Women’s education - American Education
The formal instruction of women—until relatively recently, limited to the “domestic arts” and centering around skills needed for nurturing infants and maintaining the household. In early civilizations, children were educated informally, within the family unit, in preparation for the roles they would play in later life—namely, man as hunter and fighter and woman as caretaker of infants and the home. God-centered religions indoctrinated their followers in the belief that women were naturally weaker and inferior to men. In the Christian Bible, St. Paul urged Christian wives to be obedient to their husbands. Hinduism promised virtuous women the reward of rebirth as men. Ancient Greece and Rome reserved education for men, although the Greek philosopher and teacher Plato advocated equal educational rights for women in The Republic, his concept of the ideal state.
The post-Babylonian Captivity Jews may have been the first to offer women equal opportunity for formal instruction, which was largely related to study of sacred texts. Some educational opportunities were extended to women of noble birth during the early Christian era and throughout the Reformation, although they tended to be limited to the domestic and ornamental arts. Martin Luther called for equal education for women, albeit in separate schools from men, and even appealed for civil support of such schools. The Roman Catholic Church echoed that appeal at the Council of Trent, from 1545 to 1563. The appeal had little practical effect, however, and education of women in the Western world changed little until the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the women’s rights movement.
Even the expanded role of women necessitated by life in the American colonial wilderness did little to expand women’s access to formal education. English common law was clear: “husband and wife are one, and man is the one.” Girls, like boys, were the property of their fathers, and women became the property of their husbands, with no control of their persons or their children, no right to own land or money and no access to an academic education. The domestic arts in which they received training were those required for raising children and running the household; the ornamental arts included singing, dancing and other skills needed to amuse husbands and “ornament” their households.
The accumulation of wealth in the colonies sowed the seeds of change, as families of means began sending their daughters to private academies, where they learned to read literature other than Scripture, as well as to write and to calculate. Among the books young women read in the wake of the American Revolution was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Written in England in 1792, when popular demands for greater individual liberties were provoking uprisings throughout the Western world, it inspired such academy graduates as Catherine Beecher, EMMA WILLARD and MARY LYON to launch the women’s educational rights movement in the United States.
Beecher and Willard opened academies that offered women college-level education, and in 1837 Lyon founded the world’s first college for women in Mount Holyoke, Massachusetts. By the end of the 19th century, women had taken control of the teaching profession in elementary schools, and outstanding women’s colleges had been founded throughout the United States. Even all-male colleges, such as Harvard and Columbia, had established affiliated colleges for women. The state-by-state passage of compulsory education laws and the granting of woman suffrage after World War I provoked a vast expansion in women’s education, but it remained different and inherently unequal to that afforded men. Few women’s colleges offered courses in engineering, the advanced sciences, advanced economics and other studies that prepared men for careers at the highest levels of the professions, industry and government.
When Congress passed the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions receiving federal aid, colleges and universities were forced to give women equal access to higher education and provide equal facilities in every area of college life, including intramural and intercollegiate sports. By 1994, more than half of all college students were women and, by 2005, women made up 60% of all fulltime students enrolled in American four-year and two-year colleges. The percentages of women grew equally dramatically at graduate schools, where females accounted for more than 47% of all doctoral degrees conferred in 2002, compared with less than 25% three decades earlier. They earned more than 43% of the medical degrees in 2002, compared with 8.4% three decades earlier; 38.6% of the degrees in dentistry, compared with less than 1%—0.9%—in 1970; 47.3% of law degrees compared with 5.4%; and 32% of degrees in theology, compared with 2.3%.
Equal access to formerly all-male institutions, of course, produced a startling decline in the number of single-sex colleges. Only 14 such colleges remain in the United States—9 women’s schools and five men’s schools. Fifty-one formerly all-female colleges remain primarily women’s institutions, but, to qualify for federal aid, they accepted some men, whose numbers account for as little as 0.2% of the student body but as much as 23.5% and, in the legal sense at least, establish their colleges as coeducational.
(See also gender discrimination; SINGLE-SEX EDUCATION.)