“College Women Abroad”: Updates on International Education in The Woman’s Column

WC_headerAs part of our celebration of Women’s History Month, The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education is featuring content from The Woman’s Column, a pro-suffrage publication that ran from 1887 through 1905. We have been posting weekly blog entries that feature individual articles from the Column that were published in the month of March and address the matter of women’s higher education, although the publication addresses many other issues related to women’s rights and their access to political life and the public sphere. This post is the fourth and final installment in the series; see our first, second, and third posts to learn more.

In addition to changes in policy at American universities, The Woman’s Column chronicled the state of women’s higher education abroad. Not purely for the globally-minded, such information would have been personally relevant to many American ladies: though the establishment of the women’s colleges known as the Seven Sisters had made the BA much more accessible to academically ambitious girls, more advanced degrees were difficult to obtain within the country. Bryn Mawr, which launched in 1885, was the only women’s college to open with a full graduate program. Several coeducational schools offered examinations and tutelage for female students, but were unwilling to confer an official degree, such as Harvard University. Europe, however, became an attractive option for graduate study, housing as it did centuries old universities that offered an array of graduate training. Travel to Europe was also an opportunity to broaden one’s cultural horizons, to see famous monuments, meet important scholars of the day, and to round out an American education that for many readers, may have consisted solely of single-sex environments in sheltered campuses across the country.

Click the image above for an enlarged view and full transcription

Click the image above for an enlarged view and full transcription

A report from an alumna and former teacher at Mount Holyoke College was published in The Woman’s Column on March 11, 1893, stating: “German, Russian, Polish, etc., women, denied the privileges of education in their own countries, are attending the University [of Zurich].” “Lepsic [sic] [Leipzig],” she writes, “is the only place in Germany where women are tolerated as university students….And at Leipsic a woman receives no credit from the University for her work; however, many of the professors are very kind in giving assistance, as far as possible, to women in their studies.”

For those familiar with the early history of Bryn Mawr College, much of this will sound familiar. M. Carey Thomas, the school’s first Dean and second President, followed a complex path through several universities before eventually earning her Ph.D. summa cum laude in linguistics from the University of Zurich. After receiving her undergraduate degree from Cornell, she attended Johns Hopkins University for a single year before departing, frustrated: though she was allowed to study with professors and sit for examinations, she was not permitted to attend classes and therefore found the experience challenging and inadequate. Given the dearth of American schools that allowed women to attend classes with men, she saw the European universities as her only path to a graduate degree. She went on to complete the bulk of her literary work at the University of Leipzig with the knowledge that such study could be only preparatory–for, while the lectures were open to her, Leipzig did not grant degrees to women. Gottingen University, however, seemed to operate with reverse policies: women could not attend classes, but there was no official rule prohibiting them from receiving degrees. Once she had taken her studies as far as she could at Leipzig, she transferred to Gottingen to complete the final hurdle to the doctorate. However, despite the lack of a formal ban, she learned after preparing her dissertation that the all-male faculty had voted not to grant her the doctorate on the grounds of her gender. Thomas, indefatigable, moved on to the University of Zurich, where she successfully prepared, presented, and defended the thesis that finally earned her the Ph.D. she had long sought. Thomas’s convoluted path shows the difficulty, not to mention the required time and financial resources, that stood in the way of the American woman intent on a doctoral degree.1

As we have previously discussed on this blog and in our exhibits, there were many well-documented arguments about why to keep women out of the educational system altogether. Aside from doubts about women’s inherent ineducability, many argued against coeducation for social reasons. For instance, Harvard President Charles Eliot cautioned that coeducation in urban schools could lead to dangerous class mixing and undesirable marriages, as we have previously discussed. But what was the logic of letting them study among men while refusing them the qualification that they had earned by it? Oxford University provides an interesting case that can help us understand the terms of the debate.

Click above for an enlarged view and full transcription

Click above for an enlarged view and full transcription

WC_3-28-1896_OxfordNotReady2A March 28th, 1896 article in The Woman’s Column entitled “Oxford Not Ready” recounts the University’s decision to reject a proposal to open the BA to women. Many female students were already completing the work that would have qualified a man for the degree, much in the style that Leipzig had made its coursework but not its official recognition of achievement available to women. The Oxford motion was struck down by 75 votes, 215 vs. 140. The leader of the opposition, Mr. Strachan Davidson, held thatthe life [at Oxford and Cambridge] stamped a special character on the man, and it was to that that the B. A. certified. Examinations were only secondary, but the degree testified to the man’s career as a whole. The women could participate in the examinations, but not in the life. He did not wish to say one word hostile to the ladies’ colleges, but the life there was not a University life.”

We have spent more time previously discussing societal opposition to women’s education that centered around the female body and the importance of her traditional role in the home. However, another important factor was that the established institutions were having trouble imagining where women would fit into the existing culture of higher education, as indicated in the critique of Davidson at Oxford above; gender appeared to be a barrier to the immersion in campus life. Assuming that women could be educated at all, the issue remained that the degree had come to stand for much more than academic achievement alone: it was the mark of induction into a culture, mutually constitutive with the identity of the elite society gentleman.2 Improving women’s access to higher education was not just a matter of opening doors, as it turned out, but a matter of re-imagining the spaces themselves.

The article ends on an optimistic note:

“Of course it is only a question of time when this decision will be reversed. Conservatism thaws slowly, but it thaws surely. Meanwhile the women will have the scholarship for which a degree should stand, if they have not the degree; and they can comfort themselves by thinking,

It is not to be destitute
To have the thing without the name”


1. The educational path of M. Carey Thomas is charted in detail in her biography by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. See Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

2. For a thorough exploration of the culture of masculinity of Oxbridge, see Oxbridge Men. Deslandes, Paul R. Oxbridge Men: British Masculinity and the Undergraduate Experience, 1850-1920. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005.

Berea and Bryn Mawr College: Virtual collaboration in the History of Women’s Education

Courtesy of Berea College Special Collections and Archives

We here at The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education at Bryn Mawr College are delighted to let you know about a new collaborative initiative between us and students at Berea College. As you know from our Mission Statement we are dedicated to creating resources, discussion and teaching across the wide spectrum of interesting narratives in the history of women’s education and the connection with Berea college is our first foray into connecting with other universities and institutions interested in exploring their own stories of women’s educational experiences in the past.

Former CLIR (Council on Libraries and Information Resources) fellow and editor of the wonderful history of Bryn Mawr College, Offerings to Athena, Dr. Anne Bruder, is now a professor at Berea College in Kentucky. She has been introducing her students to digital methods in historical research and as part of her class students worked on producing an Omeka based exhibit which we will proudly feature on our site. The site is due to go live in a beta version later in June and this exhibit, ‘At School, at Work, at Play: Gender Complexities at the First Southern Coeducational College’, will be among our first (but not of course our last) experiments into building collaborative relationships with those working on the history of women’s education. This fits with the aim of the Digital Center to reach out beyond the walls of Bryn Mawr and to encourage and facilitate links with other institutions that have interesting histories to share about women’s education in the past.

Berea College's first class. Courtesy of Berea College Special Collections and Archives

Berea College was founded on religious principles that stressed equality between people and advocated for the right for all to be educated. It recognized that not all students would have the economic means to obtain higher education, and thus it provided labor opportunities to help students pay for their education but also to gain valuable work experience (for more on the history and the mission of the college see Berea’s website). The students’ exhibit details the gender dynamics in its student population, academic program and behavioral expectations. As the exhibit details, from the inauguration of the school in 1855, there was a distinct definition of gender roles envisaged for its staff and student population. For while Berea provided educational opportunities for both men and women there are many examples of Berea encouraging and even enforcing specific gender roles on its students. Men were directed to pursue vocational education that would equip them to earn a living while women were encouraged to purse courses of study that would enhance their abilities within the home or traditionally female careers. Berea also provided opportunities for students to pay their way through college with work, and the same gender divisions again emerged in the college’s labor program. Its positions for men and women were decidedly different, re-enforcing the woman’s role as mother and the man’s role as provider.

Courtesy of Berea College Special Collections and Archives

As detailed in the exhibit, while Berea was known for racial equality, it still upheld traditional gendered expectations of men and women undertaking higher education. This is in contrast to the emphasis within Bryn Mawr College on female students attaining the highest academic standards comparable to the Ivy League colleges for men, with a diminished emphasis (in comparison to other women’s colleges) on domestic science. Although many students from Bryn Mawr College did marry (some before finishing their degrees) M. Carey Thomas was particularly concerned that Bryn Mawr be perceived as a serious site of academic study for women. Students here did not make their beds or attend to other domestic duties in the early decades of the college, relying on maids and porters for assistance in the dorms.

We are thankful to Dr. Bruder, her students, and the staff of Berea College Special Collections and Archives for their help in putting together this exhibition. Keep checking this blog for details of when the exhibit is made live!