Education of Women in the U.S. Research Paper Starter

Education of Women in the U.S.

(Research Starters)

Through the colonial years in America, the majority of women were illiterate and formal schooling for them was nonexistent. The first schools for girls were founded in the early 1800s. Many of the early women's academies became the first women's colleges or normal schools for teachers. The second half of the twentieth century brought new opportunities for young women as the baby boom generation flooded higher educational institutions. Fueled by the women's movement of the late 1960s, and backed by legislation, women realized historic educational and economic equity in the late twentieth century. Equity issues of the twenty-first century center on encouraging young women to take full advantage of opportunities, and social scientists continue to study gender differences.

Keywords Academies/Seminaries; Baby Boom; Beecher, Catherine; Civil Rights Act of 1964; Curricular Differentiation; Equal Educational Opportunities; Glass Ceiling; Normal schools; Title IX; Sanger, Margaret; Willard, Emma; Women's Educational Equity Act (WEEA)


Although women have traditionally not had the same opportunities for education and employment as men, it is too simplistic to paint them as victims of history. There is a rich legacy of women's education in the United States and it is at once a story of struggle and achievement. From the earliest years of the Republic, many promising opportunities arose for women. The majority of school teachers in America were women, and academies and women's colleges came to the fore through the nineteenth century. The women's rights movement, begun in the same century, began to raise awareness of the status of women and won for them the right to vote.

For decades, women were restricted from the getting the education required for entry into the professions, and in teaching, their pay differed significantly. In Maine, for example, in the 1840s, male teachers earned $15.40 a month, while women earned $4.80. The pattern was much the same in Ohio, where men received $15.42 to women's $8.73 (Matthews, 1976, p. 51).

The colonial elite was interested in education for men to meet its needs for the "higher professions" of law, medicine, or religion, and their sons filled the elite eastern schools, but "by the time of the Revolutionary War, people were less homogeneous, and there was a commonly held belief that the democratic representative government would fail unless the state book a real responsibility in educating the children of all people" (Cheek, 2004). The Republic demanded a public education for social, economic, democratic, and national reasons.

From the signing of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution in the late eighteenth century, through most of the nineteenth century, the rights of citizens were never intended for women. Most public schools that were established were intended for boys and only a handful of colleges, public or private, were coeducational even by 1900 (Harwarth, Maline, & DeBra, n.d.). The first public high school opened in Boston in 1821 for boys only; a high school for girls did not open until 1857.

Changes in the Nineteenth Century

Early nineteenth-century lives were short, girls married young, and the time allotted for formal education in an agrarian society where families were big was very limited for both sexes. A high school education came to mean two years of post-elementary education for those between the ages of twelve and sixteen. As the nineteenth century progressed, private academies were joined by "common schools" and the public education propagated by education reformer Horace Mann spread. Female academies and seminaries opened, initially in private homes, between 1800 to 1875. "The seminaries in general… devoted themselves to providing religious training, home making skills and a degree of intellectual development for women" (Matthews, 1976, p. 49).

Although they might be criticized for their limited vision of educating women, many of the early seminaries became women's colleges and the normal schools (colleges for teachers) that provided a foundation of states' higher education systems. By 1888, 63 percent of American teachers were women (Matthews, 1976, p. 51). Emma Willard's seminary in Troy, New York, founded in 1822, emphasized preparing girls to become teachers, and her school became a model for teacher's programs ("Emma Hart Willard, 1787-1870," n.d.).

The first women's rights movement was inaugurated in 1848 with the primary objective of suffrage — obtaining the right of women to vote — which did not happen until 1920. Although it had little impact on education, it was symptomatic of cultural change at work and paralleled the impact of industrialization. By the turn of the twentieth century, the concept of the modern high school was forged, and girls were in the majority of the high school population, even though the total number of those enrolled in high school was very low (with only around 8 percent of the population enrolled) and fewer graduating. By the turn of the century, during the 1899–1900 school year, for example, a disproportionate number of the graduates were women (57,000) vs. men (38,000). As the twentieth century progressed, the proportion was less marked and has, since World War II, approximately paralleled the percentage of the general population (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006).

Between 1840 and 1890, the public high school had emerged from the shadow of the private academy. While enrollments were still small by today's standards, by the 1870s and 1880s the number of public secondary schools was expanding (Mirel, 2006).

The history of education is inextricably tied to economic history. The decision to pursue education voluntarily involves economic considerations, and the ability for a society to provide education to its young people is an economic one as well. The opportunities for higher education, and even mandatory high school education, is a twentieth-century concept, and a post–World War II one at that.

The Early Twentieth Century

Through the turn of the century into the Depression era, "compulsory schooling requirements and child labor laws were typically weak or poorly enforced, … whether children attended school or worked for wages was a decision that had to be made by individual families" (Tolnay & Bailey, 2006, p. 254). Industrialization in the late nineteenth century drew massive immigration from Europe, and migration of blacks from the South to the urban North, called the Great Migration, changed literacy and educational demands from the nineteenth into the twentieth century. Young immigrant women filled the mills and factories. The inventions of electrical machinery, typewriters, sewing machines, etc. created a demand for new kinds of skills, and women were needed to participate in the workforce.

Tolnay and Bailey (2006) studied educational persistence of immigrant populations in 1920. They found that the economic pressures on families were so great "that immigrant children in nearly every group and in every city throughout the United States chose work when it was available over extended schooling prior to the 1930s. Blacks, conversely, appear to have placed a high value on education and sent their children to school at unusually high rates …" (p. 256). Their study also revealed that female blacks were disproportionately represented in the school population in 1920, possibly due to the lack of employment opportunities for them.

Educators and industrialists began to advocate for integrating training into the curriculum to suit job demands. In 1918, the National Education Association Curriculum and the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education called for differentiated high school programs with tracks, defined as academic (college preparatory), vocational, commercial (secretarial), and general. Women flocked into the commercial curriculums as new opportunities for secretary or office worker were coming available (Mirel, 2006).

In 1930 an announcement appeared in American School and University stating, "For the first time in the history of the country, the number of boys and girls of high-school age who are in attendance upon our secondary schools has passed the 50-percent mark" ("Celebrating 70 years," p. 10). As the world sank into Depression during the 1930s and there were fewer jobs, particularly for young people, many turned to schooling. Attendance grew rapidly through the decade, until the beginning of United States participation in World War II, when more than seven million students aged 14 to 17 were in school (Mirel, 2006).

World War II

By the end of 1941, the United States was embroiled in war. Young men went off to fight as mothers and daughters took their jobs in the factories and mills to keep the economy going and to fuel the war effort. Although most women deferred to the men when they returned and left their wartime jobs, what they did subsequently with their lives was not so predictable. Linda Eisenmann, in her 2002 study of postwar female citizens, found studies from the early 1950s that argued that women continued to constitute an important part of America's workforce. She also points to a national embarrassment during the Cold War when American women compared unfavorably to Soviet women who were very well represented in their ranks of scientists, engineers, and physicians that defies the image of 1950s housebound women (Eisenmann, 2002, p. 135).

Eisenmann's thesis in "Educating the Female Citizen in a Post-War World: Competing Ideologies for American Women, 1945–1965" (2002) is that although it is generally thought that women followed the advice of social and political leaders and abandoned college and labor after the war, the numbers of women who stayed in the workforce and continued with their education grew steadily after the war. "By 1957, college had attracted one in every five U.S. women between ages 18–21" (Eisenmann, 2002, p. 134).

The idealization of domestic life in the 1950s belied the festering social unrest that would soon reveal itself. Eisenmann (2002) believes that it was the tension of expectations versus the reality of the force of women in education and labor force that provoked the women's movement of the late 1960s. "Post-war women were caught between competing patriotic, economic, cultural, and psychological ideologies that sometimes recognized but never resolved the contradictions facing them as female citizens" (p. 134).

The subsequent decades put affordable higher education within reach of all who were capable, and gave rise to the women's movement that demanded new freedoms. The nation anticipated the major population influx in colleges in the 1960s and 1970s, and rushed to meet the expectation that higher education would be there for the huge population bubble of students who moved through the system. Between 1960 and 1970, college enrollment doubled, and by 1980 female enrollment exceed that of males (NCES, 2005).

The women's movement of the late 1960s into the 1970s helped force the doors open for major equity gains for women. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 had mandated equity for the sexes, and...

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