For the Benefit of the Girl about to Graduate

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For the Benefit of the Girl about to Graduate

Editorial cartoon

By: Charles Howard Johnson

Date: May 22, 1890

Source: Library of Congress. "For the Benefit of the Girl About to Graduate." 1890.

About the Author: Charles Howard Johnson (?–1896) was a well-known magazine illustrator based in New York City. His work frequently appeared in the leading magazines of the day, including Life magazine.


When the English colonists first began arriving in North America in significant numbers after 1620, the formal education of the young people of the colony was of secondary importance to the manual labor that they represented. Such labor was required to make a success of the agricultural work that was at the heart of the early colonial establishment.

The first elementary school was established in 1635 in Massachusetts, with a colony-wide policy of schooling or apprenticeships in place by 1642. Harvard College was established in 1636 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a time when there was no significant demand for advanced education given the nature of the colonial structure. The next prominent colleges to be established were Yale (1701) and Princeton (1746). These schools had significant connections to the Protestant church and each played an important role in the education of the colonial clergy.

The University of Pennsylvania was established in 1751; Benjamin Franklin and other colonial leaders in Philadelphia sought to establish an institution that was not directed to the training of clergy or religious studies, but one that would prepare its students for a career in business or commerce. After the Revolutionary War, there was a growth in the establishment of universities across the United States.

Relative to modern college and university enrollments in the United States, the American institutions after 1800 educated a very small fraction of the population. Women were prohibited from admission to any of the established universities; the prevailing societal values were such that women were expected to work exclusively in the home and there was no perceived need for women to have access to higher education.

It was the expansion of the United States westward across the continent in the early 1800s that indirectly served as a stimulus to the establishment of women's higher education. As new territories and states west of the Appalachian Mountains solidified their social and governmental structures, the desire to establish school systems led to a need for teachers. Women had become a part of various local school systems after 1800 without the benefit of extensive training as they were not permitted access to the male institutions. The "normal" schools, a name derived from the French term ecole normale, meaning instruction in the education norms, were established to provide a two-year instructional program for teachers. The first normal school was founded in Massachusetts in 1823; the schools proved a very popular means to provide teachers with a base level of instructional education. The normal schools represented the primary access point for American women to any form of higher education until the latter part of the nineteenth century.

In response to the prohibitions in place at the university level in the country, a small number of institutions catering exclusively to female students were founded. Most were located in the northeastern states, and the most prominent of these colleges were those that were later known as the "Seven Sisters," founded between 1837 (Mount Holyoke Seminary) and 1889 (Barnard College). The other Seven Sisters institutions included Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley colleges.

At the time of this editorial cartoon in 1890, teaching remained a primary career for a young woman who sought an education. Education was generally out of the question for the poor; the expectation of both typical middle-class young women and society at large was that teaching or a similar career might be pursued for a period prior to marriage and the raising of a family. The university-educated career woman contributing income to a two-income family was a concept that remained many decades in the future.



See primary source image.


By 1890, the pursuit of an education and a career outside of the home had moved from the status of novelty to a more common, if not accepted, fact of American life. Through the combined availability of the normal schools for teachers and the four-year women's colleges, a significant number of middle- and upper-class women with the means to pay for university education were able to pursue careers—teaching, nursing, library science, and social work were the most common courses of study.

For many women, the Victorian attitudes respecting the proper place of a woman and the desire for education came into significant conflict. The Charles Howard Johnson cartoon is of particular interest in this regard as it neatly illustrates the pressures that educated women experienced to conform to the societal norm of marriage and family.

A number of modern analyses of the history of women's education in the United States refer to the university graduates of this era (1890 to 1920) as the first beneficiaries of expanding women's education. More than 30 percent of these graduates did not marry by age fifty, a fact that suggests that education and a subsequent career were circumstances that propelled many women out of the societal mainstream.

The Howard cartoon contains a mixture of blunt and subtle messages for the viewer. The dreaming female on the eve of her graduation appears to have conjured up an animated army of pots, pans, utensils, and other domestic tools. The placards carried by the animated figures challenge the student and her education: "Are you with us?"; "Can you use me?"; and "Have you any idea who I am?" These phrases suggest that the female's education is of little value when com-pared with the domestic virtue of housekeeping and cooking.

The books arrayed on the shelves and on the desk of the student are also significant. "Goethe's Cookbook" is a mocking reference to the work of the influential German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). "The Care of Lamps" serves to trivialize the subjects a woman might study in university.

There is no question that the views represented by the animated domestic figures in the cartoon reflect a significant percentage of public opinion concerning the relevance of women's higher education in 1890. At the time of this cartoon's publication, women did not have the right to vote anywhere in the United States and discrimination on the basis of gender was ingrained in every aspect of society.

From the perspective of modern society, the scene depicted in this cartoon is far removed from current attitudes regarding the status of women in America. The university-going American female ceased to be a novelty after World War II. As university education became increasingly accessible into the 1960s, approximately 35 percent of all American university entrants were female. The 1972 passage of Title IX, part of the Educational Amendments to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, served to accentuate the principles of equal educational opportunity for men and women, as institutions were now mandated by law to ensure that there was gender equality in the programs offered.

In 2006, for every 100 male students entering university, there were 135 female students. Female applicants tended to achieve higher scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) administered to most prospective university entrants in the United States. In many professional and graduate schools, including the former male bastion of law, it is common for female students to constitute a majority of the graduates.

In 1890, the average age at marriage of a single American woman who had never previously been mar-ried was 24.7 years. In 2006, the comparable age was 27.7 years. While the greater availability of a university education is not the predominate factor in this increase of three years, the related ability of women to seek career employment is a contributing factor.



Martin, Jane. Women and Education 1800–1980. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.

Palmieri, Patricia Ann. In Adamless Eden: The Community of Women Faculty at Wellesley. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.


Goldin, Claudia. "Working Paper 10331/Long Road to the Fast Track." National Bureau of Economic Research 3 (2004).

Web sites

Harvard University. "The Quiet Revolution That Transformed Women: Employment, Education and Family." June 2006 〈〉 (accessed June 28, 2006).

Stanford University. "Why the U.S. Led in Education Lessons from Economic History." June 2006 〈〉 (accessed June 29, 2006).