Women and Higher Education

Women and Higher Education

Ashford University

EDU 657: History & Philosophy of American Education

Women and Higher Education

The idea of women being involved in higher education comes naturally in the minds of the 21st-century student. However, this was not always the case. Coeducation was not considered important and only really took a foothold in the 19th century. Before that, from 1785 to 1890, women and men operated with the belief that they were apart of “separate spheres.” Men were viewed as the parties that needed to be educated and continue all intellectual pursuits. Women were involved in the home and any education they received was minimal and oriented toward a woman becoming a more desirable candidate for marriage and ultimately, a homemaker.

To understand the evolution of women in higher education, one must understand that “little attention was given to the education of women, either in theory or in practice.” (Woody, 1966) Women of the time were required to maintain a presence in the home for the survival of the family while men went out and were breadwinners. Education was by and large considered a luxury and only women from affluent families could afford it. An intellectual woman was seen as ineffective and unfit for a role as a housewife. This perpetuated the fear that a woman would be unable to find a husband if she was educated and many then eschewed the idea in favor of remaining viable choices for marriage.

The women that did receive an education though, went through an elementary program and only the affluent could continue to a high school setting. Higher education was non-existent for women in America until the 1790s. A religious resurgence brought about a sense of a woman exemplifying the “Christian ideal.” Through this perceived ideal, there was now a justification to begin to further the education of women in America. The 1800s brought about the first women’s colleges as a response to this new need. There were three main types of women’s colleges that could be attended: independent private colleges, Catholic colleges, and public colleges. (Parker, 2015) These schools were located primarily in the Northeast with some seminaries and other religious institutions located in the South.

From the birth of these early schools began a 24-year period that the “Seven Sisters” were founded. These institutions were considered to be the seven most significant women’s colleges and included Barnard, Smile, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and Radcliffe. While the “Seven Sisters” were the most influential and prestigious schools, there were over 50 woman’s colleges founded between 1836 and 1875; these schools, however, did not have the financial backing and resources that the “Seven Sisters” possessed. (Harwarth, Maline, & DeBra, 2018)

The first generation of female college students demonstrated a strong commitment and dedication to their intellectual pursuits. They served as professors, deans, and administrators. Initially, women were not allowed to teach in men’s colleges. However, around the 1880s to the 1890s, this changed, and women were allowed positions as high as the “Dean of Women” in coeducational schools. As schools became coeducational, women enrollment bolstered high numbers and fought against any that were still of the school of thought that men and women should be segregated.

These changes and shifts in male power concerning higher education were not relegated to the 1800s either. Modern-day higher education still has struggles in certain areas concerning gender equality. Thankfully, the movements and actions of the women of the past have made it so higher education institutions are friendly toward men and women. No longer is education viewed as a needless pursuit for women. Women are not expected to stay at home and simply care for their family in the 21st century. Instead, women are expected to go to school and gain a college degree. There are many opportunities for employment outside of the home for the modern woman, though if she chooses, she can still be a homemaker and care for her family.

No matter how many positive actions have been taken concerning women in higher education, there are still issues at hand that must be tackled. While schools are accepting of all genders, there are problems with high-end administrative positions still being held primarily by males. Despite women earning “more than half of all bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees and one-third of all doctorates; male representation is at an all-time high and female professors when compared to males, move up the career ladder slower, are less productive, have heavier teaching loads, and lower salaries.” (Stripling, 2012)

It will take time, but if the modern woman continues to fight for equal rights in the way that those before us did, many of these problems can also be eradicated. Higher education institutions have more capable women than ever before and that is because of the women of the 1800s paving the way for them. If these trends continue, in the future, women will be welcomed as equals in the classroom and the workplace alongside men and a balance can be achieved in these institutions.

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