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Separate But Equal

Women’s colleges and their consequences.

In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America by Barbara Miller Solomon (Yale University Press, 298 pp., $25) 

Women in College: Shaping New Feminine Identities by Mirra Komarovsky (Basic Books, 355 pp., $19.95)

Alma Mater: Design and Experience in Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the I930s by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (Knopf, 420 pp., $25) 

“The absurdity of sending ladies to college, may, at first thought, strike every one, to whom this subject shall be proposed. I therefore hasten to observe, that the seminary here recommended, will be as different from those appropriated to the other sex, as the female character and duties are from the male." So wrote Emma Willard in 1819. More than a century and a half later, no longer certain about the nature or even the reality of differentiated "female character and duties," we send over five and a half million women to colleges and universities, a group that accounts for more than half the total population of such institutions. But the fundamental questions about higher education for women—to what social ends should women be educated, and how?—remain problematic, though they have largely receded from public consciousness.

The quotation and the statistics in the preceding paragraph come from Barbara Miller Solomon's absorbing history of women's higher education in the United States, a record of shifting intentions and expectations but also of steadily enlarging female opportunity. First of all, visionary women and men had to reconcile the idea of advanced female education with the prevailing social assumption that women belong in the home. But their success did not solve the underlying problem: Solomon's continuing narrative of intertwining social and educational expectation reveals the sustained ambiguity of women's claims to autonomy even as females came to constitute an educational majority.

In the beginning—the 18th-century beginning—a few articulate spokeswomen supported female education. Abigail Adams argued in a letter to her husband, John, that only accomplished women could ensure the American republic a continuing supply of accomplished men, since mothers must train their male children. More startling, Judith Murray, in a series of late-century essays, claimed the connection between education and self-respect, insisted on the "Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms," and pointed out the importance of providing women with ways of earning a living. It remained, however, for such early 19th-century innovators as Mary Lyon and Emma Willard to develop practical expedients for making female education sufficiently unthreatening to the male establishment. The institutions these women founded offered what we call secondary education (although Lyon's Mount Holyoke Seminary ultimately became a college), but confronted precisely the problems soon to face those who essayed higher levels of female instruction.

Oberlin College opened in 1833, announcing its Christian purpose of educating men and women, white and black, together. It offered a coeducational rhetoric course, but women students requested separate classes, understanding rhetoric as a male province. Women privileged to write speeches for graduate exercises, in the early 19th century, assumed that male classmates would declaim those speeches. Such facts exemplify the problem of education's function for women. Education implied for the female only limited entrance into the public sphere. A woman might teach in female academies and seminaries, or, under male guidance, become a missionary. But educators generally endorsed "the accepted Christian ideal of True Womanhood, summed up in the precepts of piety, purity, obedience, and domesticity. … They promised that women would not be spoiled for family duties."

In increasing numbers, however, educated women chose not to marry,or to marry late, preferring close relationships with other women to heterosexual ties or preferring to devotethemselves to careers, most often inteaching. Although the themes andproblems of female education, accordingto Solomon's narrative, have remainedin some respects constant from the 18th century to the present, they have alsochanged. Solomon identifies three generations of college women from the CivilWar to World War I, each group morevigorously concerned than its predecessor with public issues. After World WarI, more blacks. Catholics, and Jewsjoined white Protestant women in colleges and universities. The shift to coeducation intensified: by 1981, 92 percentof all institutions of higher learning werecoeducational (compared to 29 percentin 1870, 69 percent in 1930), with but fivepercent reserved for women only.

Different periods have generated various degrees of female political involvement among college populations, various curricular emphases. The women's liberation movement aroused new awareness, with curricular and extra-curricular consequences. In the late 20th century women face an enormous range of choices, Solomon concludes.

Many recognize that they must respect and retain the sense of woman's consciousness and at the same time must not permit society to limit their aspirations as individuals and as womankind. Ultimately the well-being of American women will mean the well-being of the whole society. The means to this end then is the challenge of the next generations of educated women.

But the text preceding this hopeful peroration provides grounds to question its cogency. How, exactly, do we keep society from limiting our aspirations? The issues of female education that persist, in Solomon's telling, from the beginning to the present remind us how insistently society helps determine individual imaginings; Komarovsky and Horowitz demonstrate the point.

Consider, for instance, the Barnard class of 1983. Barnard, a women's college—one of the "Seven Sisters"—affiliated with Columbia University, attracts a group of students "slightly younger, more liberal, wealthier, and more academically oriented" than the national norm. Mirra Komarovsky investigates the 1983 class in order to examine the effect of female education on a specific group of young women. She concentrates on the students' hopes and intentions about their post-college careers, using a carefully designed study including questionnaires administered to a large proportion of the class in its freshman, sophomore, and senior years, with follow-up "in-depth interviews" for many respondents. (A much smaller group—nine freshmen—supplemented the questionnaire by keeping journals for one semester, following an outline prepared by the author.) The study focuses, Komarovsky explains, "on what might be termed the gender perspective of female undergraduates: their lifestyle aspirations . . . and attitudes, beliefs, and values related to their feminine identities."

Like other sociological studies, this reveals pretty much what one would predict. Some women come to college expecting full-time careers and graduate with the same expectations, some change their minds, some wish to combine marriage and career, some want full-time domesticity, and so on. Almost equally predictable, though more interesting, are the factors that seem to influence women's various aims. Women in College examines students' family relationships, their social experience with other women, their contacts with professors, their sexual lives, their attitudes toward men. Women whose college experience "converts" them to career commitments profit from the influence of their peers.

Other influences of the college experience include positive relationships with faculty in out-of-class interaction, female role models among teachers, successful work and internship experiences while at college, and the college ethos supportive of occupational achievement for women. The new values acquired due to these experiences led some converts to reassess and reject previously taken-for-granted traditional parental marriages.

Such students, in comparison to their more traditional counterparts, display more resilience in the face of disappointment, more initiative in relation to their professors, more purpose in seeking vocational opportunity: in short, one might conclude, more aptitude for the competitive realm of public accomplishment.

Komarovsky, however, does not directly consider the question of aptitude. As clearly as Emma Willard's, her language reveals her biases. Not only does she characterize those who make relatively late career commitments as "converts"—presumably to the true faith—she labels as "defectors" and "waverers" those who doubt or relinquish comparable early commitments. For her, female dedication to work outside the home comprises a moral ideal, the best way to realize students' "potential." Her study discovers in its sample a "general trend toward increased career salience [i.e., focus on career as central concern] combined with family life and toward greater certainty of occupational choice." It seeks ways that Barnard and society at large can further such results even more often.

For Komarovsky sees female student dilemmas as more social than personal; "The problems depicted in this study are, in the author's view, amenable to social control." "Social control" would involve altering "the traditional ideology concerning the segregation of the sexes within the family" and overhauling "several institutions in a profound way" (which she never specifies). The optimistic vagueness of such recommendations and the failure of Komarovsky's concluding exhortations to acknowledge possible economic or political obstacles to public female achievement create a faint pathos precisely echoing that of the Barnard women's visions. Students and sociologists alike can imagine versions of reality more comfortable than any they are likely to encounter.

The imaginings, of course, have their own importance: among other things, they may generate change. If, for example, Barnard students typically describe a "feminized" male as their ideal man, do today's young women constitute a force for modifying actual male behavior? Possibly so. Eighty-nine percent of freshmen respondents checked "warm" as an adjective describing the ideal man, 90 percent checked "affectionate," 85 percent checked "sensitive." Only 25 percent checked "forceful." On the other hand, 61 percent checked "forceful" as an adjective characterizing the ideal woman. Komarovsky emphasizes the possibility that students stressed traits they found problematic in themselves or in men; still, the responses remain striking in their divergence from hallowed stereotypes.

They become yet more striking as one reads the account of these young women's college relations with actual men, who frequently display masculine characteristics utterly opposed to those the freshman idealized. A young woman who asks a man to have a cup of coffee discovers, as she tries "to be honest and straightforward with him," that her companion assumes "the reason I asked him out for a cup of coffee was a sexual come-on." Another, attempting to claim intellectual equality with her boyfriend, discovers that "when people were asking me questions, he'd cut me off or finish the sentence for me." "Why don't you just talk like a normal human being?" a young man inquires of a woman eager for conversation.

Although the individuals studied here emerge sharply only in occasional fragments from interviews or journals, the book leaves the impression that their progress through college often involves either radical compromise of expectations or determined denial of obstacles in their paths. One student explains her turn toward feminism as a product of anger at her college experience. "When I came, I felt I had a healthier attitude. I tried to give men the benefit of the doubt and I would judge people according to their personality, rather than sex, but men treat women here abominably." If these women retain high expectations for fulfilled lives of work and love, they do so by clinging to isolated models ("I'm encouraged by one of my professors who has a fourteen-month-old baby. She hires someone to care for her baby"), by rather desperate insistence on their rights ("I've learned that if I want something, it doesn't mean that I'm a bad wife or a bad mother. If I want something, I need it, and it's good for me"), or by an equally desperate myopia ("Kids are capable of taking care of themselves for the most part, like I did").

Perhaps progress through college, as through life, has always implied declining expectations, especially for women. A women's college in particular, with its encouragements to take the female self seriously, may stimulate awareness of possibilities not readily realized in the heterosexual world of business or of most professions. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz takes a close look at a group of such colleges, from their beginnings to their late 20th-century development. She examines the self-descriptive rhetoric of women's educational institutions, their actual pedagogical and social environments, the careers and personalities of their administrators, the architecture of their campuses. The specificity and detail of her data, the thoughtfulness and depth of her analysis, her willingness to rest in the tentative when certainties seem unavailable—this striking combination of qualities makes Alma Mater compelling (if sometimes disturbing) reading.

Particularly provocative is the book's examination of college architecture, which Horowitz understands as richly expressive of cultural assumption. The original founders of American educational communities of women emphasized protection from the outside world as a desideratum of female education. Early architects modeled women's colleges not on male educational institutions but on the insane asylum, an enterprise notably successful at keeping its inmates securely "inside." Unlike the mentally ill, however, women students proved impossible to control in such simple fashion—not because of their own unruliness but because of the many forces working against the cloister or the asylum as models for the college. Women isolated together developed close attachments to one another—potential threats, certain commentators thought, to the perpetuation of the race, not simply because of the danger of homosexuality but because if women decided they could get along in the world without men, could learn and grow and enjoy themselves with no male intervention, could live essentially autonomous lives, incalculable social consequences might ensue.

When Smith College opened in 1875, Clark Seelye, its first president, announced in his inaugural address, "It is to preserve . . . womanliness that this College has been founded." As Horowitz points out, he had evolved

a solution quite wonderful in its simplicity. Educate women in college but keep them symbolically at home. Erect a central college building for instruction and surround it with cottages where the students live in familial settings. … Prevent… the creation of a separate women's culture with its dangerous emotional attachments, its visionary schemes, and its strong-minded stance to the world.

As part of his effort toward heterosexual normality, Seelye hired a largely male faculty. Other women's colleges followed the opposite course, choosing women to protect women. Neither tactic long succeeded in preventing the development of student social patterns responsive to young women's needs rather than to their mentors' convictions.

The complicated story Horowitz tells defies summary. It records shifting beliefs and feelings about female education; it depicts a remarkably various cast of characters, in which M. Carey Thomas, a woman of strong convictions and unyielding purpose who long presided over Bryn Mawr, plays a particularly vivid role. Believing that the "life of the mind was neuter," Thomas helped to create a campus that "gave no clue as to the gender of its student body." Governed by powerful aesthetic and intellectual principles (but only nominally committed to the Quaker faith she professed during her presidency), Thomas encouraged Bryn Mawr students toward passionate devotion to intellectual endeavor. Her own passion focused not only on the life of the mind but on a close female companion; Horowitz treats their attachment with tactful detail. Such liaisons on the part of administrators and faculty apparently troubled no one, but architectural changes in early 20th-century women's colleges suggest persistent anxiety about comparable attachments among students. Increasingly elaborated "public space," for instance—parlors and sitting rooms designed to allow entertainment of male visitors—implied corollary limitations on student rooms, made ever smaller to discourage single-sex intimacy.

John Raymond, the first president of Vassar, reported to the trustees in 1869, after his fourth year, his worry that too much "spirit, of ordinary colleges," might creep in to "impair womanliness of character in our students, & encourage the formation of those mannish tastes & manners which are so disgusting to every right mind & feeling." Five years later Clark Seelye in a public lecture emphasized his distaste for the professional woman, in whom "the gentle-woman is lost in the strong-minded." "Has not their training," he inquired rhetorically, "repressed their amiable qualities, made them bigoted, what the English would call bumptious, and very frequently excessively conceited?"

Despite such male anxieties, the progress of female education inexorably continued. Horowitz ends her story in the 1930s, with the founding of Scripps, Sarah Lawrence, and Bennington. She forbids herself the ringing optimism of Solomon's and Komarovsky's conclusions. "Throughout their complicated histories," Horowitz writes finally, "the women's colleges have accepted the challenge . . . posed [by offering the liberal arts to women] with a mixture of fear and hope ." Singularly appropriate emotions, which any reader may share; for the conceptual perplexities of higher education for women, these studies suggest, have not yet been resolved. On the one hand, the worry about "uppity women" suggested in Raymond's and Seelye's comments still continues in some circles. On the other side—well, a teacher at a distinguished women's college told me a few years ago that every single freshman in the current class had expressed her intention of majoring in pre-med. Many, of course, perhaps most, would change their minds. But the fantasies implicit in such universal choice suggest the pressure young women feel (a pressure partly generated, I would argue, by their educations) to define themselves by participation in traditionally male professions, in the public rather than the private sphere.

So the original situation has reversed itself. Initially, educators promised that women would not because of learning abandon their traditional lives of service. Now, education holds forth the hope that women too can perform on the stage of public life. If this change constitutes an enlargement of female choice, splendid! But what if it amounts only to a new restriction, the kind of restriction men have traditionally assumed for themselves? As Komarovsky's book most vividly suggests, some assess the success of female education by what its recipients do in the world. The most popular major at Wellesley these days is economics. Women flock to business school; they do not openly worry about "womanliness." Yet the Barnard students' desire for traditionally "feminine" qualities in their men hints at anxiety lest "feminine" values, no longer overtly supported by educational institutions, disappear altogether.

Behind the confusion about the purposes of educating women lies the deeper problem of what salient differences divide the sexes. All three of these studies about female education reveal that problem's intractability. Current theory, in coeducational and single-sex institutions alike, assumes the truth of M. Carey Thomas's dictum about the mind's sexlessness: the same education serves both genders. The implicit corollary, given the maleness of our educational tradition, is that women should be more like men. Will the 21st century produce the institutions that encourage men to be more like women?

This article originally ran in the July 1, 1985 issue of the magazine.