Teaching Modules

 

Determination and Resistance

Introduction: Context

 

Determination and Resistance in Women’s Higher Education

Chronology: 1859-1908

The establishment of higher education for women in the United States in the years following the Civil War was not without its detractors. Prior to the opening of women’s and coeducational colleges, nineteenth-century critics alleged that women were either incapable of advanced intellectual training or unable to maintain their delicate constitutions in the face of advanced algebra or ancient philosophy. Both of these complaints reveal a larger cultural anxiety about women educating themselves and, in turn, trading the domestic for the public sphere. The primary sources gathered in this module illustrate both this resistance to women’s higher learning and the determination on the part of early advocates and educators to overcome it.

 

While working with these texts, students should be reminded of the historical construction of gender evidenced here. In order for students to understand Edward Clarke’s and Stanley Hall’s critiques of women’s education, teachers should contextualize these writers’ particular renderings of women’s reproductive health and pathology in a period that gave credence to the findings of biological determinists. Vocal Darwinian scientists and physicians contended that women were mentally and physically inferior to men, a deficit that education could never, they argued, overcome. Beyond their proclamations of this fundamental difference, Clarke and Hall provided popular medical endorsements for an emerging belief that higher education imperiled women’s reproductive health, a contention that, if true, threatened the survival of humankind and, in turn, roused the court of public opinion.