Thought Knows No Sex: Women's Rights at Alfred University
reviewed by Judith Glazer-Raymo - December 09, 2008
Title: Thought Knows No Sex: Women's Rights at Alfred University
Author(s): Susan Rumsey Strong
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 079147514X, Pages: 217, Year: 2008
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Gender, womens rights, and higher education are rendered in exacting detail in this absorbing history of the founding and growth of Alfred University, the first coeducational university to be established in New York State and one of the first in the nation. Its author, Susan Strong, reference librarian at Alfred, has drawn on rich archival materials and historical sources to weave together in one text, an account of rural farm life and religious faith, the early history of coeducation, and the advent of the struggle for womens rights. In the process, she heightens understanding of the importance of antebellum academies in offering women educational opportunities at a time when the prevailing separate spheres ideology denied them access to male-only private academies and colleges. She also draws attention to the dedication and sacrifices of early educational leaders and feminists whose paradoxical entanglement of faith, values, and purpose motivated their zealous efforts to craft new educational models for advanced learning. In essence, this history has a text (the founding of Alfred Academy in 1836 and its elevation to university status in 1857) and a subtext (the emergence of the womens rights movement, also originating in western New York State in 1848).
This history adds Alfred to the pantheon of antebellum coeducational colleges established before the Civil War at a time when joint study by males and females was considered revolutionary. Its early chapters (chapter 1-3) trace the emergence of an egalitarian environment from which coeducation and the right to equal opportunities for men and women would later emerge. Alfreds origins as a select school and the first academy for Seventh Day Baptists offered admission to graduates of the common schools in the Allegheny region of Western New York State. Strong sets her study of Alfreds development within the context of New York States dominance as a leader in the establishment of common schools 10,769 by 1843 and academies for training teachers 200 by mid-century, 85 percent coeducational with an equal number of males and females among its 20,000 students (p. 14). These diverse and unregulated institutions opened advanced education to women, becoming Americas first engine for mass secondary education (p. 14) and part of a system for training common school teachers. Having been founded as a local effort dependent on community support, the vision and determination of its leaders created a model for coeducation that supported women, was non-doctrinal, and extended egalitarian principles from antislavery to womens rights (p. 75). In three of the most interesting chapters, Strong introduces the reader to the individuals whose vision and energy proved pivotal in the transformation of Alfred from a rural academy to a university: Abigail Maxson Allen (chapter 4), William Kenyon (chapter 5), and Abigails husband, Jonathan Allan (chapter 6), each of whom reflected the zest for social reform so emblematic of educators in that era. Abigail Allen also made her mark as an early feminist who was influenced by Enlightenment values of equality and justice, and who joined with Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women in espousing equal opportunities, equal pay, and womens suffrage. Working alongside her husband at Alfred, Allen founded the first literary society for women (the Alphadelphian Society) as a forum for debate, encouraging women students to take active public roles in society (p. 63). As head of the Alfred Academy, William Kenyon added theology to the curriculum of this secular institution as a strategy for obtaining a New York state charter establishing Alfred as a University in 1857. During his tenure as Alfreds first president, a Ladies Course was introduced for the purpose of teaching the humanities to women (in lieu of the classics); and a new degree was instituted, the Laureate of Arts. It was last listed in 1871 when Alfred expanded its offerings to include the arts, science, and engineering.
College presidents were master teachers in this era, well-versed in academic subjects, meeting regularly with faculty, students, and trustees from their communities, and supervising university business affairs. Kenyons successor, Jonathan Allen, was a polymath and social reformer, who taught almost every subject and who advocated for womens equality with men. By 1870, the prestigious mens colleges were largely closed to women, and according to Strong, of the 3,300 women in baccalaureate programs nationally, 2,200 attended womens colleges. The Allens took a strong stand in support of male-female partnerships that extended beyond schooling to work, politics, the church, and the community. Jonathan Allens assertion that thought has no sex, the title of this book, was rooted in his belief that single-sex education as a system of caste . . . [was] as cramping and deteriorating as any other caste system or monkish organization (p. 109). Strong observes that Allens values and beliefs reflected the views of other reformers that women and men could not be separated into distinct and separate spheres. In an address to the first womens congress of the American Association of Women, Abigail defined a public role for women as radical to the core (p. 106) and offered a resolution (defeated) in support of coeducation with equal rights and privileges for men and women (p. 108). Important parallels are evident in the struggle for womens rights that engaged Abigail Allen and her colleagues. In the nineteenth century, anti-slavery spurred womens advocacy of an equal rights agenda. As Steven Buechler observes in his study of womens movements in the United States, many womens rights advocates had prior experience in the abolitionist movement, and they drew on these experiences as they formulated and pursued the goals of the early womens rights movement (1990, p. 17).
Rather than drafting an institutional history, Strong has constructed an historical case study of coeducation. In the process, she introduces the reader to nineteenth century educators and feminists who exemplified the spirit of enlightenment values of equal rights and free speech and whose legacy is demonstrated in the institutions they founded. Anti-slavery, equal rights, religious freedom, and rural values each played a part in this history. In her effort to relate this history in chronological order, Strong tends to overstate some of her themes, particularly the doctrine of separate spheres, and the importance of geography, class and local economies in shaping womens roles. However, these are minor concerns in a text that departs from the institutional history genre to reveal the myriad influences on the origins and development of a university and the role of early educators and social reformers in this process.
Buechler, S.M. (1990). Womens movements in the United States: Woman suffrage, equal rights, and beyond. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.