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“Citizenship for the College Girl”: Challenges and Opportunities in Higher Education for Women in the United States in the 1930s

by Margaret A. Nash & Lisa S. Romero - 2012

Background/Context: Little research has been done on higher education for women during the 1930s, even though scholars have pointed to this period as a turning point because the proportion of female students declined during this decade. The decline was only relative, however, as men’s enrollments skyrocketed while women’s increased more slowly. This article seeks to understand women’s continually increasing numbers, rather than the relative decline in enrollment.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question: During a time of economic hardship, what justifications were used to encourage women to attend college? What purposes or rationales were part of the national discourse that made it possible for ever-increasing numbers of young women to attend and graduate from college?

Research Design: Our research consists of historical analysis of printed archival material from 1929-1940. Primary material was drawn from original print editions of the Readers’ Guide to Periodic Literature and the electronic version of Reader’s Guide Retro. We divided journals into popular magazines and academic journals, and coded all articles indexed under the terms “College, students, women,” “Education of women,” and “College women.” We analyzed 128 articles from popular magazines and 85 articles from academic journals. This provided a rich source of magazine and journal articles considered significant during the period studied. After coding and choosing the themes for our focus, we looked for related articles from newspapers; we used electronically archived materials from the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. To avoid an east/west coast urban bias, and in an effort to include an African-American perspective, we supplemented this with material from smaller Midwestern and African-American presses including the Daily Illini, The Chicago Defender, Columbia Missourian, Hannibal Courier, and the Urbana Daily Courier.

Conclusions: Two primary discourses were evident in newspapers, periodicals, and academic journals that encouraged women to attend college in the 1930s. The first was that of eugenics. Previous scholarship on eugenics tends to emphasize how eugenics was used to discourage women from advanced schooling, as postponing childbearing meant a reduction in the birthrate. We argue that while this argument was indeed present in national literature, eugenic arguments were used as well to encourage women’s college attendance. In this view, educated women produced healthier future generations and therefore served eugenic interests. The second primary discourse was that of the need for education for citizenship. The periodical literature reveals an emphasis on colleges teaching women about the responsibilities of voting, volunteerism, and promoting peace and social unity.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 2, 2012, p. 1-35
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16244, Date Accessed: 9/24/2021 2:41:30 AM

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About the Author
  • Margaret Nash
    University of California, Riverside
    E-mail Author
    MARGARET A. NASH is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on the history of education in the United States, especially the role education plays in the historical construction of identity. She is the author of “Contested Identities: Nationalism, Regionalism, and Patriotism in Early American Textbooks,” in History of Education Quarterly (Fall 2009), and Women’s Education in the United States, 1780-1840 (Palgrave Press, 2005). Currently, she is researching campus life at a junior college during the 1930s.
  • Lisa Romero
    University of California, Riverside
    E-mail Author
    LISA S. ROMERO recently received her doctorate from the University of California, Riverside. Her dissertation, “Student Trust: Impacting High School Outcomes,” examined the effect of trust on student achievement and educational outcomes. She is the co-author of “The Politics and Practice of Alternative Certification,” in Educational Administration Quarterly (August 2010).
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