2.13.2007

Why educate women? Why not educate women?

No, this is not a post about the JOFA conference, although that may be forthcoming. It's sort of a continuation of this post (as promised), insofar as it further explicates some of the themes that Harvard President Eliot raised in his "hateful" address at the inauguration of Caroline Hazard as the new president of Wellesley College in 1899.1


I have, in my possession, a book called The Vocation of Woman, by Mrs. Archibald Colquhoun, an anti-woman-suffragist. (Google tells me that her first name was Ethel and that her first husband was Archibald Ross Colquhoun.) It was published by MacMillan and Co. in London in 1913, was given as a gift to the Episcopal Divinity School Library in Cambridge, MA by one "Very Reverend E.S. Rousmaniere,2 was withdrawn from the library at an unknown date, and I purchased it at some point.

Some choice bits include Chapter 10, "Education of the Unmarried Woman." Anything in brackets was added by me.
It has been said, earlier in this book, that matters would be immediately simplified if one knew beforehand which girls would marry and which would not--if, in short, they came into the world labelled. The uncertainty of their destination complicates the question of education and training in what may appear to be a hopeless manner. After all that has been said as to the main womanly function and its social and psychical significance it is hardly necessary to reiterate [yet, of course she does!] that the woman who does not marry misses the highest possibilities of her sex, and the vast majority of mothers, even if their own matrimonial experience has been unfortunate, instinctively hope for their girls a happy marriage as the crown of a successful life. Yet, in obedience to the modern theory of female education, these mothers permit their daughters to be trained for everything but matrimony.

In preparing these young runners for the race that is set before them, moreover, let us remember the Nemesis which overtakes those who train too long or too hard. In the attempt to equip them we may actually snatch the prize from their hands....[T]he great harm that has been done to girls is that in the revolt from one dogma we have gone to the extreme of another. From conceiving wifehood and maternity as the only vocations for women we are swinging over to the theory that they are not vocations at all--merely "incidents." It is said that the aim of female education formerly was to enable girls to achieve matrimony. Nowadays it seems as if the whole aim is to prevent them from achieving it successfully. [Recent studies show that the falling marriage rate in the United States is almost exclusively among women who don't get a higher education. College-educated women are actually more likely to marry than other women.] This book is a plea for the setting on one side of all such notions.

...The merits and de-merits of co-education are far too controversial to be discussed here, although the writer has been interested in the question for many years and has made some study of it in the United States and elsewhere. Up to the age of ten it appears to have many advantages; after that certain disadvantages intervene....Evidence gathered in the United States points to the conclusion that, far from reducing sex-consciousness or putting of the age of sex attraction, boys and girls educated together show great precocity in their love affairs, though the temperamental sexual frigidity of a large number of American women (a curious phenomenon which cannot be discussed here) probably prevents much immediate harm coming from these boy and girl flirtations.

At present, however, we are dealing chiefly with principles--the principles which should underlie the education of a girl who may not marry, and may be destined to be a single, self supporting unit of society....[S]he should be given every change of having a healthy body throughout life. No intellectual gift can compensate for the ruin of her health, and yet it is no exaggeration to say that the path of modern education is strewn with the dead, mutilated or devitalised bodies of women whose physical well-being has been sacrificed before the Moloch of competitive examinations. [I love this sentence! Wow. It sounds like it was really bad, eh? I especially love the "it is no exaggeration."]

During the period of adolescence physiological changes are taking place in a girl which make a heavy demand on her nervous energy. In many cases she may need a great deal of quiet and repose, and under no circumstances should she be encouraged to fight against the lassitude which is nature's own protective weapon--yet at this critical period the vast majority of girls are in the thick of school life. The demands upon them are incessant, the pressure is insistent and their own conscientious nature impels them to respond far behond their real strength. In the intervals of brain work they are encouraged or even compelled to take various forms of severe physical exercise, such as hockey or cricket. After they are seventeen, if they are destined for "a career," the tension tightens, and it does not release them until at twenty-two or twenty-three they "finish" their professional training and start on their life work. Of course in the medical profession, or if they take up some specialised branch of science, the training will be longer and the examinations more severe, but these come at a less critical period, although the cumulative effect of previous overstrain may help to make them severely felt.
Really, you should just read the whole book for the full effect. Mrs. Archibald Colquhoun then goes on to quote, at great length, one Walter Heape, who, in an essay titled "Sex Antagonism,"3 explains that "if a woman is to have a fair chance of physical health, whether as married or single, she must not be treated like a boy, whose organs are differently constituted, or permitted overstrain of mind or body during the critical period of womanly development." Mrs. Colquhoun felt that she must not be treated as a boy in really any respect, but including education. Studying hard and taking many tests were downright dangerous for the physical health of an adolescent woman.

The Vocation of Woman is a good snapshot of a particular form of opposition to higher education for women that was popular around the turn of the last century. This opposition was based on the idea that thinking too much diverts "nervous energy" from a woman's reproductive system to her brain, and makes her less fit as a mother. It was an argument against higher education for physical reasons. If, for some reason, a woman were never to get married, her education would be more understandable, although Mrs. Colquhoun still felt that it would make her more prone to the "nervous ailments" that plagued middle class women of her generation. If, however, she was going to end up married (i.e., a child bearer), it was imperative that she not tax her system during adolescence with schoolwork and sports.

All of this was tied to fears that non-white peoples (including people from various non-Northern European countries whom we would now consider quite white), with their higher birthrate, would take over Western civilization. It was already clear that women who were more educated had fewer children, on average, and Colquhoun and others thought that it was because their education ruined their reproductive systems. Nowadays, a lower birthrate is often tied to economic prosperity and seen as a good thing. Then, it stirred fears of being overtaken by the non-white peoples of the world.

There is a lot of secondary literature about the role that racial fears played in the fight for woman suffrage. In 1867, the 15th amendment to the Constitution gave African-Americans the right to vote but, more than that, a large number of Irish Catholic, Italians, Eastern Europeans in general (including Jews) emigrated to the United States between 1840 and 1924, when strict immigration quotas were set. Around 1910, the Dillingham Commission reported that emigration patterns to the US has shifted dramatically in the preceding decades, such that a much higher percentage of immigrants were from Southern and Eastern Europe than from Northern Europe. So people were very afraid of the "unwashed masses" whose men had the right to vote, as opposed to the white, native-born American women who could not vote.4 Some people played on this fear to push for woman suffrage; others used this same fear to try to encourage women to marry young and have many children.

Lest you think that we, with our modern sensibilities, have put this all behind us, I shall point you to this post and then this post by Ariella from the Kallah Magazine blog. Another example of this phenomenon is the announcement in early January of education restrictions for hareidi women in Israel--again, clearly a pronouncement made from a deep pit of fear. The question of "Why educate women?" or "Should we educate our daughters?" seems to be one that is deeply connected to fear, to some version of "What will happen to us or to them if we educate them?" The implied answer is "something very scary indeed." Higher education for women is a threat to the status quo of society. The more things change...


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1. For more on President Eliot and his relationship to the founders of Radcliffe, see Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, "The Great Debate: Charles W. Eliot and M. Carey Thomas," in Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History (NY: Palgrave, 2004).
2. According to http://www.warwickri.gov/heritage/damatoshistory/pontiac4.html, the Very Reverend Edmund S. Rousmaniere was "an excellent historian" and the rector when the new All Saint's Church was built in Warwick, RI, in 1888.
3. Elsewhere on the internet I found sources that point to this as a book titled Feminism and Sex Antagonism, by Walter Heape, F.R.S. F.Z.S., London, Constable, 1913 or as a book titled Sex Antagonism, by Walter Heape, New York, G.P. Putnam's sons, 1913. I think it's available through JSTOR, or maybe just reviews of it are. He was a biologist who wrote a lot about the fertility of people and other primates, as well as that of rabbits and sheep. He also seemed interested in race and sex. Other works of his include: "The Proportion of the Sexes Produced by Whites and Coloured Peoples in Cuba," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Containing Papers of a Biological Character, Vol. 200, 1909 (1909), pp. 271-330.
4. I first learned of the connection between woman suffrage and fears about race from Scott, Anne Firor, and Andrew MacKay Scott, One Half the People: The Fight for Woman Suffrage (1975; reprint, Univ. of Ill. Press 1982).

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