Voices, Identities, & Silences: Investigating 150 Years of Diversity in the Purdue Archives

Title IX in the 1970s

In May of 1975, Purdue president Arthur Hansen announced a plan for the university to bring varsity female sports to campus. His announcement affiliated Purdue with a number of colleges and universities across the nation working to comply with the policies of Title IX, a law established as part of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. After the University spent the summer of 1975 hiring staff to develop and run the new women’s intercollegiate athletics program, various varsity female sports began their first season on campus in the fall of 1975. Representing these new female athletes, the Purdue women's intercollegiate athletics department announced, would be a female mascot named Polly Purdue. After releasing a picture of the new female mascot in The Purdue Exponent, the athletics department was quickly bombarded with criticism from students and other members of the Purdue community. The criticism of Polly Purdue was so intense that the University revoked her just a few weeks later, announcing instead that they would hold a university-wide contest for drawings of other potential mascots to replace her. After the announcement of this contest, no other mention of Polly Purdue, or any female mascot for that matter, emerges in the Exponent save a few more criticism pieces featured in the newspaper in the months to come.

The Purdue Exponent Feature on Women's Athletics

In an article from the September 4th, 1975, edition of the Exponent, news broke that the newly formed women’s intercollegiate athletics program had released a female “insignia,” or mascot, intended to represent the emerging female athletes [1]. This drawing accompanying the Exponent article introduces the mascot as Polly Purdue. The drawing shows Polly dressed in a turtleneck, skirt, and clogs, and wearing pigtails in her hair. The sports balls that surround her signify the seven different female athletics teams, as her purpose was to represent the diverse female athletes emerging across the campus. The accompanying article seems to suggest that the athletics program developed the mascot.

The article offers little information about Polly Purdue, focusing instead on the hiring of new coaches and other such actions taken to grow the women’s athletics program. Nevertheless, what little information is offered pinpoints the new mascot as an attempt by the athletics department to develop a unique brand for its new female athletes rather than adopting that of the well-established men's teams. For instance, the article’s final two paragraphs mention the athletics department’s plans for the Purdue Sportswomen Society to counter the John Purdue Club, an organization intended to fundraise for male athletes on campus. The introduction of Polly Purdue follows, thus positioning her as a female counterpart to Purdue Pete, the Purdue athletics mascot that emerged in the 1940s.

A quote from the article by Carol Mertler, the women’s intercollegiate athletic coordinator, anticipates the reception Polly Purdue would receive in the subsequent days. Concerned about the various stereotypes that might limit female athletes, she says of her new job, “I asked that the women’s locker rooms not be painted pink, we wouldn’t be called Boiler-makerettes and articles about the women’s sports program not appear on society pages” [2]. As the ensuing feedback about Polly Purdue materialized via the Exponent, the athletics department quickly realized that critics found the mascot to perpetuate rather than negate these stereotypes. Polly was criticized as too childish and too feminine instead of championed as an accurate female athlete.

Opinion Piece on Polly Purdue Featured in The Purdue Exponent

Criticism of Polly Purdue emerged a single day after her drawing appeared in the Exponent. On September 5th, the Exponent staff published this piece entitled “Polly Purdue must go, insult to women” in the “Opinion/Viewpoint” section of the paper [3]. The piece has no clear author, suggesting that a member of the newspaper staff wrote it. The article positions Polly Purdue as a mistake by the athletic department and suggests that the “realistic and necessary endeavor” of Purdue’s female athletes deserves more respect [4]. It bases its criticism on Polly’s childish appearance, whereby it insinuates that the mascot actually infantilizes Purdue’s female athletes [5].

The Purdue Exponent Letter to the Editor Concerning Polly Purdue

More criticism emerged days later in the Exponent, this time commenting on the mascot’s unathletic appearance. On September 9th, 1975, the Exponent published this letter to the editor called “Polly: atypical woman athlete” [6]. Here, Roxanne Zimmer—presumably a Purdue student as evidenced by her reference to her “classes”—describes her experience of seeing Polly Purdue for the first time [7]. Noting how her “eyes did not and still cannot believe what hit them as they perused the last page” of the Exponent, Zimmer addresses every aspect of Polly Purdue’s outfit that impedes her athletic performance [8]. She criticizes Polly’s skirt as too tight, her necklace as too heavy, and her smile as too friendly—all of which, according to Zimmer, render Polly ill-suited for sports. Highlighting the similarities between Polly Purdue and a cheerleader, Zimmer concludes, “The image of a cheerleader inadequately describes and may misrepresent the women athletes. Back to the drawing boards…, please” [9] [10]. 

The athletics department was not silent on the initial feedback they received concerning Polly. In an Exponent article entitled “Polly Purdue mascot gets second thoughts,” published on September 18th, 1975, Linda Robb offers the Purdue athletics department's response to this particular criticism [11]. This article cites Ed Blackwell as the original creator of Polly Purdue, though he implies that the athletics department changed his drawing after he submitted it. Referencing the feedback the athletics department had received, he says, “After we decided to make Polly younger looking, everyone objected. We thought that it was better to have her younger looking as opposed to a buxom girl” [12]. In other words, the athletics department intentionally chose to represent Polly as young so as to avoid sexualizing her. They avoided one stereotype of female athletes but perpetuated another in doing so.

This same article also attempts to justify her seeming cheerleading uniform. Here, Sally Combs, the athletics department’s director of promotions and public relations, offers, “The outfit that Polly had on was supposed to be like a field hockey uniform, but it didn’t look like it” [13].

The article then announces the athletics department’s decision to depart from Polly Purdue and instead hold a contest soliciting submissions of other potential female mascots for the female athletes on campus. Presumably, the contest yielded few or no results, as no further mention of a female mascot shows up in the Exponent save a few random comments that emerged months later and poked fun at the failed female mascot. As a Journal and Courier article would shortly announce, “Critics Kill Polly Purdue” [14].

Author's Bio:

Erika Gotfredson is a Ph.D. student in the Literature, Theory, Culture program at Purdue University. Erika received her master's degree in English from Wake Forest University in 2018 and her bachelor's degree in English from Presbyterian College in 2016. Her research interests include 20th- and 21st-century American literature, primarily women’s novels, and female athletics in American society.

[1] Linda Robb, “Women’s Sports: Old, New Faces to Coach,” The Purdue Exponent 91: no. 94 (West Lafayette, IN), September 4, 1975: 12. https://exponent.lib.purdue.edu/?a=d&d=PE19750904-01.

[2] Robb, "Women's Sports," 12.

[3] “Purdue Polly Must Go, Insult to Women,” The Purdue Exponent 91: no. 95 (West Lafayette, IN), September 5, 1975: 6. https://exponent.lib.purdue.edu/?a=d&d=PE19750905-01

[4] “Purdue Polly Must Go, Insult to Women,” 6. 

[5] Over the course of a few months, other critics condemned Polly’s childish appearance in the Exponent. Another opinion piece published in the November 18th, 1975, edition of the Exponent offers Barbara J. Delong’s opinion that “Polly Purdue . . . looks thirteen years of age with her pigtails and large ‘necklace’”. Barbara J. Delong, “Polly Purdue Unacceptable,” The Purdue Exponent 91, no. 147 (West Lafayette, IN), November 18, 1975:7. https://exponent.lib.purdue.edu/?a=d&d=PE19751118-01.

[6] Roxanne Zimmer, “Letter to the editor,” The Purdue Exponent 91: no. 97 (West Lafayette, IN), September 9, 1975: 6. https://exponent.lib.purdue.edu/?a=d&d=PE19750909-01.

[7] Zimmer, 6.

[8] Zimmer, 6.

[9] Zimmer, 6.

[10] Again, this article was not the only to comment on Polly’s lack of athleticism. Barbara J. Delong’s opinion piece published in the Exponent on November 18th says, “The manner in which Polly is depicted hardly represents the typical woman athlete. . . . even cheerleaders in the 1950’s chose more suitable shoes than those that Polly wears, which appear to be something along the line of platform clogs.” Delong, 7. 

[11] Linda Robb, “Polly Purdue Mascot Gets Second Thought,” The Purdue Exponent 91: no. 104 (West Lafayette, IN), September 18, 1975: 16, 13. https://exponent.lib.purdue.edu/?a=d&d=PE19750918-01.

[12] Robb, "Polly Purdue Mascot," 13.

[13] Robb, "Polly Purdue Mascot," 16.

[14] “Critics Kill Polly Purdue,” Journal and Courier 56: no. 228 (Lafayette, IN), September 23, 1975. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/21306635/journal_and_courier/.