Women's education in the United States
Higher education was designed for men in colonial America. Since the 1800s women's positions and opportunities in the educational sphere have increased. In 1980, women surpassed men in number of bachelor's degrees conferred annually in the United States, and more bachelor's degrees have been conferred on women each year since. Since 2005, the majority of degrees in each category (including master's, and doctoral) have been conferred on women in the U.S.
According to Ellen DuBoise and Lynn Dumenil, they estimate that the number of bachelor and doctorate degrees from 1950–1980 for women are:
|Year||% of Bachelor degrees||% of Doctorate degrees|
In Colonial America elementary education was widespread in New England, but limited elsewhere. New England Puritans believed it was necessary to study the Bible, so boys and girls were taught to read at an early age. It was also required that each town pay for a primary school. About 10 percent enjoyed secondary schooling. Few girls attended formal schools, but most were able to get some education at home or at so-called "Dame schools" where women taught basic reading and writing skills in their own houses. By 1750, nearly 90% of New England's women and almost all of its men could read and write. There was no higher education for women.
Tax-supported schooling for girls began as early as 1767 in New England. It was optional and some towns proved reluctant. Northampton, Massachusetts, for example, was a late adopter because it had many rich families who dominated the political and social structures and they did not want to pay taxes to aid poor families. Northampton assessed taxes on all households, rather than only on those with children, and used the funds to support a grammar school to prepare boys for college. Not until after 1800 did Northampton educate girls with public money. In contrast, the town of Sutton, Massachusetts, was diverse in terms of social leadership and religion at an early point in its history. Sutton paid for its schools by means of taxes on households with children only, thereby creating an active constituency in favor of universal education for both boys and girls.
Historians point out that reading and writing were different skills in the colonial era. School taught both, but in places without schools reading was mainly taught to boys and also a few privileged girls. Men handled worldly affairs and needed to read and write. Girls only needed to read (especially religious materials). This educational disparity between reading and writing explains why the colonial women often could read, but could not write and could not sign their names—they used an "X".
Across the South, there was very little public schooling. Most parents either home schooled their children using peripatetic tutors or sent them to small local private schools. A study of women's signatures in Georgia indicates a high degree of literacy in areas with schools. In South Carolina, scores of school projects were advertised in the South Carolina Gazette beginning in 1732.
Coinciding with the beginnings of the first wave of feminism in the 20th century came the attempt by women to gain equal rights to education in the United States. Women's rights organizations focused on adjusting and increasing women's place in the public arena by arguing that the only fundamental differences between women and men were socially constructed ones, and thus women should be offered the same extensive and practical education that were offered to men. After long battles against gender oppression women finally obtained the right to be educated through several government acts/conventions, the opening of facilities willing to educate them, and the opportunity to continue into higher education.
Before the education reform that occurred during the Progressive Era, boys and girls often had different course programs of study. It was not uncommon for girls to be educated towards the jobs society deemed appropriate, such as secretary, journalist, or social-service worker. The idea of a "differentiated curriculum" between boys and girls was common throughout schools in the United States. This caused the high school education system to become a more "efficient site for the construction of gender". During this time, there was a push to make women a better "domesticated citizen" rather than a scholar. The voices of many women were just beginning to be heard in society as well as the education system, but there was still opposition from some as to the credibility of their words. Girls of different races and ethnicities were also entering the public school system at this time. Often times, the course of scholarly study was impacted by the race of the individual.
Education was a controversial topic in the 1930s, " and sex-segregated school systems protected “the virtue of female high school students.” ." Home economics and industrial education were new elements of the high school curriculum designed for unmistakably women's occupations. These classes taught women practical skills such as sewing, cooking, and using the new domestic inventions of the era; unfortunately, this “formal training offered women little advantage in the struggle for stable work at a liveable wage.”
The 1930s also saw tremendous changes in women’s education at the college level. In 1900, there were 85,338 female college students in the United States and 5,237 earned their bachelor's degrees; by 1940, there were 600,953 female college students and 77,000 earned bachelor's degrees. This increase was partially explained by the “contemporary discourse that reinforced the need for higher education for women in their positions as wives, mothers, citizens, and professionals.”
Because the proper role for a white, middle class woman in 1930s American society was that of wife and mother, arguments in favor of women's education emphasized concepts of eugenics and citizenship. Education showed women how to exercise their civic responsibilities, and it showed them the importance of the vote. Participation in student government trained women “early to become leaders later.” One study showed that in 1935, 62 percent of women college graduates voted compared to only 50 percent of women who did not attend college.
The basic assumption in the 1930s was that women should marry. There was also the perception that college educated women were less likely to marry, either because they “waited too long” or because the college experience which broadened their minds deluded them into believing “marriage should be between equals.” Others argued college made women better wives and mothers because it “imparted practical skills.”
In addition, the 1930s marked great economic hardship in the United States with the start of the Great Depression. At this point in history, a college major was expected to be a practical one. As difficult financial times neared, needing to justify college expenses became very real for women and their families. A study in 1924 that surveyed nearly sixteen-hundred woman PhD recipients concluded that seventy percent required grants, scholarships, and fellowships in order to cover the expense associated with earning a higher degree. Despite the financial support, the majority of these women were required to save money for years before pursuing their degrees because the aid was never enough. Despite these disadvantages, the 1930s marked the peak of woman PhD earners. These degrees varied in fields and began to legitimize fields for women that were once off-limits.
The "self-support" that these women engaged in to help finance their education became a widely accepted necessity. Both men and women were forced to find ways of supporting their education at this period of time. To help lessen the financial burden faced by families trying to educate their children, the National Youth Administration was created by the United States Government. Between 1935 and 1943, the NYA spent nearly 93 million dollars providing financial assistance. Despite the growing increasing opportunities for women in education, there was a constant need to justify the expense. As the number of college graduates increased, those who were displaced during the Great Depression had to compete with a younger and more-educated group of people.
The 1930s also marked the 10th anniversary of Women's suffrage in the United States. Despite earning the right to vote, women were still largely refused any role in positions of political power that allow them to make political change for their gender. Despite growing numbers of women graduates, many were denied positions that they were qualified for in favor of men. This struggle sparked new examples of political activism and increased support for an Equal Rights Amendment.
Areas of study
Teaching and nursing were the top two fields for women throughout the 1930s, but home economics also experienced a great surge in popularity during the Depression. Home economics brought a scientific language to the traditional women’s sphere of the home and raised “homemaking to the status of a respectable--though definitely female--occupation.” Social work, child development, and nursery school educational programs were also popular.
In addition to this strong vocational orientation in American education during the opening decades of the twentieth century, women began to make slow inroads into traditionally male dominated areas of education such as business, science, medicine, architecture, engineering, and law. Women were also able to gain positions of responsibility within the federal government because of the watershed events of the New Deal.
Other early coeducational schools included Hillsdale College founded as Michigan Central College in Spring Arbor, Michigan in 1844, and Antioch College founded by noted educator Horace Mann in 1852 in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Hollins University, founded as Valley Union Seminary in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1842 as a co-educational institution but became all-female in 1952;
A number of colleges were founded before the Civil War with all-female student bodies, including (among others, in addition to Salem): Mount Holyoke College of South Hadley, Massachusetts, founded in 1837 by Mary Lyon as Mount Holyoke Female Seminary; Wesleyan College of Macon, Georgia, founded in 1839 as Georgia Female College, which claims to be "the first college in the world chartered to grant degrees to women"; Queens College (now Queens University) of Charlotte, North Carolina, founded in 1857 as Charlotte Female Institute; Averett College (now Averett University) of Danville, Virginia, founded in 1859 as Union women's College; and Vassar College, founded in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1861.
With the start of the war many males were in uniform so more opportunities arose for women to fill the empty space in schools and the universities became more willing to admit the women. Slowly more educational institutions opened their doors to women; today, there are 60 women's colleges in the United States offering educational programs that parallel co-educational universities both in subject matter and in quality.
In 1848 the Seneca Falls Convention was held in New York to gain support for education and suffrage but it had little immediate impact. This convention is significant because it created a foundation for efforts toward equal education for women, even though it was not actually achieved until much later.
The Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862 founded universities to educate both men and women in practical fields of study, though women's courses were still centered around home economics. By 1870 30% of colleges were co-educational, later in the 1930s women-only colleges were established that expanded opportunities for courses of study to include more intellectual development as opposed to domestic instruction.
In July 1975 “Title IX regulations became effective as law” (Margaret Fund of NWLC, 2012). The law provided one year for compliance to elementary schools and three years for compliance to high schools and post secondary institutions. Through the 1970s the law’s enactment, opposition towards the legislation, and initial compliance for the law were the focus. According to the Margaret Fund (2012), in 1982 a court case was won upholding the nondiscriminatory acts in employment, the case title is as follows, 1982 North Haven Bd. of Ed. v. Bell, 456 U.S. 512 (1982). In 1984, the case Grove City v. Bell, 465 U.S. 555 (1984) a, “U.S. Supreme Court decision held that federal spending clause statutes only apply to those programs or activities that receive direct federal financial assistance, effectively ending Title IX applicability to athletics” (Margaret Fund of NWLC). This decision is later remedied in the late 80’s by the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987. In 1988, this act was passed by Congress and reversed the damage from the Grove City v. Bell decision. The Margaret Fund (2012) states, “It over-rode the Grove City v. Bell decision by expanding the definition of program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance” (Margaret Fund of NWLC, para.5). During the 1990s three significant changes or continuations to the law were made in the course of the decade. First, a Supreme Court decision allowed an individual to sue for monetary retributions by citing the Title IX Act. Second, the disclosure act in 1994 stated that all institutions under Title IX were to report publicly on their operations, with an effective implementation date set for 1996. Third, the ORC distributed requirements to institutions and schools which are explained and outlined more clearly the regulations for Title IX. The significant events in the 2000s allow schools to use e-mail surveys, and due to a Supreme Court case in 2009, lawsuits on the basis of sexual discrimination under Title IX can be brought by parents.
1727: Founded in 1727 by the Sisters of the Order of Saint Ursula, Ursuline Academy, New Orleans, enjoys the distinction of being both the oldest continuously operating school for girls and the oldest Catholic school in the United States.
1742: Moravians in Pennsylvania established the first all-girls boarding school in America, the Bethlehem Female Seminary to serve the Moravian community in and near Bethlehem. In 1863 it became a college. In 1913 it became Moravian Seminary and College for Women. Historians accept Moravian as the oldest—though not continuously operational because of its current co-ed status—specifically female institute of higher learning in the United States.
1803: Bradford Academy in Bradford, Massachusetts was the first higher educational institution to admit women in Massachusetts. It was founded as a co-educational institution, but became exclusively for women in 1837.
1826: The first American public high schools for girls were opened in New York and Boston.
1829: The first public examination of an American girl in geometry was held.
1831: As a private institution in 1831, Mississippi College became the first coeducational college in the United States to grant a degree to a woman. In December 1831 it granted degrees to two women, Alice Robinson and Catherine Hall.
1837: Bradford Academy in Bradford, Massachusetts, due to declining enrollment, became a single-sexed institution for the education of women exclusively.
1837: Mount Holyoke College was founded by Mary Lyon.
1851: The Adelphean Society, now called Alpha Delta Pi Women's Fraternity, was founded at Wesleyan Female College in Macon, Georgia and became the first secret society for women.
1864: Rebecca Crumpler became the first African-American woman to graduate from a U.S. college with a medical degree and the first and only African-American woman to obtain the Doctress of Medicine degree from New England Female Medical College in Boston, MA.
1869: Fanny Jackson Coppin was named principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, becoming the first African-American woman to head an institution for higher learning in the United States.
1871: Japanese women are allowed to study in the USA (though not yet in Japan itself).
1879: Mary Eliza Mahoney became the first African-American in the U.S. to earn a diploma in nursing, which she earned from the School of Nursing, New England Hospital for Woman and Children in Boston.
1889: Maria Louise Baldwin became the first African-American female principal in Massachusetts and the Northeast, supervising white faculty and a predominantly white student body at the Agassiz Grammar School in Cambridge.
Late 1800s, exact date unknown: Anandibai Joshi from India, Keiko Okami from Japan, and Sabat Islambouli from Syria became the first women from their respective countries (and in Joshi's case the first Hindu woman) to get a degree in western medicine, which they each got from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP), where they were all students in 1885.
1905: Nora Stanton Blatch Barney, born in England, became the first woman to earn a degree in any type of engineering in the United States, which she earned from Cornell University. It was a degree in civil engineering.
1915: Lillian Gilbreth earned a PhD in industrial psychology from Brown University, which was the first degree ever granted in industrial psychology. Her dissertation was titled "Some Aspects of Eliminating Waste in Teaching".
1922: Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority was founded. It was the fourth African-American Greek letter organization for women, and the first African-American sorority established on a predominantly white campus, Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana.
1923: Virginia Proctor Powell Florence became the first African-American woman to earn a degree in library science. She earned the degree in 1923 from the Carnegie Library School, which later became part of the University of Pittsburgh.
1934: Ruth Winifred Howard became the second African-American woman in the United States to receive a Ph.D. in psychology, which she earned from the University of Minnesota.
1940: Roger Arliner Young became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in zoology, which she earned from the University of Pennsylvania. Marion Thompson Wright became the first African-American woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in History, which she earned at Columbia University.
1965: Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1914? – 1985) became the first American woman to earn a PhD in Computer Science, which she earned at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her thesis was titled "Inductive Inference on Computer Generated Patterns."
1975: In 1975, Lorene Rogers became the first woman named president of a major research university, The University of Texas.
1976: U.S. service academies (US Military Academy, US Naval Academy, US Air Force Academy and the US Coast Guard Academy) first admitted women in 1976.
1977–1978: For the first time, more associate degrees are conferred on women than men in the United States. More associate degrees have been conferred on women every year since.
1980: Women and men were enrolled in American colleges in equal numbers for the first time.
1982: Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, 458 U.S. 718 (1982) was a case decided 5–4 by the Supreme Court of the United States. The court held that the single-sex admissions policy of the Mississippi University for Women violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
1984: The U.S. Supreme Court's 1984 ruling Grove City College v. Bell held that Title IX applied only to those programs receiving direct federal aid. The case reached the Supreme Court when Grove City College disagreed with the Department of Education's assertion that it was required to comply with Title IX. Grove City College was not a federally funded institution; however, they did accept students who were receiving Basic Educational Opportunity Grants through a Department of Education program. The Department of Education's stance was that, because some of its students were receiving federal grants, the school was receiving federal assistance and Title IX applied to it. The Court decided that since Grove City College was only receiving federal funding through the grant program, only that program had to be in compliance. The ruling was a major victory for those opposed to Title IX, as it made many institutions' sports programs outside of the rule of Title IX and, thus, reduced the scope of Title IX.
1986–1987: For the first time, more master's degrees are conferred on women than men in the United States. More master's degrees have been conferred on women every year since.
1988: The Civil Rights Restoration Act was passed in 1988 which extended Title IX coverage to all programs of any educational institution that receives any federal assistance, both direct and indirect.
1994: In 1994, the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act, sponsored by congresswoman Cardiss Collins, required federally assisted higher education institutions to disclose information on roster sizes for men's and women's teams, as well as budgets for recruiting, scholarships, coaches' salaries, and other expenses, annually.
1996: United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996), was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Virginia Military Institute (VMI)'s long-standing male-only admission policy in a 7–1 decision. (Justice Clarence Thomas, whose son was enrolled at VMI at the time, recused himself.)
2004–2005: For the first time, more doctoral degrees degrees are conferred on women than men in the United States women. More doctoral degrees have been conferred on women every year since. As of 2011, among adults 25 and older, 10.6 million U.S. women have master's degrees or higher, compared to 10.5 million men. Measured by shares, about 10.2 percent of women have advanced degrees compared to 10.9 percent of men—a gap steadily narrowing in recent years. Women still trail men in professional subcategories such as business, science and engineering, but when it comes to finishing college, roughly 20.1 million women have bachelor's degrees, compared to nearly 18.7 million men—a gap of more than 1.4 million that has remained steady in recent years.
2006: On November 24, 2006, the Title IX regulations were amended to provide greater flexibility in the operation of single-sex classes or extracurricular activities at the primary or secondary school level.
- Women's colleges in the United States
- Educational Inequality
- Education in the United States
- Timeline of women's colleges in the United States
- History of education in the United States
- Female seminary
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