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Women's Higher Education in the United States

The 19th-Century Debate

Women’s higher education in the United States at the turn of the 19th century was a heavily debated subject.  Critics argued that women could not- and should not- be educated equivalently to men.  They argued that women were mentally unequal to men, and would not be able to comprehend or find use in higher education.  In addition, the archaic belief that women belonged in the home, performing domestic chores and tending to a family, created the idea that higher education was not suitable for the 'role' of women.  Instead, many women were expected to be educated for domestic work by their mothers after leaving any elementary schooling they may have had.  As Butler wrote in The American Lady (1851), the early 19th-century expectations of a woman’s duties were:

“First; in contributing daily and hourly to the comfort of husbands, of parents, of brothers and sisters, and of other relations, connections, and friends, in the intercourse of domestic life, under every vicissiture of sickness and health, of joy and affliction. Secondly; In forming and improving the general manners, disposition, and conduct of the other sex, by society and example. Thirdly; In modeling the human mind, during the early stages of its growth, and fixing, while it is yet ductile, its growing principles of action.  Children of each sex are, in general, under maternal tuition during their childhood, and girls until they become women. (Woody 101)”

From these low expectations of the mind and role of women, it was a rare challenege for a woman to aim to become a scholar in the beginning of the 19th century.  However, attitudes were beginning to change.  Many progressive thinkers of the 19th century began to champion the idea of educational equality between men and women, thanks to an American history of educating younger women which started during the foundation of the country, as far back as the Puritan settlements of New England.  Religious leaders and settlers encouraged the education of girls so that they would at least be literate; therefore, these young women would be able to understand and spread the teachings in the Bible.  Religious proponents in the 19th century would continue this educational trend, arguing that Christian women should be educated at higher levels to spread the religious word. 

Political ideals in the 19th century also shaped a new support for the education of women.  Political and educational policy makers encouraged the idea that citizens needed a strong educational background, and that this education could, in part, come from their mothers.  These ‘republican mothers’ required a certain level of schooling themselves, and were encouraged to complete schooling (although not necessarily higher education).  These women would go on to raise better educated and more patriotic sons and daughters in furture generations. Political urging helped to fuel the beginnings of higher education for women, as they raised standards for the mothers of the nation.

From these conflicting movements in 19th-century America, higher levels of educational opportunities for women slowly began to emerge. 

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  Caitlin McElligott, Miami University 2007