By CHRISTOPHER A. BOHJALIAN
Volume IV, Number 4
"It seems to me then to rest with us, the college women of this generation, to see to it that the girls of the next generation are given favorable conditions for . . . scholarly development."
M. Carey Thomas, "Present Tendencies in Women's College and University
In 1833, more than two centuries after Harvard was founded, Oberlin College accepted women students. Later in New England, Mary Lyon opened the Mount Holyoke Seminary. For the first time in American history, women were being given an opportunity to receive an education equal to that afforded men. During the next forty years, the Seven Sister colleges (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, Radcliff, Smith, Vassar, Wellesley) would be founded, as well as 29 coeducational colleges and at least a dozen female Catholic schools.1 Skeptics would continue to wonder whether women were physically and mentally capable of receiving a higher education, but by 1880 one-third of all college students would be female.2
Nevertheless, higher education for women in the late nineteenth century remained in some regards as reactionary as it was revolutionary. While more women every year attended college, the trend was not toward increased acceptance of the educated or professional woman; on the contrary, the college woman became more acceptable every year only as the women's colleges deviated from their original assumption that women were intellectually equal to men and deserved similar opportunities, and instead conformed to the traditional expectations of the role of women as wives and mothers. It is helpful to conceive of two phases in the history of women's education once the Seven Sisters were founded. The first, beginning in 1865 with the opening of Vassar College, continued until approximately 1890 when it dawned on society that graduates of Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley were not marrying as often or as early as the national average. The second phase encompassed the last decade of the nineteenth century, and lasted until the pressures for coeducation at the Seven Sisters peaked in the late 1960s. Certainly, the year 1890 is inexact; it is chosen only because the trends beginning in the 1880s culminated that year with the publication of the fifteen volume "International Education Series" edited by the revered philosopher and educator, W. T. Harris. Harris' arguments, presented in the volume on The Higher Education of Women, defended the college woman in both single-sex and coeducational environments by asserting that higher education improved women spiritually, and best prepared them to be the moral teachers of future generations. Harris, in short, said college prepared the woman to be a superior mother. It was an ironic synopsis of thirty years of thinking on the subject, a conclusion combining the attitudes of those for and against the higher education of women.
Harris argued that "the education of women involves the theory of the life sphere of women," asserting that a woman's sphere was that of a family, while a man's was "productive industry." He believed that women were able to receive a college education, in fact should receive one for the good of the family and, in turn, society. Although a woman's education should be equal to a man's, it should be different as well, fitting her for her particular calling. A woman's "special vocation," he said "involves this special feature of nurture." Just as men needed to be trained for the spheres of productive industry and civil society, a woman needed a solid education to build a moral and efficient home life. By nature, men would take more courses in the physical sciences, and women would excel in the arts and humanities.3
Harris also believed that precisely because men and women had different abilities and different roles, coeducation was more effective than separate schools. "The differences of mind," he said, "tend rather to help than to hinder the progress of both sexes. Each party gains something from the other one's views, and, although the profit of higher study is not . . . the same for women as for men, there is ample profit for each."4 Harris appreciated the advantages of coeducation, and accepted women as the intellectual equal of men. But his views also were similar to the prevailing attitudes of educators in the late nineteenth century. Some women did need or deserve a college education, but not for the same reasons as men. Men needed an education for their careers; women needed one to inculcate their children with the proper virtues and values for a democratic society.
While 40,000 women attended college in 1880, less than forty percent of them went to all-female schools. Moreover, as the percentage of women students at colleges and universities increased during the 1880s, the percentage of those women choosing to attend single-sex colleges fell from forty to thirty percent. It remained relatively uncommon for a woman to go to college, but those who did more often chose a coeducational school. Although women's colleges never graduated anywhere near a majority of the women receiving a higher education, the role of the Seven Sisters should not be underestimated. With their expressed goal of giving women the finest possible education, they provided a significant break with tradition; they were a symbol of women's intellectual prowess. Until Vassar opened in 1865, Emma Willard's plan for a female seminary was the basis for almost all experiments to give women a college education. Elizabeth College, Elmira College, Mary Sharp College, and the coeducational Oberlin all followed Willard's suggestions in the 1850s for a women's curriculum with instruction under four major departments: Religious and Moral, Domestic, Literary, and Ornamental. Oberlin wound up with a separate female curriculum known as the "ladies course." Lacking physical sciences and the classics, the "ladies course" was chosen over the standard curriculum by 229 of Oberlin's 249 women in 1856.5
Often during the nineteenth century, Willard's arguments that women were the best teachers both at home and in the school would be cited by proponents of higher education for women. Educators hoping to open either private women's colleges or coeducational schools would refer to her 1819 address to the New York legislature in which she outlined her "plan to improve female education," but purposely avoided the term "college" to avoid ridicule.6 Ironically, Willard advocated a policy which made it difficult for women to be anything but public school teachers and mothers. This was undoubtedly a factor in her continued popularity during the next sixty years. At the same time that she opened one door for women, she made it difficult to open any others. Throughout the nineteenth century, women often went to college intending to become teachers. As public education spread, the demand for qualified teachers mushroomed. Women, because it was perceived that their natural sphere was with children, were viewed as superior teachers. Not incidentally, they also worked for lower salaries than men. By 1888, 63 percent of the public school teachers nationwide were women, many of whom had attended college.7 The second generation of female colleges, founded in the two decades after the Civil War, broke Willard's mold. Vassar, Smith (1875), and Wellsley (1875), consciously strove to provide an education equal to that given men. Vassar offered a curriculum with as much science and classics as Harvard; Smith had admission standards which demanded as much preparation as any men's college.8 And Wellsley opened with a female president and an entirely female faculty. Boasting large endowments and facilities which, if not equal to those at the men's colleges were still fairly impressive, the Seven Sisters had great ambitions; between 1865 and 1890, they earned the distinction of being the first women's colleges to provide a genuine college education.
Vassar College opened with an endowment of over $400,000. The first class had 353 students from 22 of the 36 states, and a thirty member faculty which included 22 women.9 Despite Matthew Vassar's large initial gift to fund the school, he believed that students should pay the operating costs of their education. "It not my purpose to make Vassar Female College a charity school," he told the college trustees at their first meeting.10 The college was the first institution in the country to be heated by a main plant in a separate structure, and boasted hot and cold running water when it opened. One student wrote her family in 1865," I took a splendid bath today. I think you will have to get a bathing place fixed up by the time I come home or I don't believe I can hardly stand it, for I enjoy it so much taking them here." Tuition was $350 a year, not significantly more than most New England men's colleges, but much higher than the midwestern coeducational universities.11 The earliest study of parental occupations of Vassar students, conducted in 1870, showed that among the 139 students who reported, only six were not the daughters of business or professional men.12 To a certain extent, Vassar began by educating the nation's (although primarily the northeast's) upper middle-class young women. Although the school opened without a preparatory department, within a month of the arrival of the first students, President John H. Raymond concluded that because the women came to Vassar with no common training or knowledge, and only one-quarter were "thoroughly grounded in anything," one was needed.13
Smith College opened a decade after Vassar, with only 14 students, but without a preparatory department. In this regard, Smith was the first of the Seven Sisters to provide an education actually equal to that given men at the finer men's colleges. An entrance examination as rigorous as that at Harvard undoubtedly kept the class small. The Smith tuition was only $250, considerably less than Vassar, but the accommodations in Northampton were as extraordinary as in Poughkeepsie. Unlike Mount Holyoke, where the students performed cooking and cleaning chores to help keep expenses down, Sophia Smith left Smith College a large initial sum in her will so that students could study in fairly luxurious surroundings, and be exempt from daily household rigors.14 Unlike Matthew Vassar, however, she did leave $15,000 "for a fund for indigent students, the income of which shall be used to pay the tuition and board."15
Vassar, Smith, and the entire Seven Sister schools remained out of reach of most women desiring a college education not simply because they were more expensive than coeducational schools, but because of their geographic locations as well. With the exception of Bryn Mawr, they were clustered in New York and New England. With the passage of the Morrill Federal Land Grant Act of 1862, which according to Frederick Rudolph "did probably the most to change the outlook of the American people toward college-going" by giving each state public land or land scrip for new colleges, schools sprang up across the country during the next twenty years.16 Additionally, a college was a symbol of development and eastern cultivation in growing mid-western towns and cities in the late nineteenth century, and colleges, usually coeducational out of financial necessity, were built by communities whenever it was feasible, (an often, judging by the number of schools which closed before 1900, when it was not feasible). By 1890, there were at least 470 schools for higher education.17 But Harris' volume on women's education, published that same year, only noted nine women's colleges which offered an education as good as that given by the coeducational or male colleges.18 Again all but Bryn Mawr were located in New York or New England. If a daughter insisted on continuing her education, most parents outside of New England sent their child to a local college where she could live at home, or at least could live relatively near home. Moreover, the state schools were less expensive, and even when a family had sufficient money to send a daughter north or east to one of the Seven Sisters, it often must have seemed to be a wasted investment to give her the finest educations possible when in all likelihood she eventually would be simply a wife and mother. When funds were scarce, obviously a son's education would take priority over a daughter's.
The fact that the Seven Sisters drew their student bodies predominantly from the northeast is borne out by the statistics on regional distribution at Smith and Vassar in the nineteenth century. As late as 1896, 778 of Smith's 932 students, or 83 percent, were from New York and New England. Well over one-third of the women were from Massachusetts alone.19 At Vassar, usually about 77 percent of the student body was from New York or New England during the nineteenth century, with a predictably large number of women from New York.20
If Vassar and Smith broke new ground in the classroom, they remained on fairly common turf for the nineteenth century once course work was completed for the day. If women were to receive a new and different type of education, they at least would learn in a proper environment, and preserve proper social values. There were strict rules governing when, and for how long, a Smith woman could see an Amherst student, and male visitors were allowed at Vassar only with a letter of introduction from the Vassar student's parents. In 1866, a Vassar woman was dismissed from the college for "carrying on and seeking a clandestine correspondence with a young man in the city." Although the Vassar administration did not formally supervise students' correspondence, the corridor chaperones were instructed "to notice as far as they may be able, the extent and character of [correspondence], and to report . . . such cases as seem to need attention."21 Generally, the accepted mores and proprieties of the era were upheld by each institution.
Although the benefactors of both Smith and Vassar were unlikely leaders in the higher education of women in the nineteenths century, what Matthew Vassar and Sophia Smith lacked in feminist consciousness they made up for in common sense. Neither initially considered endowing women's colleges, but both were swayed by the arguments of friends that the time was right to give women the chance to prove themselves to be the intellectual equals of men. Vassar, a successful brewer, gave up his plans for a hospital in Poughkeepsie when Milo Jewett, a schoolmaster and abolitionist, told him, "Great hospitals are for great cities." He outlined for Vassar, "Facts and Reflections Respecting the Founding of a College for Young Ladies," and urged for a college for young women in Poughkeepsie patterned after the female seminaries in the south, but rigorous enough to justify the name "college." Because of Vassar's continual changes of heart in the late 1850s, Jewett concluded that Vassar would never, in the long run, fund a female college, and Jewett and Vassar's friendship ended on a note of bitterness.
Clearly, however, Jewett's suggestions were not lost on Vassar. In his private diary, Vassar scribbled: "The Founder of Vassar College and President Lincoln - two noble emancipationists, one of women." Jewett at one point had been Vassar's designate for his school's first president; after their friendship had run its course, Vassar turned to John H. Raymond, a charter trustee of the college and president of the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute. Raymond accepted the position and was instrumental in bringing female teachers to Poughkeepsie. While the astronomer Maria Mitchell was the only female department chairman when the school opened, over two-thirds of the faculty were women.22
Like Vassar, Sophia Smith too is a surprising figure to find in the women's college movement. Lacking Mary Lyon's fledgling feminism, she surprised some of her acquaintances when she decided to become the first woman to will a fortune to a female college. Her pastor, a young Amherst graduated named John Greene, described her at the Smith College Quarter Centennial celebration as "a woman of sound wisdom and discretion," and noted, "She also had an exalted idea of womanhood, and thanked God for her feminine birthright. She rather pitied men than envied them."23 She was a deeply religious Massachusetts spinster, shy, deaf, and as she grew older, moody. Because her wealthy older brother neglected to make out a will before he died, she unexpectedly inherited all of his fortune. Suddenly rich, and unsure of what to do with her windfall, she initially considered building a school for deaf mutes in western Massachusetts. This dream fell by the wayside when the exact sort of school she had in mind was created in Northampton by others. Greene recommended that she consider leaving her estate to Mount Holyoke. But Smith refused even to travel the ten miles to South Hadley, and proved unresponsive to a group of visiting ambassadors from Mount Holyoke.24
Greene next suggested that she leave a bequest to Amherst College, a proposal rejected immediately because Smith disliked the Amherst faculty. Greene decided then to write Smith one final proposal:
One of the finest opportunities ever offered a person in this world is now
offered to you in another enterprise. You may become to all time a
benefactress to the race. I refer to the endowment of a Woman's College. . .
You can now, by a codicil to your will, appropriate the sum designed for a
deaf-mute institution to this object and have your name attached to the
first Woman's College in New England.25
Smith agreed, and the college bearing her name opened four years after she died.
Buy the 1870s, when the designated trustees of Smith College were determining exactly how to make the women's college a reality, the time was ripe for increasing the quality of higher education. Cornell, in upstate New York, recently had been added to the list of successful coeducational colleges and universities scattered throughout the midwest, and Vassar every year was becoming financially and academically more stable. Ironically, those most in favor of giving women a college education usually argued for coeducation, and often asserted that those colleges already in existence should open their doors to female students. An 1870 editorial in the Springfield Republican, Samual Bowles' newspaper, after announcing the terms of Sophia Smith's will, said that while her purpose was "a noble one . . . we almost wish she had bequeathed a small sum to some existing college, on condition that girls should be admitted thereto with equal privileges." The Republican editors believed that women not simply needed an education equal to men's, but that they needed to receive their education in the same classrooms with them: "The qualities of the two sexes supplement each other in school." The conclusion of the editorial was that, "It would have been better boldly to confront the difficulties, such as they are, of educating the two sexes in college together, and to have added to the funds of Amherst College a sum sufficient to open a common course."26
At the Amherst College Semi-Centennial celebration in the summer of 1871, the governor of Massachusetts, a celebrated minister, and a professor of theology squared off on the subject of a coeducational Amherst. Governor Alexander Bullock, at the time a trustee of the college, offered a scholarship endowment for female students. The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher spoke immediately after Bullock and asserted that the question "whether women shall have the right to the highest education which it is possible to gain in America had been settled, and that long ago." He continued:
Why should we put two schools to do the work of one? Are women so much
like men that they need but one church, one catechism, one minister, alike
in almost everything, and yet so different that they need two sets of instructors,
one for men, and one for women in ordinary matters of education? . . .
Amherst is one for a universal education. If a man be black, and is fully prepared,
or if a woman is fully qualified, its doors will open to them.Amherst should lead in
this march of progress.
The debate ended with Professor Edwards Park of Andover Theological Seminary (formerly of Amherst) speaking against coeducation. Park favored the higher education of women, and believed that Smith College would "contribute much to the true honor of women," but said that women would be a distracting influence to Amherst men if placed in the same classroom with them. He recounted an anecdote about one student who was neglecting his studies. President Humphrey at first concluded that the student either had headaches or fever; then, that the boy was in financial trouble of some sort. Finally, Humphrey realized that "the remissness of the young man is owing to a shock which he has received from a gal-van-ic battery." L. Clark Seelye, the first president of Smith College but a professor at Amherst in 1871, was present during the debate and recalled later: "The uproarious laughter and prolonged applause which followed his address showed clearly enough that the audience made the obvious application of his illustration, and the attempt to make Amherst coeducational failed."27
On the other hand, Amherst had a fairly strong hand in getting Smith College off the ground. Two Amherst professors served on the Board of Trustees, and L. Clark Seelye left the Amherst faculty to serve as the school's president. In a circular distributed throughout Massachusetts in 1872 to raise additional funding, the trustees stated that the Smith admission requirements would be virtually the same as at Amherst.28 Although Amherst - as well as most of the other New England men's schools - was not prepared for coeducation in the 1870s, the school had no qualms about the idea of women receiving a college education. L. Clark Seelye himself opposed a coeducational Amherst because "the restraints of expediency are weak, and the appetites most inflammable," and believed that the ten miles separating Amherst and Smith "would . . . save the community from a great amount of evil,"29 It was out of propriety, not contempt for women's intellectual capabilities, the Amherst, Yale, or Dartmouth resisted coeducation.
While it is easy to focus on the early fears that some educators had about the influence of women on men in college (not surprisingly, Park and Seelye never worried about the effect men might have on women), it would be wrong to understate how radical were the ideals of the founders of Smith and Vassar. Matthew Vassar, in justifying his decision, said, "It occurred to me, that women, having received from her Creator the same intellectual constitution as man, has the same right as man to intellectual culture and development." Maria Mitchell agreed that a woman's college was more expedient than a coeducational institution: "Women, more than men, are bound by tradition and authority. What the father, the brother, the doctor, and the minister have said has been received undoubtedly. Until women throw off this reverence for authority, they will not develop." Mitchell concluded that the best way for women to discard "this reverence for authority" was in a feminine environment with women role models. After Matthew Vassar saw a pamphlet arguing for women's suffrage in 1868, he brought the abolitionist and suffragist Anna E. Dickinson to Poughkeepsie to lecture. Pointing out the law which denied women the vote along with "criminals, paupers, [and] Idiots," Vassar said it was wrong to place women "in so shamefull [sic] a category . . . I think it is full time my 300 daughters at 'Vassar' knew it, and applied the remidy [sic]." A year later, George William Curtis, author and women's rights advocate, spoke to the college on "Women's Sphere is Wherever She Can Find Anything to Do."30
The influence of such visitors and the idealism of Vassar's founders were not lost on its first students. As a sophomore in the mid-1870s, Harriot Stanton Blatch organized the Democratic Club, a political group she called an "institution composed entirely of a disenfranchised class." One student wrote a friend in 1868, "Do you believe, Belle, that the only end of woman is marriage - . . .that a woman who is earning her own living is wronging some man whom she is keeping from a situation which would enable him to be married, &c, &c? . . . I believe the civilization of the nineteenth century has something better to offer than that."31 Another Vassar woman concluded in 1870 that the only "national problem' which interested her was the "woman question." An editorial in the Vassar Miscellany, the college newspaper organized in 1866, succinctly said in defense of the higher education of women, "We want to be, that we may do."32
According to Sophia Smith's 1871 will, her exact intention was "the establishment and maintenance of an Institution for higher education of young women, with the design to furnish for my own sex means and facilities for education equal to those which are afforded now in our colleges to young men." Smith believed that with higher education, "what are called their 'wrongs' will be re-dressed, their wages adjusted, their weight of influence in reforming the evils of society will be greatly increased."33 Speaking at President L.Clark Seelye's inaugural in 1875, Amherst Professor William Tyler, and Chairman of the Smith Board of Trustees, presented his own interpretation of why Smith was developed:
The existing colleges of New England refuse to admit young women to
their advantages. We may approve or disapprove this exclusion.Our
approval or disapproval will not alter the facts. If the young women of this
section are to enjoy the advantages of college education, (and surely
none can deny that they ought at least to have the opportunity,) it must
be for the present institutions founded for that purpose. And as the existing
colleges refuse to admit young women to their halls, so we do not propose
to admit young men to ours.34
He concluded he would "be quite content if we can make [Smith] a real first-class college, like Williams or Amherst."35 While women were not to receive an Amherst education at Amherst, they were to receive a comparable one in Northampton.
In an 1874 address before the American Institute of Instruction, L.Clark Seelye defended single-sex higher education for women, claiming it allowed them to "truly know that all-perfect Mind, which is neither male nor female, in whose image she also was created." Give a woman "the amplest knowledge which is possible for her . . . to attain . . . train her at the same time to vigorous and dedicated action; and there is no work to which she may be called which will not at once feel the benefit of her superior culture. Seelye then proceeded to attack coeducation, explaining, "We find nothing which leads us to the conclusion that co-education will benefit the sexes intellectually, but good grounds for apprehending serious intellectual injury." Seelye feared immorality and bad manners in both sexes might result at a coeducational institution.36 But what is most evident from both Tyler's and Seelye's remarks, despite their slight disagreement on the subject of coeducation, is the idea that Smith women were supposed to do something significant with their education. Seelye used the word "action," and Tyler said he hoped most at Smith to avoid "that narrowness which has always been the bane of female education."37 Be it as teachers or writers, mothers, and perhaps even in occupations only grudgingly opening their doors to a few women, Smith graduates were - these leaders predicted - to take an active role in society.
Implicit in Sophia Smith's will was the assumption that women had the capabilities, and deserved the opportunities, to make their mark in the world in roles beyond those of wife and mother. "It is not my design," she said, "to render my sex any the less feminine, but to develop as fully as may be the powers of womanhood, and furnish women with the means of usefulness, happiness, and honor now withheld from them."38 From their inception, Smith College and the other Seven Sister schools groomed leaders. The schools provided student government activities through which women learned expression and organization; in the exclusively female environment, the students developed feminine solidarity. Although the students seldom were radical, the atmosphere of the women's college gave them opportunities for leadership they would not have had at coeducational institutions, and inherent in separate education was an emotional support system not easily found in coeducational schools. The recollections of Ada Comstock, an early Smith graduate who became a leader of the National Committee for Planned Parenthood and president of Radcliffe, are not those of militant, but rather a young woman discovering spirited camaraderie in a female world: "I remember when I was in my first year at Smith, I used to think that sometimes at night when I was opening my window, 'Now there are all these hundreds of girls here, so many that one would like to make intimate friends of and could by a little effort.' " Comstock concluded that Smith gave her "the power to recognize and put aside passion and prejudice and selfishness, to weigh issues dispassionately, to estimate consequences."39
Perhaps the greatest demonstration of faith in the purpose of separate education in the mid-1870's, and the higher education of women in general, occurred following the publication of Sex In Education; or A Fair Chance for Girls, by Edward H. Clarke, a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society and a professor at Harvard. The book went through two editions in less than two weeks. Clarke argues that men and women have different roles, geared to their different physical and mental make-up: "They are different, widely different from each other, and so different that each can do, in certain other directions, what the other cannot." Men could plough, and women ply a needle, and each should do what each did best. Women, although not inferior to men, were not as capable of receiving a higher education, and it was damaging to them to try and receive a "man's" education: "Wherein they are men, they should be educated as men; wherein they are women, they should be educated as women. The physiological motto is, Educate a man for manhood, a woman for womanhood, both for humanity. In this lies the hope of the race."40 Clarke cited numerous examples of women developing nervous disorders, hysteria, invalidism, and digestive problems as a result of "the continuous application to study" at Vassar and coeducational schools. He predicted direly that if more American women went to college, the nation would become increasingly weak as mothers became increasingly frail. Coeducation often compounded the problem (and certainly never mitigated it), since then women not simply had to contend with the rigors of men's education, but had to compete with them as well. What Clarke wanted was a women's curriculum in which "a girl [did] not study as many hours a day as a boy"; one in which there was an "intermission" of study and exercise every fourth week; and of course, the women's curriculum should lack most mathematics, physical sciences, and classics.41
Less than a year after Sex in Education was published, Anna Brackett, author and college graduate, presented a compilation of essays on women's education, The Education of American Girls. In addition to scathing reviews of Clarke's book were compositions by Caroline Dall, Lucinda Stone, and Sarah Hamlin, and articles by representatives of Vassar, Antioch, Mount Holyoke, and Oberlin. Brackett attacked Clark by questioning in the first place whether women truly were receiving a man's education: "who will asset that even Vassar College is to be, for a moment, compared to Harvard and Yale in respect to its facilities for acquiring a rounded education?" She continued, "Woman is not merely a 'cradle' and a grave, as she is assumed to be in the essay under consideration, and all attempts to settle the question of her sphere by considering her as such, are usually, and perhaps not unnaturally, found to excite indignation."42
Dr. Alida Avery of Vassar pointed out that Clarke's 14-year-old Vassar student who was traumatized by college was in all likelihood fictitious, since Vassar did not accept women until they were 15 years old; even if the woman had managed to sneak into the college, a 14-year-old male at Harvard would not have fared much better. She cited statistics demonstrating that the health of Vassar students had improved as a result of their education.43 Throughout Brackett's book, the general themes are that higher education for women, regardless of whether coeducational or segregated, does not debilitate women, but instead improves their health; and that women deserve the chance to prove they are capable of mastering a standard college curriculum.
Not surprisingly, from the beginning Vassar and Smith were careful to stress the physical and hygenic regime of their students. Speaking at his inaugural two year after Sex in Education came out, L. Clark Seelye said that education as a rule improved a student's health and pointed out the specific safeguards the college was taking on behalf of the women: all study rooms at Smith were on the first floor of buildings, alleviating the continual necessity of climbing stairs; instead of large dormitories, the school would have small houses, in which students would receive care almost as fine as in a private home. "In these separate homes." Seelye boasted, "under the supervision of intelligent women, and with gymnastic training wisely adapted to their peculiar organization, we see no reason why young ladies cannot pursue study as safely as they do their ordinary employments."44
Despite Seelye's belief that college could be geared to a woman's "peculiar organization," or Sophia Smith's determination not to render her sex less feminine, the success Smith and the other Seven Sisters had giving their graduates a sense of purpose caused much of the nation to fear that the schools were creating sexless women. The schools were importantly different from coeducational colleges in that they provided their female students with a different set of role models. In 1889, with the exception of Bryn Mawr, each of the Seven Sisters had more female than male professors. Wellesley's female faculty outnumbered its male faculty ten to one. Smith had 13 female and 11 male professors.45 While the careers of the alumnae were comprised predominantly of teaching and social work, these women were creating new patterns for careers and marriage.
The marriage statistics of the Seven Sisters clearly demonstrated their break with tradition. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, a significantly lower percentage of graduates from the eastern women's colleges married than either the national average, or the percentage of women graduates from coeducational schools. Moreover, from the 1860's until the turn of the century, the percentage of married graduates of the Seven Sisters steadily decreased. Married alumnae had fewer children than mothers without a college education, or women who attended coeducational institutions.46 During the 1880s, only 42.7 percent of Smith graduates were married; the number of children per married alumna was less than two.47 But at this time in America, eighty percent of the women between 25 and 34 were married.48 As late as 1915, only 39 percent of alumnae from the Seven Sisters were married.49
When such marriage statistics were first determined in the late 1880s, they were received with alarm. Opponents of higher education for women exploited them, on occasion going so far as to call them a sign of the coming race suicide.50 Individuals seldom feared that college made women too frail to bear healthy children, as Clarke had 15 years earlier, but instead worried that college made women want not to marry and have children. In an article for the American Journal of Heredity in the early twentieth century, Dr. Robert Sprague wondered, "Is the women's college as now conducted a force which acts against the survival of the race which patronizes it? . . .No culture. art, science or morality can save it unless it produces about three matured children per married, child-bearing couple, and any race which does not do this is doomed to extinction."51 The falling marriage rate, at the same time that it suggested the success that women's colleges had inculcating desires for a career, also affirmed many people's fears that an educated woman was an unnatural, unmarriageable aberration.
Thus, the women's college, an institution designed to give women a different education than they previously had received, was placed in the embarrassing predicament of defending itself by saying that its students actually were no different from anyone else. Disputing the falling marriage rate, Vassar alumna Frances Abbot argues in an 1895 article that "Figures will always lie." She pointed out that three out of four members of the Vassar class of 1867 had married. But no matter how she interpreted the figures, she could not dispute the fact that only 38 percent of the school's alumnae before 1894 were married. A common defense of the low marriage rate was the explanation that women from the Seven Sisters generally went into teaching and social work, thereby spreading the womanly virtue of nurture to a great many people rather than only one family. Other defenders of higher education for women took Maria Mitchell's tack, pointing out that "Vassar girls marry late, but they marry well." Obviously, this did not refute the fact that frequently they were not marrying at all. A good deal of the nation had their worst fears about the women's college confirmed when M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr, said, "Our failures only marry."52
It never was clear, however, that the women's colleges themselves were responsible for the declining marriage rate. Other factors, the regional location of the Seven Sisters and the social class of their students, must also be considered. In addition, women who married young obviously did not go on to college in the nineteenth century; and those women who did not marry often chose to become teachers, a career enhanced by a college education. While the statistics show that the percentage of marrying alumnae from the Seven Sisters was far below the national average, there is no data comparing the marriage percentages of middle- and upper-class women who went to a female college versus those who did not. All that is known for sure is that nationally the 1880s was a period of late marriages and declining birth rate. The birth rate was especially low among the upper classes, from which the Seven Sisters took most of their students.53 On the other hand, there are statistics available which demonstrates that in the east, where the Seven Sisters were located, women married much later than in the mid-west and west. For instance, in 1910 in Massachusetts, 62.6 percent of women 25-34 years of age were married; in Kansas, the percentage that year was 86.4; and in Washington, 85.5 percent of the women between 25 and 34 were married.54 It may not have been so much that higher education prevented marriage, as that women who, for any one of a number of reasons, decided against marriage often went on to college.
Moreover, the situation reversed itself just before the turn of the century, so that for the period 1912-1921, as many as three-quarters of Vassar's alumnae were married.55 The reasons for the reversal are unclear, but the increase in the sizes of the Seven Sisters may have been a factor. The women's colleges grew almost as fast as the coeducational schools, despite the criticism they received. Between 1890 and 1910, nationwide college enrollment tripled, so that by 1910 women comprised forty percent of all undergraduates.56 Between 1896 and 1910, the Smith college student body almost doubled.57 It became increasingly less daring for a woman to attend college. In Women and Equality, William Chafe argues that the spirit of the first generation of college women did not carry over into the second, that the "sense of mission and 'specialness'" of a college education diminished as more middle-class women attended college. Eventually, the conventional middle-class values of home and family superseded those of independence and innovation.58
The first generation of college women at the Seven Sisters certainly were pioneers, but it would be incorrect to portray them as radical feminists, even in the context of the nineteenth century. Careers were as often the effect of spinsterhood as the cause of it. Simply attending college was a feminist gesture in the 1880s, and to this extent all these women were feminists. But few also were political activists. There was virtually no crusading for suffrage at the Seven Sisters in the nineteenth century.59 Some women undoubtedly believed that their education would give them whatever equality they desired, while others must have concluded simply that their right to an education was still too tentative to jeopardize. The college administrations, including that of M. Carey Thomas' Bryn Mawr, scrupulously avoided any actions which might have been perceived as "radical" or "feminist" during this early period. Despite their high tuitions, the school's endowments depended largely on the benevolence of businessmen. As a result, Vassar refused to invite Elizabeth Cady Stanton to speak, even though her daughter Harriot was a student there.
When suffragette Inez Milholland requested permission to hold a rally at Vassar, her request was denied, and when two professors actually attended a suffrage meeting before the First World War, the Vassar trustees were sharply critical. During the 1890s, Lucy Stone complained in South Hadley because Mount Holyoke allowed only male speakers on campus.60 Wellesley students continually voted against their own enfranchisement until 1912, after five states already had granted women the right to vote.61 Smith College did not permit students to solicit advertising for the school newspaper because it was unladylike.62 Mabel Newcomer was reproved by her superiors for participating in a suffrage rally in 1917 when she was an instructor at Vassar.63
The unspoken, but firm, institutional ban on active support for the suffrage movement at the Seven Sisters was only one indication of a subtle shift in attitude which occurred toward the end of the nineteenth century. Two books written by presidents of women's colleges, published in the 1890s, pointed out the new direction. The College Woman, by President Charles Thwing of the College for Women of Western Reserve University, and Why Go to College, by President Alice Freeman Palmer of Wellesley, both stressed marriage and motherhood as the primary ends of even the educated woman. Thwing defended higher education of women, but admitted it would "be well to put into the college the personal grace and graces which receive attention at the finishing school." While he recognized the work done by college women in settlement houses and as teachers, an equally noble goal was to have a "well-run home and moral household, a goal facilitated by a college education. "For the solution of the problems of the home no discipline is too thorough, too profound, too accurate," he asserted. "The community may depend that the home in which the college woman is the head shall be a home of the worthiest types."64 Palmer believed four years at school gave a woman "ideal of character, of conduct, of the scholar. . ." It gave a woman happiness, friendship, and sophistication, because at college, "charming manners, noble character, amiable temper, scholarly power, find their full opportunity and inspire such friendships as are seldom made afterward."65 In short, both Thwing and Palmer determined that college served different purposes for men and women; like Harris, they believed that women needed a higher education, but more for their families and society than for themselves.
Somewhat ironically, then, the women's colleges successfully stabilized their images and made themselves acceptable middle-class fixtures with the same arguments that suffragettes used to swing public opinion over to their side. Rather than continuing to rely on the claim that their students received an education equal to that given men, the Seven Sisters made the nineteenth-century construct of the moral, virtuous woman a major part of their reputations. Just as the suffragettes gained support by arguing that women were morally superior to men, and that the female experience as wife and mother would pacify and ennoble politics once women could vote, the women's colleges stressed the virtues of the educated mother. M. Carey Thomas certainly might here be cited as an exception, but even her fiery enthusiasm burned out with time.66 The arguments sounded reminiscent of Emma Willard, and anticipated the rhetoric which would be used by Lyn White to justify home economics as a women's major in college in the 1950's. While explaining that their students were intelligent and self-reliant, the schools gained respectability by insisting also that their alumnae made exceptional wives and mothers. Work in the settlement house movement, careers as scholars and teachers, all appeared secondary; the schools instead stressed to the public their role in furthering the arts and humanities, affirming women's traditional responsibility for "culture." As a tactic, although perhaps an inadvertent one, this logic was successful; the Seven Sisters were fairly secure institutions by the time the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. But again, as with suffragettes, the cost was great: although feminine independence and academic idealism would continue to exist in the schools, the alumnae ceased to lead the women's rights movement after graduation. Once the women's colleges failed to stress the primacy of individual mission, the career alternative, their ideals reverted to the traditional female roles.67
During the Smith Quarter-Centennial in 1900, and the Vassar Fiftieth Anniversary in 1915, the results of this return to domesticity became apparent. In the anniversary address in Poughkeepsie, Vassar President Emeritus James Monroe Taylor boasted about the school's founding trustees, "They never forgot that they were acting for women. . . [They] were seeking all the time for the supposed demands of a girl's mind and its special limitations."68 Ellen Churchill Semple, an alumna with a significant career as a geologist, explained that the field was perfect for women because it fit their "natural endowment,- their power of observation, their capacity for detail work, their patient perseverance in the collection of material, their intellectual humility, which makes for cautious induction . . ."69 And Vassar graduated Julia Lathrop, Chief of the Children's Bureau in the United States Department of Labor, claimed that the highest aim of a women's education was to prepare her for motherhood in modern society because, "The one great vocation constantly requiring the unsparing service of millions of women is the rearing of children and the conduct of the household." Lathrop described motherhood as the "most universal and essential of employments, [but] most neglected by science." Strangely ahead of her time in one sense, she called for the professionalization of housework, and a variant of home economics.70
The trend was virtually the same in Northampton. Charlotte Burgis Deforest, the senior class president, opened the Quarter-Centennial celebration by proclaiming, "the college has long since left behind that period in its career when it was regarded as a training school for specialists. The ideal of our college for each of its students is the attainment of intellectual womanliness." She concluded that "the prejudice" the college faced in its early years was due to fears that education detracted from the student "her womanly charms." This was no longer a concern, however, because the new "intellectual womanliness" at Smith understood that "the intellectual is after all only the qualifying adjective: the womanliness is the chief thing."71 Alumna Kate Morris Cone, in her address "Response for Home and Family," said that "the cooking, the cleaning, the tidying, and the serving, and how to get it done well and cheerfully" ought to interest the college-educated woman72 And Dean LeBaron Russell Briggs of Harvard echoed Charles Eliot, asserting:
Here is the key to the whole question of women's colleges. These colleges
exist, not for the completion of women with men, but for the ennobling of
women as women . . . If women's colleges keep their eye on the true aim
of all colleges, they will stand; if they teachwomen to compete with men,
they will fail, - or, what is worse, they will make women ignoble.73
Only one speaker at either celebration, out of over forty individuals, broke this mold. Professor Emily James Putman of Barnard, a Vassar graduate, openly expressed her fears about where women's education was going. Rather than educating women as something different from men, she said the women's colleges should educate women to be men, or at least to "have courses in not being afraid of things." She continued: "If I might have my way, all girls would be trained to be manly. They would be stripped of their hampering dress, which is in itself the badge of physical incompetence ." She argued that "you will hardly find one [male] who would care to be the female of his species, whatever his species happens to be."74 In both Northampton and Poughkeepsie, women were defined as emotionally and intellectually different from men, with marriage rather than a career as the primary goal. No longer were women to compete with men.
Often therefore, the experience of higher education removed women from the nineteenth-century household, but once again independence became less important than marriage, the graduate was left in the middle: dislocated from the values of her mother, but lacking the pioneering optimism of the first graduates of the women's colleges that she could open new frontiers. Joyce Antler argues that as the women's colleges stabilized toward the end of the nineteenth century, "the aspirations of educated women to achieve some significance in life apart from domestic accomplishments often remained unfulfilled."75 Trapped between the expectations of her family, and her desire to use her education meaningfully, the student faced a post-graduate crisis. William Chafe also cites this conflict, and argues that the settlement house movement often served as the means for resolution during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, a "compromise," because the settlement house "embodied the qualities of domesticity, nurturance, concern for children and the sick and the poor which were consistent with traditional views of women,"76 As a result of their education, these women no longer could be happy simply as wives and mothers; but they still desired a traditional home and family. Thus, they either married and found an outlet for their desire to exist outside of the home by joining women's clubs, temperance leagues, suffrage unions, and by performing community service; or, they entered the inner-city and worked in settlement houses. At Smith, something consistently referred to as the "Smith social service ethic" developed, a reform ethic which stressed volunteer work contributed in spare time to any number of local, community, and national institutions: hospitals, the League of Women Voters, and parent-teacher associations at neighborhood schools are typical examples.
Simultaneous with the development of community service as an alternative to a full-time career was the rise of the ideal of the scientific, educated housewife. Vassar graduate Ellen Richards, founder of the Home Economics Association, saw professionalism as a way to raise the stature of traditional women's work. Her numerous books, The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning and Food Materials and Their Adulteration among them, indicate another way turn-of-the-century graduates came to terms with the still conflicting desire to use one's education, and to have a family. Richards manages to combine her sense of womanliness with academic accomplishment. It was a reactionary approach, one placing the traditional role of women over that carved out by many early graduates; but as indicated by the success of her books, and the career of Julia Lathrop, it was a fairly common tack.77
Both Richards and Lathrop were members of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (later the American Association of University Women), and their stories to a certain degree mirror the changes that organization underwent toward the turn of the century.78 The ACA, a support group formed in 1882 in which alumnae from both separate and coeducational institutions could find camaraderie and attempt to tangibly improve the stature of the female graduate, began by attempting to prove, once and for all, that college did not undermine a woman's health. The Association questioned 705 women, and found that sixty percent believed their health had not changed at college, twenty percent concluded that they are now healthier, and twenty percent thought that their health deteriorated slightly because of college.79 The study, published in 1885, led Carroll Wright, State Labor Commissioner of Massachusetts, to conclude: "The facts . . . would seem to warrant the assertion . . .that the seeking of a college education on the part of a woman does not in itself necessarily entail a loss of health or serious impairment of the vital forces."80
But like the colleges themselves, as more women joined the ACA the solidarity and "specialness" associated with membership dwindled. In Collegiate Women, Roberta Frankfort concludes that by the late 1890s, "the unity fostered by the founders' sense of uniqueness as well as their need to prove women's scholarly competence gave way." She argues that some women were uncomfortable with a self-image that revolved around scholarship, causing their "united front" to wither.81 Throughout the 1890s, ACA members wrote articles wondering exactly what occupations were best for a college woman. Finally in 1896, an ACA publication presented a definitive list of those occupations fitting for a female graduate: teachers, librarians, stenographers, nurses, journalists, and clerks.82 It was a traditional, uninspiring assortment. At a 1908 national convention, the ACA members applauded loudly when Charles Eliot said that the greatest vocation in the world was child-rearing, and asserted:
The one great occupation for women is the most intellectual occupation there
is in the world. It calls, and calls loudly, and often calls in vain, for carefully
trained mental powers . . . I look forward therefore to the future of the higher
education for women as a great influence in the perfecting of home life,
of family life, of household joy and good.83
At the Smith Quarter-Centennial, Kate Cone articulated the new priorities, telling her audience, "One of the most recent topics of discussion by the Association of Collegiate Alumnae is how to make college courses more practical; that is, how to interest college girls in housekeeping."84
The irony in the move of the women's colleges toward domesticity at the end of the nineteenth century, may best have been exemplified by a group of Vassar students in 1910. Their play, "Victoria Vassar, or After College, What?" illuminated the conflict presented by education, and the typical student's answer. The plot revolved around Victoria, a student determined to pursue a career, rather than settle down with Reggie Yaleston who wanted a traditional, homey wife. Victoria tried biology and found it unappealing, social work and thought it unsatisfying; suffragettes and shirtwaist strikers were too tough for her. Finally she found her rial life was with Reggie, and decided against having a career. 85
Certainly, not all graduates followed Victoria's course; but the alumna with a significant career outside of teaching or social work, the alumna who either gave up marriage for career or chose to juggle both, was the exception. The mold for the twentieth century, until the pressures for coeducation began in the 1960s, had been set. The Seven Sisters had ceased to be leaders in the movement for women's rights, and they would not return to their original stance until the question of coeducation led them to re-evaluate their role and redefine their purpose.
1Mabel Newcomer, A Century of Higher Education for American Women (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1959), 37.
3W. T. Harris, "Editor's Preface," to Helene Lange, Higher Education of Women in Europe, in the International Education Series, W. T. Harris, ed. (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890), vii, xii-xiii, xv.
5Newcomer, 19, 25, 46, 49.
6Willystine Goodsell, The Education of Women: Its Social Background and Its Problems (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1924), 17-21; Newcomer, 11.
7L. R. Klemm, "Introduction to the Translator," in Lange, Higher Education of Women . . ., xxxvi.
8Peter Gabriel Filene, Him/Her Self: Sex Roles in Modern America (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 26.
9Thomas Woody, A History of Women's Education in the United States (New York: The Science Press, 1929), II, 179; Dorothy A. Plum et al., The Magnificent Enterprise: A Chronicle of Vassar College (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 8.
11Plum, et al., 7, 8,10.
13Plum, et al., 9.
14See Newcomer, Filene, and Elaine Kendall, Peculiar Institutions: An Informal History of the Seven Sister Colleges (New York; G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1975).
15"Last Will and Testament of Miss Sophia Smith" (Northampton: Trumbull & Gere, Steam Printers, 1871), 7.
16Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), 244, 247; Newcomer, 37.
18Klemm in Lange, xxix; Radcliffe and Barnard were not yet separately chartered colleges. In addition to the first five of the Seven Sisters, Klemm cited Wells College, Elmira College, Ingham University, and Rutgers Female College.
19L. Clark Seelye, Annual Report of the President of Smith College, 1896-97, 14.
21Plum, et al., 9, 12.
22 Kendall, 42-43; Plum, et al., 3-4. 6-7.
23John M. Greene. "Historical Address: The Origin of Smith College," October 3, 1900, in Celebration of the Quarter-Centennial of Smith College (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1900), 87-88; see also Kendall, 48, for more biographical information.
26"Smith Female College," The Springfield Republican, June 17, 1870, 4.
27"Address of Governor Bullock," presented at the Amherst College Semi-Centennial, July 12, 1871 in the Amherst College Semi-Centennial (Amherst College, 1871), 80; "Rev. H. W. Beecher's Address," presented at the Amherst College Semi-Centennial, July 12, 1871, in the Amherst College Semi-Centennial, 99-100; "Professor Park's Address," presented at the Amherst College Semi-Centennial, July 12, 1871, in the Amherst College Semi-Centennial, 114-115, italics in the original: L. Clark Seelye, The Early History of Smith College; 1871-1910 (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1923), 10.
28"Last Will . . . Sophia Smith," 10-11; Seelye, Early History . . ., 12.
29Joel E. Gordon et al., "Final Report of The Amherst Visiting Committee on Coeducation," Amherst, MA, June 1984, 5-6; see also Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1974), 264.
30Plum, et al., 5, 16, 19.
31Ibid., 16,23, italics and grammar from original letter.
32Ibid., 20, 27, italics in original.
33"Last Will . . . Sophia Smith," 8-9.
34W. S. Tyler, "Introductory Address," at the Inauguration of L. Clark Seelye as President of Smith College, July 14, 1875, 5.
36L Clark Seelye, "The Need of a Collegiate Education for Women," read before the American Institute of Instruction at North Adams, July 28, 1874, 16, 17, 22-23, 26.
37Tyler, "Introductory Address," July 14, 1875, 23.
38"Last Will . . . Sophia Smith," 10.
39Jacqueline Van Voris, College: A Smith Mosaic (West Springfield, MA: M. J. O'Malley Company, 1975), 3, 4.
40Edward H. Clarke, Sex in Education: or, A Fair Chance for Girls (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1974), 3, 4, 7, 12-13, 19.
41Ibid., 90, 155-157.
42Anna C. Brackett, "Review of Sex in Education," in Anna C. Brackett, ed., Education of American Girls (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1874), 374, 379.
43Alida C. Avery, "Vassar College," in Brackett, 348, 353, 357. Italics in the original.
44L. Clark Seelye, "Response," at his Inauguration as President of Smith College, July 14, 1875 (Springfield: Clark W. Bryan and Company, 1875), 28-29; for more information about the safeguards on women's health and stress on hygiene and exercise at Smith and Vassar in the nineteenth century, see also Filene, Him/Her Self, 25-26.
45Klemm in Lange, xxix; Radcliffe might be cited as an exception in addition to Bryn Mawr. At this point Radcliffe was not a fully independent school, and depended largely on male professors from Harvard.
50See Goodsell, 34-35, and Kendall, 128. According to Filene, even President Theodore Roosevelt used the term in 1903 (43).
52Kendall, 127-128, 130.
57L. Clark Seelye, Annual Report 1896-97, 13; L. Clark Seelye, "Smith College Bulletin: President's Report, 1909-1910." 9.
58William H. Chafe, Women and Equality: Changing Patterns in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 29-30.
59Newcomer, 18, 225; Kendall, 126-127.
64Charles Franklin Thwing, The College Woman (New York: The Baker & Taylor Co., 1894), 136, 140.
65Alice Freeman Palmer, Why Go to College? (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, 1897), 13, 15.
66See Roberta Frankfort, Collegiate Women: Domesticity and Career in Turn-of-the-Century America (New York: New York University Press, 1977), Frankfort compares the careers of M. Carey Thomas at Bryn Mawr, and Alice Palmer at Wellesley, to trace the two alternatives - marriage and career - that confronted the late nineteenth-century college woman.
67Among the early presidents, only M. Carey Thomas openly voiced her support for women's suffrage. Nevertheless, her Bryn Mawr students supported Woodrow Wilson two-to-one over Teddy Roosevelt's pro-suffrage Progressive Party in 1912.
68James Monroe Taylor, "Vassar's Contribution to Educational Theory and Practice," The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Opening of Vassar College, October 10 to 13, 1915 (Boston: The Merrymount Press, 1916), 27.
69Ellen Church Semple, "Geographical Research As a Field for Women," Fiftieth Anniversary . . . Vassar College, 83.
70Julia Clifford Lathrop, "The Highest Education of Women," Fiftieth Anniversary . . . Vassar College, 73.
71Charlotte Burgis Deforest, "An Undergraduate View of Smith College Ideals," Celebration of the Quarter-Centenary of Smith College, October Second and Third, 1900 (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1900), 7,9,10.
72Kate Morris Cone, "Response for Home and Family," Celebration of . . . Smith College, 34.
73LeBaron Russell Riggs, "Address," Celebration of . . . Smith College, 151.
74Emma James Putnam, "Women and Democracy," Fiftieth Anniversary . . . Vassar College, 112, 113, 114.
75Joyce Antler, "After College, What?": New Graduates the Family Claim," American Quarterly, 32 (Fall, 1980), 433.
78See Frankfort and Antler for more on the Association of Collegiate Alumnae.
84Cone, "Response for Home and Family," Celebration of . . . Smith College, 33.