WOMEN'S EDUCATION IN THE U.S.
Coeducation as a mass movement began in the middle of the nineteenth century in the United States. It was a process that can be dated back to the Colonial Period in U.S. history. Beloit College opened its doors to women in 1895 and was considered a latecomer in the movement. The same objections to coeducation that were voiced at Beloit were heard across the country. The prevailing belief in "separate spheres" for men and women was one obstacle in the way of progress for equality in education. This theory dictated that women's sphere was in the home and men's was in public life. Coeducation was only possible by the restructuring of century old attitudes, such as this, about women's capabilities and responsibilities. To understand fully the impact of coeducation one must know the background of women's education in the United States.
From the 1600s to the 1800s "...little attention was given to the education of women, either in theory or in practice."1 In this early period of American history, many people believed that women were incapable of intellectual pursuits and were destined to run the household. During those early years, because of the subsistence economy, the survival of the family kept women at home. Only the wealthy could afford the luxury of education for their daughters. And even then, the purpose of women's education was devoted to training a girl to be a good wife and mother. If woman's survival depended on a good marriage, then practicality did not necessitate an intellectual woman. "Above all, fear lingered that education might unfit a girl for her subservient role as wife."2 If anything, it was thought by many that education hindered her chances of finding a husband.
For many years, the extent of women's education was limited to an elementary school level for the majority and a high school level for the elite. Introduced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in New England, "Dame Schools" were the equivalent of a modern day kindergarten where little girls and little boys could both attend. During this time, parents in New England were legally obligated to teach their children to read. "Because some parents were too busy, or illiterate themselves, an older woman might take on the responsibility of teaching children their letters in her kitchen; thus began the dame schools."3 Their purpose was to train the boys for entrance to public schools and further education. The girls were taught the very basics of reading and writing and then sent back home so their mothers could properly train them for their duties in life. Because women's proper "sphere" was the home her preparation was obtained through apprenticeship to her mother. More formal schooling was expensive and time consuming and took a girl away from her assigned place in life.
The period from the 1790s to the 1850s was an age of renewed religious fervor in America. "The ideal of the Christian wife, mother and teacher gave repeated urgency to women's education."4 The influence of women in families, communities and churches became more important than ever before. This justified an improved education for women. One result was the female seminary which "may be said to have been the prevailing type of institution for girls' education from 1750-1865."5 At first many seminaries were nothing more than "finishing schools" where young women received instruction in "ornamental studies" such as drawing, singing or piano playing. However, "[t]he best institutions offered, over decades, an increasingly substantial portion of the liberal studies provided at men's colleges."6 When the female seminary reached its height from 1830-1860, these institutions began to raise their standards and expectations. Emma Willard founded the Troy Female Seminary (New York) in 1837. Willard's efforts have been widely recognized as marking the beginning of higher education for women in the United States. What Emma Willard did was point out the faults in the existing system. She believed that the basis for female education rested on two principles: "...studies must be selected either because they 'improve the faculties or that they may be useful for future life."7 She elevated women's education to an equal level with men's and by doing so "undermined the assumption that women were intellectually inferior to men that prevailed even among educators of women."8
Beloit in the 1840s was a pioneer town of less than 2000 inhabitants in the Territory of Wisconsin. The college was not excluded from the coeducation movement although its first experiment with coeducation was brief. In 1843 the Beloit Seminary opened its doors to young men who sought to further their education. When in 1846, Beloit College was founded, the Seminary became the preparatory department of the college. At this time Sereno T. Merrill was hired as the new principal of the Seminary to replace its first, who had "resigned in discouragement."9 Merrill placed his wife, Anna, in charge of a girls department which he established. According to his reminiscences in the school yearbook, the Codex of 1895, alumni E.W. Keyes recalled that students met in the basement of the Beloit Congregational Church:
While the girls did not exactly occupy the same study room with the boys, still the joint exercises in which both sexes participated, in class recitations, etc., etc., and in the mingling of daily prayer, when all were assembled together, showed conclusively that under these auspices, with the same instructor, in daily contact on term of equality, the students were then recognizing the first principles of co-education, which since then have been adopted by some of the foremost educational institutions in the land. At that time the necessities of the situation required Beloit Seminary to give this full recognition of the equality of the sexes in its instruction.
From about 1848 to 1850, due to the expansion of the Seminary and lack of a permanent building, the students met on the college campus in Middle College. In 1849 there were 203 students in the Seminary, including 60 women. "Although the Beloit Seminary in 1846 accorded to young women equal rights in its classes...", coeducation was only temporary.10 The Seminary founders intended to establish a Female Seminary of the "highest order."11 Yet by 1849-50, the Beloit College Catalogue announced the discontinuance of the Female Department "principally in consequence of the proposed establishment of a Female Collegiate Institute at some point in Northern Illinois." In 1849 the Trustees resolved to establish a permanent Female Seminary in Rockford, Illinois. The Beloit College officials felt that because there would be a seminary for women somewhere in the area at some time in the near future there was no need to double the efforts in Beloit. And so coeducation in any formal sense was not seen again at Beloit College for another forty-six years. During the 1850s there also existed a Beloit Female Seminary that had no connection to the college, but its existence was short-lived due to financial difficulties.
After the Civil War the female seminary began to decline in importance and institutions instead began calling themselves "colleges". Many women's colleges were created in an attempt to imitate the formal curriculum of men's colleges. It was during the second half of the nineteenth century that women demanded collegiate training. Their urgency is seen in an essay written by Mary A. Livermore in 1883. She says, "...the training of fifty years ago is not sufficient for the girl's of today...they are to think and act for themselves."12 "Much of higher education for women...grew out of...[the] need to recruit better educated members to the...feminizing teaching force."13 Another argument that worked in favor of women's colleges was the idea that women, being responsible for the upbringing of the next generation, should be well educated.
The concept of female colleges developed when female seminaries were criticized for not offering the discipline of hard studies, professionalism, and a liberal education. At first some institutions that were actually no more than academies "freely adopted the name college, as a result, several claimed to be the first women's college."14 Georgia Female College, one of these institutions, opened its doors as early as the 1830s. Originally, these colleges offered curriculums based on a system much like the Seminaries. Their objectives can be assessed as follows:
1. preparation for home duties, 2. cultivation of formal gentility and grace for their social value, through a variety of accomplishments, 3. discipline of the 'mental powers', so that women might be ready for any emergency in life, 4. more specific preparation for a variety of professional opportunities, 5. constant emphasis on religious and Christian purpose.15
In time, the schools became more rigorous academically. Wheaton College in Massachussetts is considered to be the first actual college for women. It began as a female seminary in 1834 and by 1846 Wheaton had transformed its curriculum to function as a women's college. Smith College, founded in 1875, was one of the first female colleges credited with offering a curriculum equal to that of the best men's colleges in the United States. In the late nineteenth century these institutions of higher learning for women earned the privilege of having the "female" dropped from their names and were referred to as "colleges". This expansion of educational opportunities did not exist without mixed results. Women graduates personally benefitted from extended culture and became more independent. These changes did not go unnoticed by critics of women's collegiate education, however, who complained that women were being taken away from their proper sphere - the home, and that higher education caused women to desert their duties as housewives later in life. Because women were in college during the main "courting" years with their social lives so restricted, they had to postpone their search for husbands until after graduation, meaning a later marriage, and fewer children. One critic claimed that "...no feminine employments, no domestic habits, can be learned" in the collegiate setting.16 It was true, women were being taken away from their original setting for learning, but the results far outweighed the broken tradition of uneducated women.
Equality was the next step in the struggle for women's education. Women such as Lucy Stone, the first woman in Massachusetts to receive the A.B. degree, began calling for coeducation in the second half of the nineteenth century. Such women demanded democracy and equality. In her book, What Shall We Do With Our Daughters?, Mary A. Livermore argued that instead of spending money to build new, inferior women's colleges and academies, the authorities should use the money to make room for women at already existing institutions. Women were also concerned with the quality of education they received at "female colleges". Martha Carey Thomas, an early feminist and longtime leader in women's college circles, declared that "[o]nly by having the schools and universities coeducational can we ensure the girls of the world receiving a thoroughly good education."17 Thomas was the dean and second president of Bryn Mawr College (PA), an elite women's college established in 1884. She "changed the emphasis from moral discipline to academic rigor...and resolved to make Bryn Mawr the equal of the best men's colleges."18 In the end, economics, rather than calls for democracy and equality, made the decision to accept coeducation a reality for many institutions. In fact, "the reason most often assigned for coeducation's success was its economy."19
Along with liberal arts colleges such as Oberlin College (OH), "Western state universities were influential leaders in the movement" for coeducation.20 Men and women who lived in the "West" tended to be more liberal because of their distance from the overpowering traditional ideology of the East Coast. Also, the Western states did not have the financial backing to build separate educational institutions for men and women.
Many institutions, Beloit College included, cited financial necessity as one reason for turning towards coeducation. Supporters of coeducation argued that coeducation was in accord with nature. Men and women coexisted in all facets of life; why should they be separated for the four years they spend in college? A second argument concluded that coeducation had a refining influence upon young men and women. Similarly, coeducation "enables the sexes to form a just estimate of each other."21 Pro-coeducation arguments were often based on observations of coeducation already in practice at several institutions across the country.
On the other side of the issue, there were those who vehemently opposed coeducation. Historian Lynn Gordon points out that "[p]rotests came from doctors, clergy, and writers already uneasy about the expansion of women's public roles. Opponents claimed that by going to college, women would sever the tenuous connections between education and domesticity and enter the domain of men."22 It seems that most of their arguments were based on imagination. In a Boston investigation made in 1901 of 421 school head masters, "254 were opposed to coeducation; and of these 122 were teachers of girls only, and 109 taught boys only."23 It was proven that most of the opponents of coeducation had, in fact, never had any first hand experience with it.
Opponents capitalized on common fears that people associated with coeducation. Early on they claimed that women would be "coarsened" or "demoralized" by coeducation. It was true that the world of higher education during the nineteenth century was a very masculine one and some people feared that a woman's prolonged presence in this environment would cause her to lose those qualities that made her feminine. On the other hand, many believed that women would not be able to keep up with the men because they would not be able to tolerate the physical strain. This coincided with the major fear that because women were considered the "weaker vessel" the "intellectual standards of coeducation would be lowered."24
Although Beloit College did not become coeducational until 1895, the students and faculty were not without their own opinions regarding the issue. In April of 1890, The Round Table reported that "...coeducational colleges are falling behind non-coeducational colleges in producing accomplished scholars." An October 1894 issue of The Round Table printed a poem that commented on the idea that women were not serious students. A portion of the poem read:
..If you'll carry my books, kind sir, she said.
Do you know what's in them, my pretty maid?
Just text and margin, kind sir she said.
What is your major, my pretty maid?
I study flirtanthropy, sir, she said...
It was obvious from this example and others that many Beloit College men were under the impression that women wanted coeducation merely for the sake of social functions and were not, indeed, dedicated students like themselves.
Mary Livermore, who wrote during the second half of the nineteenth century, commented on the objections made by opponents of coeducation, including the belief that flirtation, early marriages, and lower moral standards would result. Her stance was exactly the opposite. She claimed that in schools already coeducational, students maintained good morals and good manners and that education was not "wholly intellectual, but is moral and social..."25 In this regard, Beloit's own The Round Table reported in October 1894 about coeducation at Oberlin with a gentle reminder:
We are glad to hear that Oberlin students are appreciating their [social] advantages, but would beg to remind them that all men do not need the constant presence of ladies to keep them up to a proper standard of gentlemanly conduct.
Still another concern held by some Beloit College students and many other opponents to coeducation across the country was the problem of women graduates and the question of whether they would marry. It was mentioned in an April 1896 issue of The Round Table that "...it can safely be presumed that the majority of the women who graduate from our colleges will be elected to the state of matrimony." This report, itself, was a clear indicator to many that the stigma about female college graduates and marriage remained. The Round Table printed a poem in October 1895 illustrating just such a point:
She was smart and she was pretty
And her elders thought her witty...
She could read both French and Latin....
But in single life she tarried,
And she never, never married,
And she'll doubtless be a maiden till she dies;
For she bade a proud defiance
To the culinary science,
And she never knew the mystery of pies.
This poem aptly presents the prevalent views of this time. Women were not expected to be ambitious intellectually, in fact many men found it unbecoming. It was not until the final years of the nineteenth century that women began to be regarded as companions and co-laborers rather than as mere extensions of their husbands and fathers. This aided in the push to accept coeducation. Yet in the end, it was the financial incentive of coeducation which proved to win over Beloit College and other institutions, coupled with the persistence of men and women who supported the equal education of American women. If it had not been for these factors, coeducation may have been another passing experiment in the historical sketches of many institutions.