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Women in American Higher Education

    The history of women's struggle for access to American institutions of higher education, beginning approximately around the 1820s and evolving into the early twentieth century, reveals a remarkable story of achievements and innovative ideas.  During its evolution, this struggle has been closely related to a number of social and economic factors that have shaped American life.  Among these, the rapid industrialization, the urbanization, and the introduction of formal schooling, have all contributed to the liberation of women from expected societal roles.  Historically, women's acceptance as students has preceded their entry as administrators and faculty in the field of higher education.  Yet because education has helped women realize potentials lying beyond their traditional roles in society and has offered a process by which women could learn to value themselves, opposition to it has been constantly present.  As a result, women's entry into colleges and universities has transpired gradually through various forms and institutions of education, beginning with the establishment of the first female seminaries, continuing with the founding of women's colleges and the introduction of co-education, and finally spreading to all institutions of higher education.  Women's struggle for higher education continues nowadays and builds strongly on its past achievements.  Its present goals, underlined by the high values of contemporary democratic society, are directed, above all, toward the firm establishment of equal access and opportunities in all institutions of higher education.
    Historians usually refer to three important phases in the development of women's movement for advanced education:  the first phase encompasses the period between the 1820s and the 1860s, the second spans the period between the 1860s and the 1890s, and the third covers the period between the 1890s and the 1920s.  Taking into consideration the women who attended school as a primary criteria, those who received their education between the 1870s and the 1890s are usually considered the first generation of educated women.  While Barbara Solomon talks about two more such generations following the first one, Lynn Gordon disagrees and points out only to one (Solomon 1985, Gordon 1989).  One reason for the selection of the post Civil War generation of educated women as the first one can be found in the extremely small percentage of women who attended any kind of school in the several decades after the Revolution.  However, the years before the Civil War mark the beginnings of important developments which have provided a variety of unexpected educational opportunities for women.
    The movement toward the higher education of women drew on a tradition of educational emancipation existing long before the establishment of the first female academies.  Higher education on the whole was not a popular thing in colonial times.  The first colleges had the mission to train a handful of white, privileged men for the careers of ministers, lawyers, doctors, and men of affairs.  Thus, in ordinary life, most boys and girls received some education in their families according to their future societal positions and instruction in domestic skills constituted the education common to all girls.  In the North, one other educational alternative for girls, as well as for boys, were the private "dame schools" where children were taught to read and write.  Both of those skills girls could use to read the Bible or if they would teach (Hoffman 1981, p. 6).
    The Revolutionary War witnessed the direct involvement of women in public and private spheres.  A recognition of the alternative benefits of liberal education for individual women at that time was reflected in the writings of Mercy Otis Warren, Abigel Adams, and Judith Murray, all of whom, though, still stressed the importance of women's duties as wives and mothers.  One other influence came from England with the radical views of Mary Wollstonecraft.  Building on Locke's psychology, Wollstonecraft argued that "women must be educated as rational creatures if they were to develop fully as human beings" (Solomon 1985, p. 9-11).
    A number of factors stimulated women's movement for advanced education in post-revolutionary America.  On the one hand, the idea of Republican Motherhood, supported strongly by Benjamin Rush, stressed the importance of mothers and wives in the creation of the future virtuous citizens and rendered women's education as being useful to American society (Rush 1798).  On the other hand, the ideal of the Christian wife, mother, and teacher, grounded in the religious beliefs of the Second Great Awakening of 1790-1850, gave strong impetus to female education.  The urgent need to Christianize western frontiers turned various religious groups towards women's education for future teaching.  In addition, the rapid industrialization in the Northeast alleviated household work thus allowing women to devote to other activities.  Education was considered useful for women who as schoolteachers could support themselves and help their families.
    Palmieri referred to the period between 1820-1860 as the "Romantic Period" or the "era of Republican Motherhood" (1989, p. 147).  Social and cultural changes, summed up in the "Romantic ideology", which "equated genius with such qualities as intuition, emotional empathy, and insight, qualities preeminently associated with women", operated in women's behalf.  Thus, "by laying claim to special emotional and moral traits, women could cultivate intellectual roles as teachers, translators, and social reformers" (Palmieri 1989, pp. 147-148).  Although only a handful of women received their education in these years, the period marked the beginnings of various institutions and forms of women's education.
    The pioneering institutions for organized advanced education for women were the female seminaries:  Sarah Pierce's "respectable academy" in Litchfield, Connecticut, founded in 1791, Emma Willard's Troy Seminary in New York, established in 1821, Catharine Beecher's Hartford Seminary, Connecticut, started in 1828, and Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Seminary in South Hadley which opened in 1837 (Solomon 1985, pp. 17-20).  Those seminaries, offering curricula which covered most of the subjects taught in the junior and senior years at men's colleges, became prototypes for women's institutions in the Midwest, Far West, and the South.  Moreover, graduates of those institutions soon began teaching around the country thus spreading the educational values of Willard, Beecher, and Lyon.  Women's education, as it developed in the early seminaries, played also an important role in the diffusion of the feminist values beginning to spread in the nineteenth century (Scott 1995).
    The growth of the academies reached a climax in the 1850s when other educational alternatives in the North, such as the normal schools and the public high schools, were beginning to emerge.  The academy expansion of this period coincided with various attempts for academic reform in the field of higher education.  The old liberal arts college model, firmly established by the 1828 Yale Report, was already being challenged by the need for more practically oriented forms of education, issues of the education of women and minority groups, demands of scientific experimentation, expanded libraries, and out-of-class teaching.  The first scientific schools were opened in Yale and Harvard.  Institutions at which the natural and physical sciences had already found a place, such as the United States Military Academy at West Point and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, already existed.  Similar trials in implementing more advanced curricula were present at women's academies operating between 1830 and 1870.(Veysey 1965, Rudolph 1990, Thomas Woody in Solomon 1985).
    Another achievement of this period was the introduction of co-education and the establishment of women's colleges.  In 1833, Oberlin College opened its doors to men and women, white and black, to be "educated together to carry God's cause on earth" (Solomon 1985, p. 21).  The College had a Female Department and a graduate of Mount Holyoke filled the position of the "Lady Principal of the Female Department" (Hehr, 1938, p. 5, quoted in Nidiffer 1995, p. 17).  The first of the several women's colleges, considered an "extension upward of the female-seminary idea" , was the Georgia Female College at Macon, opened in 1839 (Rudolph 1990, p. 311-312).  Institutions like these, however, were rare and it would take some more time for co-education and women's colleges to take strong hold in higher education.
    The handful of females who acquired a portion of the liberal education at academies, seminaries, and colleges between the 1790-1850 became known as the "Vanguard of a new American type:  the educated woman", the "Precollegiate groups" or the "pathbreakers" (Solomon 1985, p. 27).  Those women remained loyal to the code of true womanhood combining the ideal of the republican and Christian wife and mother.  It was this generation that first encountered the woman question in different forms, their instruction dependent on decisions about what women should study and to what extent to follow the social traditions of male liberal education.
    It was also in this period when women's schoolteaching received unprecedented impetus.  Rapid industrialization and urbanization opened jobs more lucrative than teachers to man.  In addition, the spread of common schools in New England offered positions to young women giving them the opportunity to meet both communal and personal needs.  Women's apprenticeship in this field, as one way to make teaching "an honored profession for women who had not yet married, or who were to remain single", was strongly supported and the first American normal school or teacher's college - Lexington Academy in Massachusetts - opened in 1839 (Hoffman 1981, pp. 5, 12).  Schoolteaching served as a base from which women could move on to other employment or activities, such as teaching Indians at the frontiers, participating in a foreign mission, joining the medical profession or the field of popular writing.
    Changes in social views were reflected in the spread of the belief that an educated wife could be an asset for she would be able to manage the sometimes contradictory roles in the family.  Women also entered the realm of public policy initiating moral reforms, supporting the movement for women's rights, or joining the abolitionists.  Female and anti-slavery leaders established several schools for blacks (Solomon 1985, p. 41).  The first organized attempt to provide any kind of higher education for African-American women was the schoolhouse for the higher education of "Negro girls" built by Mytilla Minor in 1857 in Washington, D. C. (Noble 1956, p. 18).  There existed a link between feminism and higher education but for more women liberal education took precedence over suffrage.
    The breakthrough in the movement for women's higher education came after the Civil War and the overall period until the 1890s, called the "Reform Era" or "Responsible Spinsterhood", saw the firm establishment of women's colleges and the spread of co-education (Palmieri 1989, p. 147).  The incredible extension of women's education in this period was stimulated by a number of factors.  On the one hand, the political and social atmosphere in the country coincided with the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877) - a time of difficult readjustment in attempts to reunify the North and the South, to provide fair treatment for the recently freed blacks, to restore the loyal governments to the succeeded states, and to revitalize the damaged political, social, and cultural life of the country (Rudolph 1990).  On the other hand, rapid industrialization, territorial expansion, technological advancement, and numerous scientific discoveries stimulated progressive developments in all spheres of life.  The period, known as "the age of the university", marked the expansion of university education in general (Freeland 1992, p. 25).  The most prominent examples were the state universities of the Northwest, the South, the Midwest, and along the Pacific coast.  These institutions assumed a "central role in the life of the State" with their successful attempts to shape public elementary and secondary education and substitute the classical curriculum with a more practically and scientifically oriented one (Rudolph 1990).  In addition, the development of public education was evident in the growth of common schools, high schools, and colleges.
    During the Civil War women became actively involved in hospitals and camps, in farms and factories.  Schoolteaching continued to provide women of all backgrounds with important ways to serve and to support themselves.  In the years during and after the Civil War some 7,000 teachers, abolitionists or Christian in belief, went South to teach those recently freed from slavery (Hoffman 1981, p. xix).  Additional need for teachers was imposed by the acceleration of immigration and the expansion of western settlement.
    The acceptance of the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862, according to which the states received land to support public and private colleges and universities, gave a strong stimulus to the extension of women's education.  Coeducation had already started to take hold at the state universities, the first one being the University of Iowa in 1855, followed by the University of Wisconsin in 1863, and then Indiana, Missouri, Michigan, and California (Rudolph 1990, p. 314).  The struggle for co-education was "long and acrimonious" and "the high degree of negative feelings toward women on campuses created an environment that ranged from inhospitable to openly hostile" (Nidiffer 1995, p. 18).  Geographically, the strength of co-education was clearly in the west.  Most of the Northeastern institutions, with their strong connections to social and economic elites, were able to persist and profit from excluding women students.  As an example, co-education was not introduced to Massachusetts until the establishment of Boston University in 1873 (Solomon 1985, p. 51).  In the South, where the ideal about gentle womanhood had a strong hold, single-sex education remained the norm in public institutions for white women.  Since these ideals were not extended to blacks, most black women who had gone on to secondary schooling attended coeducational colleges.  In addition, the Civil War closed most southern institutions and although the earliest state universities in the United States were founded in the South, their acceptance of women came much later:  in 1910 only five were coeducational (Clifford 1989, pp. 5,6).
    This period was also characteristic with the growth of women's colleges.  Four of them, mainly Vassar in 1865, Wellesley and Smith in 1875, and Bryn Mawr in 1884, established in the North, had a far-reaching impact on both co-educational and single-sex institutions in the country.  The classical curriculum was established as a result of those colleges' commitment to provide collegiate education to women equal to that of men.  However, aware of the insufficient preparation of their students, those colleges opened preparatory departments.  In addition, strong teacher-training programs and courses in the sciences and social work were offered there (Rudolph 1990, p. 326).
    The incredible expansion of women's education in this period was also obvious in the spread of the normal schools and the female medical colleges for both black and white women.  Small religious colleges on the Oberlin model continued to take root, especially in the Midwest in the 1840s and 1850s and in the black South in the late 1860s.  The first Catholic women's colleges:  the College of Notre Dame in Maryland, founded in 1896, and Trinity College in 1897 were also established in these years (Solomon 1985, Rudolph 1990).
    The Ivy League institutions resisted the admission of women the longest.  One result of this development was the introduction of co-ordinate education which represented a compromise between co-education and a separate women's college.  The co-ordinate colleges were privately sponsored female colleges which were attached to institutions for male students.  The most prominent example is Harvard's decision in 1874 to give examinations to women, and, as of 1879, to give courses to women outside the university constituting what was known as "The Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women" or the so-called Harvard Annex.  It was in 1893 when the Annex was turned into Radcliffe College (Rudolph 1990).
    Graduate education for women stayed for long at a latent phase during which women were admitted only as "special students" without receiving a degree.  Starting in 1877 and increasingly through the 1880s, several institutions began to award doctorates to women, with Syracuse University in the lead, followed by Boston University, the University of Wooster, Smith College, the University of Michigan, and Cornell (Rositer 1982, pp. 159, 162).  Women's opportunity for graduate study grew with the success of Helen Magill as the first woman to receive a Ph.D. degree from an American university in 1877, and the availability of women with European doctorates, such as M. Carey Thomas (Clifford 1989, p. 23).
    It was in this period also that women began entering coeducational institutions as administrators and faculty.  The entry of appreciable numbers of female students into coeducational institutions or into particular departments, such as English, the modern foreign languages, history, the social sciences, and psychology, exerted pressure to engage one or more female faculty.  Substantial portions of the first women employed by coeducational institutions were a subfaculty of part-time teachers whose principal duties were disciplinary and social.  They held titles like "matron", "lady principal", "preceptress", "women's medical examiner" and "dean of women".  Such women might, then, be granted faculty status as well.  The emergence of the post of dean of women had the most consistent effect in bringing more women into the professional community at coeducational institutions (Nidiffer 1995, Clifford 1989).  By 1890, according to the United States Bureau on Education's investigation on the gender of faculty in men's and coeducational institutions as well as in normal schools and teachers' colleges, academic women were no longer found exclusively in women's colleges (Clifford 1989, p. 10).
    The various developments in women's education were accompanied by different social opinions and gave rise to several conflicting debates quite often supported by scientific theories.  Darwinian evolution "relegated women to a permanently inferior condition, physically and mentally" (Solomon 1985, p. 56).  The most famous attack, however, came in 1873 from Dr. Edward Clarke's "Sex in Education".  In his work, Clarke argued that higher education would damage women's health and ultimately inhibit their reproductive capacity (Clarke 1873).  Although Clarke's book had an incredible impact on social views at the time, it also stimulated the debate about women's education which additionally heightened the revolutionary quality of the struggle for education.
    The extension of women's education in this period paralleled the beginnings and development of African-American colleges.  Nine federal black land-grant colleges were established in the South between 1870-1890.  By 1910 black colleges were over a hundred (Anderson 1989, p. 455).  Most of them admitted black women and at least two of them, Barber-Scotia in Concord, North Carolina, and Spelman in Atlanta, Georgia, were for women only (Noble 1956, p. 19).  Black women were given the chance to enter college because they were needed for teaching.  Their education was also influenced by developing educational opportunities for black men and white women.
    The years between the 1890s and the 1920s are considered the period when women's education comes to fruition.  This period is also known as the "Progressive Era" in which the first generation of college women began entering the professions of medicine, law, social work, and academy.  The first generation of educated women were extremely conscious of their pivotal role in proving that they were men's intellectual equals (Palmieri 1989).  The 1980s saw the establishment of two major universities that admitted female students from the start.  The University of Chicago, opened in 1892, recruited women as undergraduates, graduates, and faculty members, introducing a female dean and more on-campus living.  The other institution, Stanford which was reestablished in 1892, had a place for women secured in its charter.  It was also in these years that women's colleges flourished, most of the normal schools developed into state colleges, and several state universities grew out of state colleges.
    However, the beginning of the twentieth century saw a negative reaction toward women's education.  A major reason for it was the increase of high school female graduates as well as the growth of the proportion of women in coeducational institutions.  The "Race Suicide Syndrome" theory, which stipulated that women's colleges were "institutions for the promotion of celibacy" thus producing a "disappearing class of intellectual women who were not marrying and hence were committing race suicide", was widely spread (Felter 1906 quoted in Palmieri 1989, p. 150).  Added to that was the idea that coeducation helped to divide the subjects of the curriculum into mail and female.
    The "great turn-of-the-century" debate focused explicitly on the social implications of co-education (Gordon 1989, p. 349).  Thus, not surprisingly, strong waves of reaction were felt above all at coeducational universities, some of which were Chicago, Stanford, California, Wisconsin, Boston University, where segregation of classes was institutionalized.  One explanation for that reversal was the "sex repulsion theory" developed by President Van Hise.  According to this theory, as soon as one sex dominated numerically, fear of competition drove the other out.  Thus professors in classics, philosophy, and political science attributed the lower enrollment of men in their courses to the overwhelming presence of women.  The other justification for the separation of sexes at college, or the "sex attraction theory", analyzed the development of sexual urges at puberty and predicted that educated women would become unwilling to accept the limitations of married life.  The result of those arguments rendered co-education as "second-best" to many and pointed to female institutions as the ones to offer the best education for women (Solomon 1985, pp. 60-61).
    Despite those debates, women's access to colleges progressed steadily.  The period between the 1870-1910 witnessed "an extraordinary movement of women taking advantage of new opportunities not always designed for them" (Solomon 1985, p. 61).  The 1920s, the year when suffrage was legally achieved, were critical for educated women and it was in this decade when women reached highest proportion of the undergraduate population, of doctoral recipients, and of faculty members (Graham 1989, p. 417).
    The story of women's struggle for access to mainstream institutions of higher education, as well as that of various groups of people from different racial, ethnic, or social backgrounds, is still being written.  While in the 1870s objections to women's advanced education centered on the issue of their health and in the 1900s psychological emphasis on male and female academic interests posed threats to equality in women's education, physiological differences represent one contemporary reason to deny access to women at certain institutions - military schools as an example.  It is true that today's American system of higher education sets an example in democratization of education all over the world.  It is also true, however, that this fact presents at least one more reason for the need of all institutions of higher education as well as the whole society, to work for the achievement of the basic principle of democracy, mainly, equal rights and opportunities for all of its members.



Anderson, James D., "Training the Apostles of Liberal Culture:  Black Higher Education, 1900-1935", included in Goodchild, Lester F. and Wechsler, Harold S. eds., ASHE Reader on the History of Higher Education, Needham, MA:  Ginn Press, 1989.
"Benjamin Rush on Republican Education, 1798", included in the packet of required readings, EDUC 844, History of American Higher Education, Autumn, 1995.
Clarke, Edward H., Sex in Education, or, A Fair Chance for the Girls, Boston:  James R. Osgood and Company, 1873.
Clifford, Geraldine J., Lone Voyagers, Academic Women in Coeducational Universities, 1870-1937, New York:  The Feminist Press, 1989.
Gordon, Lynn D., "Co-Education on Two Campuses:  Berkeley and Chicago, 1890-1912", included in Goodchild, Lester F. and Wechsler, Harold S. eds., ASHE Reader on the History of Higher Education, Needham, MA:  Ginn Press, 1989.
Graham, Patricia A., "Expansion and Exclusion:  A History of Women in American Higher Education", included in Goodchild, Lester F. and Wechsler, Harold S. eds., ASHE Reader on the History of Higher Education, Needham, MA:  Ginn Press, 1989.
Herbst, Jurgen, "And Sadly Teach, Teacher Education and Professionalization in American Culture", The University of Wisconsin Press, included in the packet of required readings, EDUC 844, History of American Higher Education, Autumn, 1995.
Hoffman, Nancy, Women's "True" Profession:  Voices from the History of Teaching, New York:  The Feminist Press, 1981.
Kerber, Linda, and De Hart-Mathews, Jane, eds, "Women's America:  Refocusing the Past", included in the packet of required readings, EDUC 844, History of American Higher Education, Autumn, 1995.
Martin, Theodora P., "The Sound of Our Own Voices, Women's Study Clubs 1860-1910", Boston:  Beacon Press, included in the packet of required readings, EDUC 844, History of American Higher Education, Autumn, 1995.
Mathews, Lois K., "The Dean of Women", Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company, included in the packet of required readings, EDUC 844, History of American Higher Education, Autumn, 1995.
Nidiffer, Jana, "From Matron to Maven:  A New Role and New Professional Identity for Deans of Women, 1892 to 1916" - an abstract, Mid-Western Educational Research, v. 8, no. 4, 1995.
Noble, Jeanne L., "Implications from the History of Negro Women's Education", 1956, included in the packet of required readings, EDUC 844, History of American Higher Education, Autumn, 1995.
Palmeri, Patricia A., "From Republican Motherhood to Race Suicide:  Arguments on the Higher Education of Women in the United States, 1820-1920", included in Goodchild, Lester F. and Wechsler, Harold S. eds., ASHE Reader on the History of Higher Education, Needham, MA:  Ginn Press, 1989.
Perkins, Linda M., "The Impact of the "Cult of True Womanhood" on the Education of Black Women, included in Goodchild, Lester F. and Wechsler, Harold S. eds., ASHE Reader on the History of Higher Education, Needham, MA:  Ginn Press, 1989.
Rossiter, Margaret W., "Doctorates for American Women, 1868-1907", included in the packet of required readings, EDUC 844, History of American Higher Education, Autumn, 1995.
Rudolph, Frederick, The American University, A History, Athens:  The University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Scott, Anne F., "The Ever Widening Circle:  The Diffusion of Feminist Values from the Troy Female Seminary, 1822-1872", included in the packet of required readings, EDUC 844, History of American Higher Education, Autumn, 1995.
Smith College Monthly, vol. VII, May 1990, No. 8, "The College Settlements Movement", included in the packet of required readings, EDUC 844, History of American Higher Education, Autumn, 1995.
Solomon, Barbara Miller, In the Company of Educated Women, New Haven:  Yale University Reading Press, 1985.
Veysey, Laurence R., The Emergence of American University, University of Chicago Press, 1965.