidson Gentleman” is a figure woven across Davidson history through its inclusion in the handbooks, it’s never strictly defined. Accordingly, we attempt to unravel what this cultural figure is and how it subtly influences a culture of surveillance, normativity, and who finds belonging at Davidson College.
What is the Davidson Gentleman?
The “Davidson Gentleman” has been prominently featured in these pamphlets for decades. In the 1920s, Davidson students were annually encouraged to surveill and report “[students] unbecoming to a gentleman.” This indicates that to claim an identity of a gentleman, one had to commit to certain social norms of appropriate gendered behaviors. Additionally, the pamphlets featured heavy praise and gendered expectations of “honorable,” respectable, and “Christian” behavior. If a student deviated from the norms, this implied personal immorality.
The “Davidson Gentleman” not only extended to cover social values, but also to specific norms within relationships and dress. In 1944, the college stipulated that Davidson gentlemen “observe reasonable standards of propriety in the matter of dress” and defined their expectations for fully clothed students to always wear a “top shirt or its equivalent, trousers (not shorts), and shoes.” In establishing such rigid dress standards, the College encouraged strict expressions of proper masculine gender.
The pamphlets also address rules regarding cross-gender interactions, such as: “women are not permitted to be in dormitories except on college conducted tours.” This, along with other rules regulating interactions with women on campus, implies that the men who attended the college were homogenously heterosexual. The “Davidson Gentleman,” then, was a sexualized category that assumed heterosexuality and “respectable” gender expression in all behaviors. The assumed and expected masculine performance of heterosexual desire by “Davidson gentlemen” heterosexuality are especially encapsulated within the heteronormative advertisements the College chose to include for its all-male student body in the 1962 Wildcat Handbook ( a book of rules and resources given to students yearly) pictured below.
Phrases like: “Compliment your Girl,” and “[The Stag Shop had] all the right merchandise, the accepted and traditional clothing and accessories for young men,” imply that the College endorsed heterosexual relationships and gendered regulations to a fault. To be a “Davidson Gentleman,” one embraced hetersoexuality, performed their gender the “right way,” and ultimately, brought honor to the College.
The Davidson Gentleman as a Regulatory Category
In addition to being a category of normative gender, the “Davidson gentleman” has also served as a regulatory category throughout Davidson’s history, especially prior to coeducation in 1972. This is evident in Davidson’s archived collections of “Rules and Regulations” pamphlets given to students between 1928 and 1961. These pamphlets list the rules Davidson students were expected to follow and the consequences of breaking them. Between 1928 and 1941 in particular, one of the most prominent sections of these pamphlets was titled “Student Self Government.” This section outlined an honor system in which students were expected to hold each other accountable to and decide how to handle breaches of rules.
In this regulatory system, straying away from the status of the Davidson gentleman became more than a gendered misbehavior; it became a punishable infraction upon which one’s standing as an honorable member of Davidson’s community rested. Further, students were expected to surveil their peers, regulate their expressions of gender, and report any transgressions. This is evident in the following rule, repeated yearly and pictured below: “Every student is [...] to report to the council every instance of conduct on the part of a student unbecoming to a gentleman and a student of Davidson college.” The co-regulation of Davidson students around this idea of the Davidson gentleman is also evidenced in the 1953-54 Wildcat Handbook: “When a student registers for work at Davidson College [...] he signifies [...] his willingness to [...] conduct himself at all times as a Christian gentleman.” Being an honorable Davidson man, then, required a willingness to perform one’s masculine gender in a very particular way and submit oneself to peer-level and institutional ridicule and punishment upon one’s failure to do so.
Davidson students, then, were expected to perform normative gender not just through their own gentleman-like conduct, but through their surveillance and regulation of others. Davidson’s earliest regulatory frameworks constructed deviance from proper Christian manhood as a social offense that excluded one from acceptance and existence within the Davidson community. These regulations therefore help us understand why instances of archival evidence of gender variance at Davidson are sparse: the surveillance culture of peer-enforced honor codes present throughout Davidson’s history constructed the Davidson gentleman not just as the right way to express one’s gender, but the only way to express one’s gender at Davidson.
How Did The Davidson Gentleman Change Over Time?
Considering the Davidson gentleman as a regulatory category reveals changes in the gendered expectations of Davidson students before co-education. Though many might assume Davidson has steadily become more progressive and inclusive since its inception, this is not the case for the Davidson gentleman. Davidson’s archival collection of twentieth-century “Rules and Regulations” pamphlets reveal, instead, an expanding and increasingly specific list of regulations related to the proper expression of gender on campus.
This especially evidenced in the “Special” rules section of these pamphlets. In particular, this section expanded over time, eventually labelled as “General Conduct.” Though these rules did not always directly evoke the Davidson gentleman, they contributed increasingly to the detailed performance of proper gendered and sexualized behavior expected of mid-twentieth-century Davidson students. These regulations expanded prior vague references to presenting oneself as a “gentleman,” outlining specific manners of dress and comportment expected of Davidson men. The earliest example of this occurred in 1934-35, when the following rule was created:
Students must not appear on the campus in too scanty dress. Except on the athletic field and certain designated playgrounds shirts must be kept on.
Another major change in these rules is the increased attention to regulations on interactions with women. For example, in 1943, the following rule was crafted:
[When] young ladies are brought to the campus [...] students [should] conduct themselves [so] as not to reflect unfavorably on [...] Davidson College.
This rule, among others, created an environment in which Davidson “gentlemen” were expected to engage in sexualized performances of masculinity. These rules assumed in-group knowledge of proper heterosexual dating culture, expecting students to know what it meant to engage in respectable romantic conduct. Notably, these rules implied a minimum of physical and sexual contact, especially given that “lady visitors” were not allowed on campus after nightfall beginning in 1941. Beyond requiring supposedly asexual relationships, these rules also naturalized and regulated heterosexuality as an assumed status shared between all “Davidson gentlemen,” as previously discussed. The increasingly detailed nature of regulation of the proper performance of “gentleman” status, then, emerges as a process through which the expression of normative gender became increasingly difficult to maintain and overtly tethered to a normative heterosexual orientation throughout the mid-twentieth century.
The Davidson Gentleman in 2021
Though the Davidson gentleman is not often evoked in 2021, cultures of regulation and surveillance remain. Though less overtly gendered, current definitions of honor and transgression still reflect and contribute to regulatory and binary gender norms. Proceedings of the contemporary Honor Council, the student group responsible for upholding the Honor Code each Davidson student signs and processing violations, still leave little room for recognition of gender variant pronouns and identities. Records of proceedings, and proceedings themselves, thus naturalize and assume notions of binary gender as they focus on the violations presented to them.
Though still punitive in nature, the Honor Council has become increasingly committed to honoring the diverse positionality of all those involved in a case. Today, the Council seeks to honor traditions of collective responsibility and help the people grow from infractions. Further, the 2021 Honor Council is a more diverse group than ever, and are making changes towards representing all voices and backgrounds. Despite this, however, it is important that we recognize how rigid and regulatory notions of gender, as presented to us in the case study of the Davidson gentleman, have and continue to inform contemporary campus life in regards to rules, regulations, and surveillance culture at Davidson College.
- Davidson College. Rules and Regulations for Students of the College. Davidson: Davidson College, 1928.
- Davidson College. Rules and Regulations for Students of the College. Davidson: Davidson College, 1934.
- Davidson College. Rules and Regulations for Students of the College. Davidson: Davidson College, 1941.
- Davidson College. Rules and Regulations for Students of the College. Davidson: Davidson College, 1943.
- Davidson College, Rules and Regulations for Students of the College, Davidson: Davidson College, 1944.
- Davidson College. Rules and Regulations for Students of the College. Davidson: Davidson College, 1947.
- Davidson College, Rules and Regulations for Students of the College, Davidson: Davidson College, 1962.
- Davidson College. Wildcat Handbook. Davidson: Davidson College, 1953.
- Davidson College. Wildcat Handbook. Davidson: Davidson College, 1962.
Authors: Isabel Padalecki, Bri Curran, Luis Cordero, and Samone Cullum, GSS360: Transgender Studies, Fall 2021.