School Girls and College Women: Female Education in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Andrea Hamilton. Women’s Rights: People and Perspectives. Editor: Crista DeLuzio. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

Many Americans enjoyed new educational possibilities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and girls and women shared in the growing opportunities for basic and advanced study. Advances in female education supported the knowledge, skills, confidence, and relationships that women would need to broaden their participation in American public life. Yet the story of schoolgirls and college women cannot be oversimplified as a straightforward stepping-stone in the fight for women’s rights. Sometimes, education empowered women to challenge the status quo. At other times, female education reinforced persistent notions about women’s roles in the family and society.

Why Educate Girls and Women?

By the close of the 18th century, a growing number of Americans had come to agree that some education for girls and women was desirable. Their understandings of how and for what girls and women should be educated differed, however, and were shaped by a variety of influences.

Enlightenment philosophers of the 18th century had emphasized the capacity for reason in all human beings, and they believed that education should be used to cultivate the minds of both women and men. Many elite families encouraged their daughters to pursue education. As Americans struggled to secure the future of their new country, some thought that educating girls could help strengthen the health of the young republic. Educated girls would become educated mothers—or “Republican Mothers”—who could raise their sons to be responsible and virtuous citizens. Linking women’s childrearing duties to the quality of civic life provided a powerful rationale for educating girls and young women.

Such secular theories combined with religious impulses, which also stressed the importance of women’s roles in society. Religious revivalism in the 1820s and 1830s (known as the “Second Great Awakening”) encouraged evangelical Christians to act on their faith in shaping society. Women’s roles as wives, mothers, and teachers came to be viewed as key to spreading Christian virtues in homes, schoolrooms, and communities across America. Many Americans were worried that forces like increasing numbers of immigrants, the growth of cities and industry, and westward expansion threatened the nation. They hoped that education for girls and women might help safeguard Christian civilization against these forces. Women were thus encouraged to use their influence over children and men, even if these same women were formally excluded from politics and much of public life.

Formation of the middle class in the early 19th century likewise promoted the growth of female education. Many middle-class parents sought education for their sons to help prepare them for future employment, and they believed that education would help their daughters in their future roles as wives and mothers. A few families also sought education to train their daughters as teachers. Education was a mark of social distinction. Working-class parents often could not afford education for either their sons or their daughters. Social class, therefore, was generally a better indicator than gender of whether or not a child would be formally educated.

Another factor in the growth of educational opportunities for girls at all levels was the common school movement in the first half of the 19th century. Reformers like Horace Mann (often referred to as the “father of American education”) worked to establish schools that, in theory, would provide all Americans with a common education that would give them the skills and moral foundation necessary for citizenship and participation in society. Under the guidance of Mann and other reformers, Americans would embark upon what would become the largest experiment in universal public education ever undertaken in history. From their beginnings, most common schools included girls. With little controversy, much of America accepted the common school ideal that the nation’s daughters, as well as its sons, deserved basic education. Although common schools did not reach most children until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the foundations had been laid for what became a nationwide coeducational public school system.

Educating Young Ladies in the 19th Century: Female Academies and Separate Spheres

In the first half of the 19th century, the vast majority of colleges were open only to men. At this time, several notable women established female academies to provide more-advanced education to elite young women. Most of these founders were shaped by the “separate spheres” ideology, which dictated that men belonged in the public realm of politics and business, while women belonged in the private sphere of the home. Although this understanding of gender roles in many ways limited women’s opportunities, it also encouraged women to develop an expanded understanding of domesticity that championed the value of female education.

Emma Hart Willard founded the Troy Seminary in New York in 1821. The school boasted a curriculum similar to that of leading male colleges, and also trained girls in female accomplishments such as needlework. Willard authored numerous successful textbooks, and she argued for equal funding for female education to the New York state legislature. In stating her case for women’s advanced education, Willard argued that the health of the state rested on mothers’ influences. Although she believed women to be as capable of learning as men, she also argued that women should not seek power in the public sphere. Willard called fathers, brothers, and husbands the “natural guardians” and “rulers” of women (Willard 1819, 31).

Catharine Beecher established female academies in the Midwest and wrote a number of influential manuals for American women, which instructed them on managing their homes and families. Beecher believed that women belonged in the domestic or home sphere, whereas men operated in the public sphere of work and politics. Beecher opposed suffrage for women but argued that women had vitally important roles as the moral guardians of society. “The proper education of a man decides the welfare of an individual,” Beecher wrote in A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Women in 1841. “But educate a woman, and the interests of a whole family are secured” (Beecher 1843, 37). Beecher helped transform teaching into a female profession. She believed women made ideal teachers because they could shape the morals of the schoolchildren who would one day run the country. Teaching also could provide unmarried women with respectable means of employment. Beecher won over some school boards that were skeptical about hiring women by arguing that female teachers could be paid much less than male teachers.

Mary Lyon opened Holyoke Seminary in Massachusetts in 1837. Holyoke was to be “an institution of the highest opportunities for improvement, and of very moderate expense” that would train “self-denying teachers.” Lyon hoped these teachers would help Christianize, as well as educate, the nation. As Lyon noted in a fund-raising pamphlet to other women, “This work of supplying teachers is a great work, and it must be done, or our country is lost, and the world will remain unconverted” (Hitchcock 1852, 232-38). Holyoke students followed strict schedules of study, exercise, and worship, and they performed all their own cooking and domestic chores. At least 70 percent of Holyoke graduates became teachers, and many of Holyoke’s graduates established seminaries for other young women. After the Civil War, Mount Holyoke served as a model for many of the nation’s first colleges for women and trained many of their early female leaders.

In the antebellum South, educating girls and young ladies of the planter class was an established tradition. Female seminaries offered both serious academic study and training in female accomplishments. Unlike schools in other parts of the country, southern schools never offered teacher training or encouraged women to use their education to expand their influence in the public sphere. Education was intended to reinforce elite white women’s place in the southern social order and to help buttress a patriarchal society. For the South’s African American slaves and for the majority of its nonelite white women (as well as for most nonelite men), formal education was almost nonexistent.

Willard, Beecher, and Lyon illustrate how female education grounded in the separate spheres ideology opened new opportunities for girls and young women in the 19th century, while also denying them full access to the opportunities men enjoyed in the public realm. In contrast, a few reformers, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton (educated at Willard’s academy) and Susan B. Anthony, emphasized women’s likeness to men, and argued that they deserved equal education and opportunities because of their rights as human beings, instead of because of their different female natures.

These two strains of thought coexisted uneasily in the 19th century. Supporters of female education drew on both—and not always consistently—to argue for educational opportunities for girls and women. The separate spheres ideology predominated in the 19th century, but tensions between different ways of thinking about female education would escalate in later decades.

Educating the Masses

Attendance at private academies was a privilege few could afford, but the growing number of public schools gradually spread rudimentary education across the country. Girls from a variety of backgrounds in both cities and rural areas reaped the benefits. In 1790, about half as many women as men were literate. But by 1870, girls comprised 49 percent of pupils in public schools, and girls ages 10-14 actually had higher literacy rates than their male counterparts.

Although private academies and colleges were overwhelmingly single sex, the large majority of children attended coeducational schools. Most educators and most American families seemed to view schools as institutions similar to the family and the church, where the sexes mixed without threatening the distinct roles of either. Expediency no doubt encouraged coeducation as well. Maintaining separate schools for girls and boys was expensive and impractical in most parts of America, and only a few cities could afford it.

Traditionally, school leaders and parents had preferred male teachers. But cultural shifts, as well as expediency, made female teachers increasingly popular. Changing views of childhood that emphasized the innocence of young children and the importance of maternal nurture made women attractive candidates. A shortage of male teachers for the growing number of classrooms in cities and on the frontier encouraged school districts to tap a new and less expensive labor force: single women.

Teaching rapidly evolved into a sex-segregated profession in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1890, in cities with populations over 10,000, women comprised 92 percent of all teachers. Women filled the bottom ranks of the bureaucracy as classroom teachers, particularly in lower grades, and were usually placed under the supervision of men, who served as principals, administrators, and sometimes high-school teachers. Schools paid female teachers less than men were paid, as a matter of policy. Once again, the situation was paradoxical in regards to women’s rights. As teaching became a feminized field, women gained important new opportunities for more advanced education, for respectable employment, and for means of self-support. Women garnered these new opportunities, however, under an institutionalized system of sex segregation, limited opportunities for advancement, and unequal pay.

Building the public-school system went hand-in-hand with growth in women’s education. Common schools spread education to more girls and, in turn, more girls became teachers to staff the growing number of schools. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, new institutions known as high schools were gaining popularity among the middle classes. Girls flocked to high schools in far greater numbers than boys, and, once there, outperformed them. In 1889, approximately three-fourths of high school students in the nation’s largest cities were female. In 1890, girls comprised 65 percent of high school graduates. While middle-class males were more likely to enter the workforce or to attend private colleges and preparatory schools than they were to attend public high schools, girls and their families seemed to view high school as a respectable interim place between girlhood and marriage. High school could provide training for respectable employment (such as teaching or, later, clerical work), and girls reported enjoying the social aspects of high school.

By the first decade of the 20th century, many educators were actually beginning to worry that the feminization of high school was driving away boys. They perceived girls’ success in high school as a problem. In order to combat it, schools introduced measures such as competitive athletics, in an attempt to attract male students. The early 20th century also saw the introduction of some gender-specific courses, such as home economics for girls. But despite some sex segregation in electives, most female and male students enrolled in the same basic academic curriculum.

America’s education system opened opportunities for many first-and second-generation immigrant women who came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In her semi-autobiographical novel Bread Givers, Anzia Yezierska (2003) portrayed the struggles of a Jewish girl to escape from poverty and traditional beliefs about women’s place in family and society. Schools taught young Sara Smolinsky how to read and write, and they also acculturated her by teaching her the manners and customs of middle-class Americans. After graduating from college, she returned to her childhood neighborhood as a teacher dedicated to helping other children. In contrast, some immigrant children found that schools denigrated their religious and ethnic customs and did little to help them escape from poverty.

Despite the American ideal of universal education, not all children enjoyed equal access to public schooling. In particular, African Americans had long been denied educational opportunities. In the antebellum North, some African Americans attended public schools, but were routinely segregated into inferior schools. Members of the free black community in some Northern cities fought to open and equalize public education for their children, but they faced harsh resistance. Others turned to private schooling. Some white philanthropists supported their efforts. When Quaker Prudence Crandall admitted an African American student to her female academy, white parents withdrew their daughters in protest. In response, Crandall established a school for African American girls in Connecticut in 1833. The state then passed a law making it illegal to provide a free education for African Americans, and Crandall was arrested and tried. Although the case against her was dismissed, a white mob attacked her school, threatening her and her students, and the school closed after only two years. The story of Crandall’s school illustrates the real hardships and dangers that accompanied pursuit of education for African Americans.

Under the slave system of the Old South, many whites feared education would encourage African Americans to question their status and agitate for freedom. Laws, such as an 1819 Virginia law declaring a gathering of slaves in schools for the purpose of teaching reading and writing an “unlawful assembly” punishable by not more than twenty lashes, sought to prevent the spread of literacy among slaves (Goodell 1853, 320). Despite such efforts, evidence suggests that the slave community valued learning and, in the wake of the Civil War, the African American community went to heroic efforts to obtain education, seeing it as a crucial step in obtaining equality. Some African Americans attended schools taught by white female missionaries (women who themselves had benefited from the increased education available to white, middle-class women). Some of these teachers were selflessly devoted to their students, while others condescended to African Americans as inferiors.

The educational and social goals of blacks and whites in regards to African American education often varied significantly. African Americans struggled to establish primary schools for their communities when public school systems failed to do so. Schools funded by northern white philanthropists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries emphasized manual training or industrial education, which many whites and some African Americans saw as a means of lifting former slaves and their descendents out of poverty. Industrial education for African American women often meant training for jobs as cooks, housekeepers, and seamstresses.

Founded in 1904, Mary McLeod Bethune’s Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls followed trends of the time in teaching girls domestic skills. Bethune herself became a national figure fighting for the rights of African Americans. Some schools for African Americans ran large normal departments (teacher training programs), and for African American women, teaching in the nation’s segregated schools became an important and respected source of employment. For some African American women, schools opened new avenues of opportunity and inspiration from their fellow students and teachers. Other African American women resented education designed to train them as domestic servants for white families. From their perspective, white Americans supported education designed to keep African Americans in a distinct and inferior position in the social order.

By the 1890s, virtually all Native Americans had lost their lands to white settlers moving westward, and had been confined to reservations. The US government began creating boarding schools for Native American children as a means of assimilating them. For young females, that meant abandoning many of their traditional cultural practices and learning English, adopting European-style dress, and undertaking training in domestic skills. As in the case of African Americans, education for Native Americans all too frequently meant training for an inferior social position. At the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, for example, Native American girls served as domestic servants for European-American families as part of their education.

Opening the Doors of Higher Education

The number of girls and young women attending primary and secondary schools throughout the country rose steadily in the 19th and early-20th centuries. But colleges and universities proved more resistant to admitting women. In 1833, Oberlin College was the first college to open its doors to women (and to African Americans). Women also gained admission to some state universities (such as those of Iowa in 1844, Wisconsin in 1867, and Kansas, Indiana, and Minnesota in 1869) and to newly founded private research universities (such as Cornell University in 1868, Boston University in 1873, and The University of Chicago in 1892). While women at coeducational institutions enjoyed new opportunities, not all doors were open to them. Many coeducational colleges and universities restricted female students to certain courses of study, limited women’s access to facilities, and prohibited their participation in many extracurricular activities.

Colleges founded specifically for women in the late 19th century trained generations of influential women. Because all the students were female, women at those colleges participated fully in academic and campus life. Vassar, which was modeled on older female academies and initially struggled to find adequately prepared students, opened in 1865 with the mission of educating better teachers. In 1884, Bryn Mawr College offered an academically rigorous course equal to that of the best men’s colleges. Radcliffe began in 1879 as the Annex to Harvard University, where females could study with Harvard professors, even though the university denied women admission. These colleges—among the northeastern Seven Sister colleges—were influential models for women’s schools elsewhere.

Although female academies had flourished in the antebellum South, higher education for women lagged behind that of other regions in the post-Civil War South. Devotion to romanticized notions of the southern lady, as well as poverty, worked against increasing standards. Only a few of the southern female colleges in the late 19th century maintained serious academic standards. Southern female colleges were open only to a select few white women who could afford to attend. Education open to black women in the South largely focused on manual training, although some institutions, such as Spellman College, founded in 1881, would evolve into liberal arts colleges in the early 20th century.

From 1870 to 1900, the number of women in higher education increased about eight times, from around 11,000 to 85,000. These significant inroads into higher education provoked worry that young women were entering an improper and potentially harmful realm. Some experts, like Dr. Edward Clarke, claimed that too much study for young women was dangerous, and would damage their health. Some colleges responded by arguing that the education they were extending to women would enhance, not threaten, women’s traditional roles as wives, mothers, and moral guardians of society. But college (and, to some extent, high-school) experiences often had unexpectedly profound effects on young women. They were exposed to new ideas, were inspired by female teachers, and bonded with fellow female students. Many completed their college course inspired to use their education. As a group, college-educated women were more likely to remain single (half of all college-educated women in the late 19th century never married). If they did marry, they did so later and had fewer children.

By 1900, women comprised about 35 percent of the total higher education student population. These new college women challenged older ideas about women’s possibilities. Some fought for admissions to more advanced study and became professors at women’s colleges (coeducational institutions often refused to hire female professors). They, in turn, served as mentors to future generations of women. Many college graduates became teachers—the primary profession open to educated women. Settlement houses (the most famous of which was Jane Addams’s Hull House, founded in 1889) attracted educated women who sought to use their education for social good, and also provided them with places of friendship and support. Other women fought for access to the traditionally male professions. A few law schools admitted women in the latter decades of the 19th century, although many states refused to license women to practice. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to earn a medical degree. By the 1880s and 1890s, female students made up as much as 10 percent of their medical school classes.

Undoubtedly, women faced significant barriers within academia and within the professions, and they still struggled to gain full access to public life. But education increased women’s options, and it opened possibilities for independence and choices about family and career. Although many college women followed traditional paths of marriage and motherhood, they were more likely to be active in voluntary organizations outside the home than were their non-college-educated peers. As education afforded women more opportunities to gain knowledge, experience, and confidence, it could also encourage them to resist when they felt they were unfairly denied the rights and opportunities men enjoyed. Women lobbied for expanded rights so they could use their education. Some focused on increased access to careers. Others demanded that women be allowed to use their skills to help the less fortunate and to clean up the public realm. Many came to focus on political rights—particularly woman suffrage—as key to raising women’s status within American society.

Women’s advances in education by the early 20th century were impressive. By 1920, women made up almost half of the college student population and received about one-third of all graduate degrees. But such educational advances did not always correlate directly with increased rights. Notably, for instance, women’s employment, and particularly their access to the professions, did not keep pace with their gains in education. The greatest increases in female employment were among immigrants and African American women who worked in factories and domestic service. Educated women continued to have great difficulty gaining access to traditionally male professions. Percentages of women in graduate schools actually dropped in the early 20th century, sometimes in the face of quotas that restricted access. (Medical schools, for instance, formalized a 5 percent female quota in 1925, and the number of female physicians subsequently dropped). At colleges and universities, female professors and students were often clustered into female colleges, and in fields such as education, home economics, nursing, or social work.

By the 1920s, going to college did not mean the same thing for many young women and their families that it had for first-generation college women. Women who had undertaken what was commonly perceived as the masculine pursuit of higher education in the 1870s and 1880s had defied traditional expectations about women’s nature and place in society. Going to college, by the 1920s, was more commonplace for well-to-do young women. (Although, significantly, attending college was still a luxury that most Americans—either male or female—could not afford.) Pursuit of a college education had become a safe and socially desirable option for middle-class women and their families. Women’s college attendance no longer signified defiance of traditional expectations about women’s nature and place in society.


The growth of education for girls and women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was phenomenal. More girls than ever were receiving rudimentary education in public schools. Growing numbers of young women had the options of attending high schools, colleges and universities, and even professional and graduate schools. Increases in women’s education had encouraged women to move beyond traditional female roles in the home, and had spurred them to engage in fights for access to rights in the public realm traditionally reserved for men.

The increasing visibility of women at all levels of the education system, however, did not signify that all barriers for girls and women in the educational world had been surpassed. Many of the country’s most elite schools denied women admission. Graduate and professional schools established quotas to restrict women’s access. Some high schools and colleges channeled women into special (and often less-than-equal) female tracks. The traditional expectations of families, teachers, and the girls themselves exerted powerful influences in schools and on students, and education could function to limit the options girls and women perceived to be open to them. Minority women faced even greater obstacles. Too often, they were restricted to schools designed to serve the purposes of the whites who funded them, rather than to increase the rights of the young women who attended them. In addition to racism, poverty severely limited access to educational opportunities.