Before The Feminine Mystique : the educational philosophies of early women's colleges.
Turpin, Andrea Lindsay.
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Betty Friedan graduated Smith College in 1942. Fifteen years later she prepared a survey for her classmates on the event of their upcoming reunion. Her goal: to disprove the belief that a college education made women unhappy. An overwhelming number of respondents reported regretting not having planned to put their education to work beyond the home. Friedan concluded that dissatisfaction sprang not from education itself, but from the failure to use it in a vocation besides homemaking. It was this survey that inspired and informed her 1963 best-seller The Feminine Mystique. As graduates of a women’s college, Friedan and her classmates stood in a long line of women who chose to pursue higher education in that setting. Although state universities in the West opened to women as well as men shortly after the Civil War, long-standing Eastern colleges did not. In the East, therefore, the women’s college became the dominant model of higher education for women. The earliest prominent women’s college, Vassar, opened in 1865, followed a decade later by Wellesley and Friedan’s alma mater Smith. Radcliffe opened in 1879 and Bryn Mawr in 1884. Throughout their early years, these colleges earnestly sought to articulate a vision of how their graduates could best use their education to make a meaningful contribution to society. This paper analyzes how leaders of these early women’s colleges articulated different versions of this vision. It will focus on the first decades of women’s higher education, 1865-1920, to underscore the historical depth of the problem to which Friedan called attention: women and men received the same education, but women had fewer opportunities open to them after graduation. Christianity--of various types--still permeated American higher education during these years, and the paper argues that different theological assumptions underlay different responses to this problem. Some educators did not push graduates toward any particular life path because they believed God should be the one to direct each individual woman. Others believed a college education gave women a moral responsibility to pursue a profession. Still others specified women best served God beyond the home in fields such as social work where their unique strengths were of greatest use. Finally, some believed women best used their education as intelligent homemakers. A great variety of possibilities existed in the minds of the earliest generation, but theological shifts soon made specifying a particular use for women’s education the norm. This change helped women envision a clearer purpose for their education, but it simultaneously constrained their options further.