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Higher Education and Women

ISSUE:  Autumn 1989
Women and Higher Education in American History: Essays from the Mount Holyoke College Sesquicentennial Symposia, edited by John Mack Faragher and Florence Howe. Norton. $19.95.

Throughout my 20 years as student and teacher in higher education, a verse from Ecclesiastes has haunted me: “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Though I am a specialist in neither education nor American history, I have looked for a book such as Women and Higher Education in American History because I feared that the Preacher’s words cursed women even more than men. The jacket copy offers this collection as a “provocative primer on the distinctive and under-appreciated history of the higher education of American women.” I sought some such “primer” to tell stories of glorious forebears and hard-won victories because I longed for reassurance and self-justification in my chosen work. In place of simplistic complacency, however, these complex, richly detailed essays provide the wherewithal for readers to reflect more deeply, with that mixture of gratification and pain that is the sure sign of growth, on women and knowledge.

These ten essays were originally presented as papers during the several years of Mount Holyoke College’s celebration of its founding as a “Female Seminary” in 1837. Perhaps because they were presented to a mixed audience of nonspecialists, the essays are unusually engaging, clear, and bold. The first three lecturers focus, for example, on particular women, a tactic that makes more personal and comprehensible the task of understanding educational history. Several essays introduced me to heroines—Mary Lyon, who founded Mount Holyoke; Lucy Sprague Mitchell, who as a student at Radcliffe in 1900 had the gumption to dispute the ideas of her Harvard teachers, including William James, when they excluded women’s experience; and Lucy Slowe, who as dean of women at Howard University in 1933 challenged the restrictive rules and moralistic education foisted on black women out of fear of their sexuality.

Linda Kerber demonstrates the effectiveness of using particular stories to ground historical generalization when she juxtaposes the stories of Jane Colman Terrell, an 18th-century Boston writer with a hunger for greater education, and Alice Mary Baldwin, the dean of the women’s college of Duke University through the decades just before and after World War II. Baldwin wrote about Terrell in an attempt to “defend colonial women from the charge that they “ordinarily read very little.”” Terrell read widely and voraciously until her minister-husband set out to limit her to proper religious topics. Renouncing her earlier interest in fiction, she died a chastened woman at 27 and became a cautionary legend used to discourage generations of headstrong girls from too much intellectual ambition. Although her pathbreaking work in women’s history was unfinished at her death in 1961, Baldwin did complete a critique of Duke University’s treatment of its dean and women students so scathing that she ordered it sealed for 20 years. Kerber sees Baldwin as “a character in the next to last act of a play which had featured her heroine,” Jane Terrell. The two characters stand at either end of the “two centuries of higher education for women” that Kerber considers, and they bind together her assertions about the endurance of our culture’s tendency to discourage women from pursuing knowledge while managing still to explore the historical particularities of this oppression.

Four essays offer sweeping surveys of centuries of historical data which were extremely useful summaries for this common reader. For example, Rosalind Rosenberg in “The Limits of Access: The History of Coeducation in America” combines scope and sensitivity to detail. Along with charting the ebb and flow of support for coeducation in the United States, Rosenberg offers deft portraits of what life was like for women in the first years they attended college alongside men. Learning about the instructor at Michigan who addressed his class of men and women as “gentlemen” and spoke to women students as “Mr. so-and-so” sharpens Rosenberg’s point about the genteel oppression practiced in the academy.

If the stories of women who struggled to be educated contain as much frustration as triumph, the larger tale of historical progress turns out also to run less smoothly than I had imagined. After the first great era of breakthrough near the end of the 19th century when women’s colleges were founded and many other universities went coed, there came a backlash in the early years of this century when, as Rosenberg notes, “female enrollment at many colleges and universities outstripped male enrollment.” Rosenberg and Geraldine Joncich Clifford detail ways in which schools began to worry that American higher education, especially in the humanities “culture courses,” would become “feminized.” Consequently many, including Stanford, Cornell, and Michigan, limited the admission of women by quotas designed to ensure a male majority; others like the University of Chicago decided to segregate men and women, while Wesleyan “simply abandoned coeducation altogether.”

Linda M. Perkins traces a more subtle reaction against the threat that black women would surpass their brothers in educational attainment. Until the end of the 19th century, most blacks maintained a comparatively egalitarian attitude toward women who were desperately needed in the work of “race uplift.” Then, soon after emancipation, educated blacks imbibed the patriarchal notions of the white majority about “true womanhood” and aspired to the sort of masculine success that could afford to keep women in the home. Black women like Anna J. Cooper and Lucy Laney began to have to defend the rights of women to black male leaders who no longer felt comfortable working on equal terms with their sisters. The American Negro Academy, established in 1897, “constitutionally prohibited women,” and ignored the issues of black women educators, forcing those women to form their own separate organizations.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that the original support for the education of women in the 19th century arose as much from economic necessity as reformed ideology. The introduction of compulsory public education created a need for cheap labor in primary and secondary schools. In “College and Careers: Historical Perspectives on the Lives and Work Patterns of Women College Graduates” Barbara Sicherman acknowledges that “an overwhelming proportion” of women graduates “engaged in just one profession—teaching.” By 1920 women constituted 86 percent of all public school teachers. For the early generations of educated black women, teaching was the means to improve the conditions of their race. Among even the sternest patriarchs teaching was considered a proper occupation for women, nurturing work that was a good preparation for motherhood—though, of course, as soon as a woman was married she was expected to quit her job.

Geraldine Clifford is certainly right to insist that, given the large proportion of women who teach at one time or another in their lives, it is important not to denigrate the teaching profession, but instead “to look intensively at teachers as feminists, political activists, officeholders, and community leaders.” I wish, however, that she had not adopted the contentious approach of attacking “contemporary feminism” as the enemy intent on making teachers “feel guilty, inadequate, and lacking in self-esteem and status.” Clifford herself seems to be a feminist, as do the other essayists, many of whom mention teaching as an honorable profession. Besides refraining from asserting what any reading of 19th-century fiction or journals would dispute—that no feminists except contemporary ones have ever felt ambivalently about teaching as a profession—Clifford surely should have seen questions about what careers are most important for women as a controversy among feminists. As Sicherman suggests, the problem with teaching for a long time was that it was the only profession that women were encouraged to choose, that women teachers were not allowed to rise to positions of power in the profession, that the personal lives of teachers were severely controlled, and that “feminization” meant lower pay for teaching than for other jobs requiring comparable education.

The diverse voices included in this book insure that such controversies are fully aired. Ruth Schmidt, president of Agnes Scott College, presents a moving case for women’s colleges as “still the very best place for women to be educated.” She bases her arguments primarily on the work of M. Elizabeth Tidball, whose research claims that women at single-sex colleges “achieve higher levels of distinction than their coeducational counterparts.” Rosenberg presents a more ambiguous picture in which she finds women’s colleges valuable because of the larger numbers of women faculty role models but questions claims that graduates of single-sex colleges are better prepared “to challenge prevailing stereotypes.” Likewise, Sicherman cites Janet Giele’s study comparing Oberlin and one of the Seven Sisters which showed “more of the Oberlin alumnae were working at the time of the study and had graduate training.”

This, as well as the controversy about how to approach “feminized” professions like teaching, raises questions about how education might deal with differences between women and men. Philosopher Ann Ferguson, in “Woman’s Moral Voice: Superior, Inferior, or Just Different?” urges us to give up assumptions “that men and women have unified egos with differential gender personalities set from childhood.” Instead, she wants a “more dialectical perspective” through which we variously develop our “masculine” and “feminine” voices which, following Chodorow and Gilligan, she sees as “oppositional and incorporative,” respectively. Hence, women choosing male professions (or women going into masculinized college settings) should be educated to value their cooperative, caring female voices, whereas women going into traditionally women’s professions (or women’s colleges) should learn to be oppositional where issues of rights and justice occur.

The most curious thing I observed in reading through these histories and controversies about women and learning was the persistence of the oldest challenge to women’s education—that it would ruin the family by unsuiting us for motherhood. Almost every one of these essays at one time or another gets around to citing marriage and fertility rates, which are inevitably and, at certain periods, even dramatically lower for the most highly educated career women. Several essayists mention the extremely high numbers of first-generation college women who never married (estimates of the actual proportion of never-marrieds apparently vary from 35 to 70 percent), along with noting their unusual dedication and success in their careers. Sicherman most fully analyzes the connections between college attendance, marital status, and fertility rates, ostensibly with an eye to defend women’s education by showing that education and careers often do mix with marriage and children. Jeanne Noble’s “The Higher Education of Black Women in the Twentieth Century” presents a poignant account of the problems some educated women face in their personal lives. In contrast to the statistics for male and female whites, those for blacks show that with the exception of the twenties, black women in each decade of this century have earned more college degrees than black men. Noble depicts black women as “advancing ahead of black men in educational attainment and occupational advancement.” The problem she sees with this is that it increases the problems for college educated black women who want to marry. She worries that black women’s loneliness rises in some sort of awful, direct proportion to their level of education.

Which brings me back to Ecclesiastes. Every generation of wise men since The Preacher has worried about the true relation between accumulating knowledge and living a good life. In the midst of his dejection, Coleridge believes that his “abstruse research” has stolen “From my own nature all the natural man.” Yet the problem for educated women running through all these essays in one way or another is the fear not only of losing the natural gift of spontaneous joy, but also of abdicating the mysterious powers of a womanly sexual identity. Has any essay on the education of men featured arguments built around their fertility rates? When early opponents of women’s education warned that intellectual development would “unsex” women, they were concerned, of course, to control female reproductive capacities, not to protect our healthy, untrammeled sexuality. To some extent, it seems, even feminists still fret about whether women who get too smart won’t refuse to settle down in a nice, heterosexual family way. Probably few feminists, but certainly none of these essayists, want to ensure that women are stuffed into conventional family roles. Hovering over this book, nevertheless, is a fog of unease, a defensive apology around the relation of educated women to men and to motherhood. Sicherman notes that “even the women’s colleges” in the middle of this century “hired men with greater frequency” to fend off the negative spinster image, and Schmidt acknowledges that the primary way a sexist society denigrates sisterhood and controls women’s institutions is with “the lesbian label.”

It is not a fault, but rather one of the excellences of the book that these unsettling matters are allowed to arise. For me, the effect of these essays was to give content to previously vague notions about the education of women. They transformed my diffuse, Biblical melancholy both by introducing me to a terrific group of women, living and dead, who have thought for a long time about the education of women, as well as by defining the controversies surrounding women’s education. The scope of American history does not reveal lost solutions to contemporary dilemmas, but neither does it prove that we have progressed beyond old fears that women will become less womanly as we become more educated.


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