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A Woman's Work

By Sandy Siegel '72

Published Oct 1, 2013 8:00 AM

art

Training teacher Edith W. Swarts (left) and Helen Matthewson Laughlin in 1924, the year Dean Laughlin launched the women’s organization Phrateres.
Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

“Dean Laughlin Speaks at Women’s Assembly,” proclaimed the front-page headline of the Feb. 17, 1926, California Daily Grizzly (forerunner of the Daily Bruin). The topic? “The Modern Girl.”

“Working with young women is a wonderful and delightful experience,” the dean told the student reporter. “There is nothing finer than the young woman of today.”

That outlook made Helen Matthewson Laughlin the perfect candidate for dean of women when the Southern Branch of the University of California opened in 1919. Formerly counselor of women at the Los Angeles State Normal School, the Southern Branch’s predecessor and her alma mater, the New Zealand-born, California-raised Laughlin acted as adviser and “fairy godmother” to the thousands of coeds who attended UCLA’s original Vermont Avenue site and/or the Westwood campus.

Perhaps most noteworthy about the dean’s 27-year tenure was her progressive approach to the “modern girl’s” education. A proponent of vocational guidance for college women, she regularly scheduled programs that provided information on various occupations and featured talks by successful professional women.

In 1924, in an effort to make the full college experience available to all coeds — particularly those unable to afford living near campus — Laughlin founded Phrateres, an organization dedicated to promoting friendship among women through social, athletic, scholastic and philanthropic activities. Its popularity inspired other universities to initiate their own chapters.

Around the same time, the dean, who was married to a prominent oil man, created the Helen Matthewson Club, the nation’s first housing cooperative for college women. At the original Westwood campus residence, at 900 Hilgard Ave., self-supporting coeds shared household chores in exchange for affordable rents. Two sister co-ops, the Westwood and Hilgard clubs, followed. Laughlin also was active in another development on Hilgard Avenue: Sorority Row, whose location on the opposite side of campus from the fraternities was by the dean’s design.

Upon retiring in 1946, Laughlin was honored at 31 testimonial events and lavished with letters of praise for her service to UCLA and the greater community.

“The lives of thousands of young women in this State [sic] are, in part, testimonials to your leadership, sympathetic understanding, and good judgment,” wrote University of California President Robert Gordon Sproul.

In a handwritten note to the dean, the young women of the Westwood Club expressed their “very great appreciation and gratitude for the joy and happiness made possible for us through your thotfulness [sic] and generosity in our lovely home. … Your retirement is a severe loss to the University — but especially to us who have known you so intimately and loved you so dearly.”

The tributes — as well as the establishment of the Helen Matthewson Club Memorial Scholarship in the mid-1960s by former co-op residents — were much-deserved for a woman who encouraged UCLA’s “modern girls” to participate fully in university life, lent a helping hand to those in need and prepared them all for life after college.

Laughlin did her job with unselfish devotion. As she remarked at a Phrateres orientation tea: “My biggest ambition is to see you women happy.”