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Women in Education

Women in Education


Young Girls. Limited opportunities for schooling were available to girls and young women. Even though Protestant belief acknowledged the same route to salvation for men and women, and thus the same need for literacy, female education in the early nineteenth century ranged from inferior to nonexistent. As the push for school reform increased during the 1830s and 1840s, however, popular attitudes began to shift concerning the education of girls. Although womens intelligence was considered different and perhaps inferior to mens, females were believed capable and deserving of common school education in order to become upstanding moral citizens and more important because as future wives and mothers they needed to pass such solid moral training on to their families. Benjamin Rush, DeWitt Clinton, Emma Hart Willard, and others took up the argument that female education was necessary for this crucial domestic role. Although inequality of opportunity remained a problem, the increasing acceptance and provision of education for girls resulted in a dramatic rise of female enrollments in schools of all levels. As more and more girls passed through the educational system, a sign of their advancement could be found in the increasing percentage of literate women, which doubled between 1780 and 1840.

Academies and Seminaries. In the decades before the emergence of high schools (which did not become wide-spread until after the Civil War), academies and seminaries

arose to serve as a transition from grammar school for those who wanted to prepare for college work and as a form of higher education for the many who would not go on to college. Though females began to enjoy a rough equality of access to primary schooling and were in some places in the majority among those who continued on to grammar schooling, they were at a significant disadvantage in access to most forms of higher education. The founding of female academies was thus a boon to women seeking some sort of higher learning. In New York State alone thirty-two academies were incorporated between 1819 and 1853 with the prefix Female in the title. Still more advanced were the special female seminaries, such as that begun by Willard in Middlebury, Vermont, in 1814, the Troy Female Seminary (founded by Willard in 1821), the Hartford Female Seminary (founded by Catharine Beecher in 1828), and Mount Holyoke Seminary (founded by Mary Lyon in 1836). During the 1830s and 1840s, especially in the South, the female seminary quickly became the vogue. In Alabama, for example, twenty-seven academies for girls were founded between 1822 and 1861. These schools trained girls in domestic, literary, and religious matters as well as in mathematics, philosophy, and history, providing the first higher education for females in the United States. The future expansion of higher education for women was based on the establishment of the academies and particularly the female seminaries founded in large numbers between 1800 and the 1850s.

Higher Education. Wesleyan Female College in Georgia began awarding degrees to women in 1836, the same year that Oberlin College began admitting women to academic study. In spite of such advances opportunities for higher education remained restrictive and inferior when compared to the educational opportunities available to young men. The female seminaries and emerging womens colleges were not yet on the same level with the traditional degree-granting institutions for men. As Beecher frankly stated: Not one female seminary calling itself a college has as yet, secured the chief advantages of such institutions. They are merely high schools. By 1840 there existed only seven institutions of all kinds for the higher education of women. Nevertheless, by insisting that women were capable of receiving levels of education beyond grammar school, reformers and the young women who attended the new female seminaries forever changed Americans views of women and their intellectual abilities.


During the antebellum period almost all colleges restricted admission to white men. Common belief held that women were incapable of intellectual self-discipline and rigor. Attempts to impose higher learning on young women, it was feared, would prove debilitating to both the female mind and body. In this climate Oberlin College in Ohio stood out as an anomaly. In 1832 Oberlins founder, the Reverend John J. Shipherd, proposed a school open to both sexes and all races, and in 1837 Oberlin became the first American college to admit women as well as men. It offered young women a choice of a ladies course or the traditional classical curriculum. In 1842 four young women received bachelor of arts degrees from the Ohio institution. As one Oberlin student explained: Women are to be educated because we choose civilization rather than barbarism. Over the following decades more and more educational institutions would admit women as students, and the number of exclusively female institutions would increase. But despite the pathbreaking stance of Oberlin in the 1830s, American higher education remained a virtually all-male affair until after the Civil War.

Source: Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College: From its Foundation through the Civil War (New York: Arno, 1971).


Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 17801860 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983);

Maxine Schwartz Seller, ed., Women Educators in the United States (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994).

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