M. Carey Thomas (essay date 1901)
SOURCE: "Education for Women and Men," in The Educated Woman in America: Selected Writings of Catharine Beecher, Margaret Fuller, and M. Carey Thomas, edited by Barbara M. Cross, Teachers College Press, 1901, pp. 145-54.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1901, Thomas presents arguments for equality in the higher education of women and men.]
A subject like this fairly bristles with possibilities of misunderstanding. To get a firm grip of it we must resolutely turn our minds from all side issues and endeavor to put the question in so precise a form as to make sure that we at least mean the same thing. Stripped of its nonessentials we shall find that the real question at issue has very seldom been seriously argued. Not, of course, because of its unimportance—it is all-important—but because its approaches are set round about with our dearest prejudices, especially if we are men. Logical pitfalls lie on all sides of us; controversies past and present darken the air; our path leads us thru hard-won battlefields. If we are women, our almost irresistible impulse is to slay again the slain; if we are men, the graves of our dead comrades provoke an equally irresistible desire to send a scattering volley into some weak side-encampment of the enemy instead of lining up squarely for the last logical trial of arms. I have contrasted men and women advisedly, because this is one of the very few questions on which most educated men and women are to be found in opposite sides of the camp. If it were possible to discuss it dispassionately, I believe men and women could reach substantial agreement.
I will try, first of all, to state the subject of discussion so that there may be no possibility of our misunderstanding each other in regard to it; next, I will make an attempt to clear the way of prejudices and prejudgments that have really nothing at all to do with the argument; and finally, I will address myself to the argument itself. Higher education means generally any education above the highschool grade; that is, the education given in the technical and professional school as well as in the college.
In regard to technical and professional education there should, it seems to me, be little, if any, serious difference of opinion, and I shall therefore begin with that. We may differ as to whether it is desirable for a college course to precede, and be presupposed in, the course of a technical or professional school, but we cannot think that men students of law or medicine or architecture, for example, should be college-bred, while women students of law, medicine, or architecture should not. Personally I am confident that in ten years' time after graduation, physicians, and lawyers, and architects, whether men or women, whose parents have been able to send them to college, will be found to have outstripped their non-college-bred competitors both in reputation and in income. But, however we decide this matter, it must be decided in the same way for men and women. Sex cannot affect the question of the best preliminary preparation for professional and technical study.
So also with professional and technical courses themselves. Once granted that women are to compete with men for self-support as physicians or lawyers, whether wisely or unwisely does not now concern us, being merely one of the many side issues that have in the past so obscured our judgment of the main argument; indeed, if women are not to compete there will be, of course, no women in medical schools and law schools and no reason for argument at all—the question is simply, what is the best attainable training for the physician or the lawyer, man or woman? There is no reason to believe that typhoid or scarlet fever or phthisis can be successfully treated by a woman physician in one way and by a man physician in another way. There is indeed every reason to believe that unless treated in the best way the patient may die, the sex of the doctor affecting the result less even than the sex of the patient. The question needs only to be put for us to feel irrevocably sure that there is no special woman's way of dealing with disease. And so in law, in architecture, in electricity, in bridge-building, in all mechanic arts and technical sciences, our effort must be for the most scientific instruction, the broadest basis of training that will enable men and women students to attain the highest possible proficiency in their chosen profession. Given two bridge-builders, a man and a woman, given a certain bridge to be built, and given as always the unchangeable laws of mechanics in accordance with which this special bridge and all other bridges must be built, it is simply inconceivable that the preliminary instruction given to the two bridge-builders should differ in quantity, quality, or method of presentation because while the bridge is building one will wear knickerbockers and the other a rainy-day skirt. You may say you do not think that God intended a woman to be a bridge-builder. You have, of course, a right to this prejudice; but as you live in America, and not in the interior of Asia or Africa, you will probably not be able to impose it on women who wish to build bridges. You may say that women's minds are such that they cannot build good bridges. If you are right in this opinion you need concern yourselves no further—bridges built by women will, on the whole, tend to fall down, and the competition of men who can build good bridges will force women out of the profession. Both of these opinions of yours are side issues, and, however they may be decided hereafter, do not in the remotest degree affect the main question of a common curriculum for men and women in technical and professional schools. But you may say that men and women should study bridge-building and medicine and law in separate schools, and not together. You may be foolish enough, and wasteful enough, to think that all the expensive equipment of our technical and professional schools should be duplicated for women, when experience and practice have failed to bring forward a single valid objection to professional coeducation, and when the present trend of public opinion is overwhelmingly against you; and for the sake of argument let us grant that beside every such school for men is to be founded a similar school for women. But this duplication of professional schools for women leaves us just where we were in regard to the curriculum of professional study to be taught in such women's schools. So long as men and women are to compete together, and associate together, in their professional life, women's preparation for the same profession cannot safely differ from men's. If men's preparation is better, women, who are less well prepared, will be left behind in the race; if women's is better, men will suffer in competition with women. What is best in medical training for men will be best in medical training for women; what has bad results in medical training for men will be found to have the same...
(The entire section is 2865 words.)