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Alma Mater: Design and Experience in Women's Colleges from their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s


reviewed by Paul H. Mattingly - 1985

coverTitle: Alma Mater: Design and Experience in Women's Colleges from their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s
Author(s): Helen L. Horowitz
Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA
ISBN: 0870238698, Pages: 420, Year: 1993
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Helen Horowitz’s Alma Mater provides the richest detail yet available on student life in the Seven Sisters institutions, a category of early, elite women’s colleges comprising Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Wellesley, Barnard, Radcliffe, and Vassar. The category stretches, in this analysis, to satellite schools like Sarah Lawrence, Scripps, and Bennington. In her opening remarks the author, a Wellesley graduate, underscores the incontestable sense of living in a “special” place that so many alumnae of these institutions had and continue to have. Her interest in the feminist issues of her own generation sparked her initial inquiry, and her subsequent awareness that the Seven Sisters used each other as a reference group became the sustaining theme of her study. The major methodology, both ambitious and ingenious, intertwines the routines of daily student living with the formal architectural designs of campus and buildings. It is both a strength and a weakness that the architecture is made to represent the underlying philosophy of the school.


Horowitz has organized an extraordinary wealth of information to document how the Seven Sisters shed their initial impetus toward religious reform and social responsibility for the indulgences of a privileged, leisured class. Alma Mater history begins with the founding of Mount Holyoke Seminary in 1837 by Mary Lyon. This early seminary drew on the antebellum upsurge of evangelical Protestantism and embraced a widely shared model of training women as teachers and missionaries in a range of righteous causes. It was a model to which Mount Holyoke itself would adhere until the 1890s and on which Vassar (founded 1861), Smith (founded 1871), and Wellesley (founded 1870) drew in varied but fundamental ways.


The “seminary” model spawned so many imitators that by 1870 over 70 percent of women in higher education attended such schools. In one generation, however, the founding of competitive colleges would make these seven schools a distinct minority. While the actual numbers of women in higher education increased eightfold between 1870 and 1900 (11,000 to 85,000), the women’s colleges under scrutiny here taught in 1900 only about 3 percent of women in higher education. Unfortunately the comparisons of social context and achievement of the larger and equally “special” population are another history and not part of Horowitz’s story.


Horowitz documents the rich variety of the seminary’s evangelical tradition but indicates that it approaches the Seven Sisters’ educational standard only by shedding its missionary image. She explains how Mary Lyon reshaped education to encourage conversion experiences and how her teachers involved themselves in their students’ lives with the aim of creating an environment like a “well-governed home.” Mount Holyoke began with tuition of $60 a year, one-third to one-half that of competing academies and seminaries. Until the 1890s Mount Holyoke resisted raising tuition and throughout the nineteenth century arranged domestic work in college housing for the many students paying their own way. Unlike later leaders in women’s education, Mary Lyon avoided the cultivation of the rich, preferring to support her school through small donations from a wide network of graduates and friends. In spite of this and similar detail, Horowitz never explicates the full social-class implications of her data and fails to engage (or mention) the seminal studies of James McLachlan (American Boarding Schools),1 Robert Crunden (Ministers of Reform),2 and others that would have required fuller clarification of the wide social impact of the seminary tradition.


In Alma Mater the seminary model becomes a point of departure to measure progress toward the cohesive Seven Sisters blueprint. Horowitz is particularly successful in documenting these departures through descriptions of the earliest campus architecture at each school. For example, in its central building Vassar created a locus that guaranteed not the force of evangelical instruction but rather the protection of femininity. Its founder selected James Renwick, the architect of the Smithsonian Institution and of hospitals on Ward’s and Blackwell’s islands in New York City, to design a self-contained edifice. The resulting asylum centered the chapel, the dining room, and the president’s office in its dominating main pavilion, with classrooms, dormitories, and family apartments for (male) faculty in matching wings. Vassar set in stone its mixture of traditions—of elegant ornamentation and utility, of feminism and maternalism, of evangelism and intellectual discipline—and, the author insists, sustained a confusion of values that would last into the twentieth century. The costs of the buildings drained money from curricular innovations (courses in fine arts and natural sciences) and faculty salaries. Vassar’s architectural overcommitments led to a lowered academic standard in order to ensure sufficient students and solvency.


By contrast, Henry Durant, the founder of Wellesley, overrode his admiration of Mount Holyoke to create a “scattered” structure that appropriated Gothic forms for evangelical Christianity. At Wellesley this juxtaposition invites not irony for Horowitz but evidence of Durant’s insistence that there was no necessary tension between wealth and piety, no dominance of ostentatious consumption over purposeful work. One cannot help but wonder why this mixture of values is not equivalent to Vassar’s “confusion,” or at the very least why these important variations between and among the colleges does not make the very term college more problematic than it is for Horowitz. Wellesley’s supposed commitments to collegiate and leadership values are closely associated with its special female culture (no male president or male faculty). Unfortunately, Horowitz mentions but does not fully engage the more compelling and definitive argument of Roberta Frankfort (Collegiate Women)3 on these points. For the entire nineteenth century the majority of Wellesley graduates, like its early distinguished president, Alice Freeman, opted for marriage over independent career and leadership. Where Wellesley prided itself on social activism and intellectual achievement, its faculty and graduates resembled the missionaries of Mount Holyoke or the intellectuals of Bryn Mawr.


Substantial benefactions created both Smith College (founded 1871) and Bryn Mawr (founded 1885) but oddly promoted a tradition of student housing—the “cottage system”—that harked back to the human scale of Mount Holyoke. Horowitz credits Smith as the first college-level school for women, largely on the basis of its curriculum (especially mathematics and ancient languages). Smith also rejected the “asylum” tradition, preferring instead to integrate students into the community life of Northampton, Massachusetts. The school, though designed and taught by male graduates of evangelical Amherst, built no chapel on campus. Rather, the school grounds were centered on College Hall, which housed classrooms, labs, and administrative offices. Smith relied on Northampton for both church and library. This novel reintegration of college and community, of piety and intellect, pressured all women’s colleges, existing and planned, to reconsider the nature and design of college life. Smith’s influential paradigm might have led Horowitz to reconsider the historical meaning of evangelism and the manifest possibility that a variation survived into the twentieth century in the Seven Sisters collegiate ideal.


Except for Bryn Mawr, Horowitz’s analyses of architecture and education are most convincing at the founding stage of the college. For six of the Seven Sisters the later additions and changes in design and instructional values, not to mention the pragmatic compromises necessitated by budget, obscure the interrelationships. Can one discern clear educational and cultural priorities in a hodgepodge of architectural styles introduced over a long period of years? At Bryn Mawr one could, at least after the appointment of M. Carey Thomas, first as dean then as president. She totally reintegrated the campus into a single Gothic motif, centered on quadrangles like those of Oxford and Cambridge. This transformation was completely compatible with her ideological insistence on educational parity with equally privileged men. Thomas, easily the most extraordinary person in this book, did not graduate from a woman’s college and, like the other genuinely fascinating and truly distinguished women during these years—Wellesley’s president Alice Freeman, a graduate of the University of Michigan; Mount Holyoke president Mary Woolley, a graduate of Brown University; and Smith dean and Radcliffe president Ada Louise Comstock, a graduate of the University of Minnesota—was a product of a coeducational institution. There were powerful forces at work on these colleges other than each other. Also, after a certain point there is a limit to the inferences one can draw from school architecture to illuminate the history and achievement of educational institutions.


Horowitz has achieved an unusual sort of educational anthropology, yet her work is in the most literal sense an intramural product. There is very little information and no interpretation of the larger social—much less “democratizing” —achievement of the American women’s colleges and their graduates. Conceptually Horowitz has sited herself outside our most recent and invigorating historical literature, a scholarship that has called our attention productively to the dynamics of social class, or demographic patterns, of the rhetorical variations of educational ideology. Cumulatively this new literature has invited scrutiny of the meanings behind the words, the significance behind the facades. In Alma Mater it is extraordinary to learn that the referent—the Seven Sisters—emerged from a conference of their officers in 1926. Horowitz raises no political or social questions about this remarkably late bid for corporate monopoly (of money, faculty, and students), coming at a time when Barnard’s Virginia Gildersleeve (who initiated the 1926 conference) faced first the influx of Jewish and Catholic students that seemed so threatening to the leadership of the country’s most socially privileged colleges. Behind their Beaux Arts and Gothic facades one wonders again and again throughout this book how such schools compared historically with coeducational state universities, with normal schools and teachers’ colleges (which shared the Mount Holyoke model), and with the distinguished Catholic tradition exemplified by the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, which, like Mount Holyoke, began operation in the antebellum period and converted to the “college” standard in the 1890s. Any such comparisons would have necessitated interpretive distinctions between the larger social pressures on a range of educated women in this period. Only in that context might one demonstrate the truly special contributions of the Seven Sisters ideal and create a perspective for understanding the many, often more democratic and significant, meanings of “Alma Mater.”



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 87 Number 1, 1985, p. 133-137
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 700, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 4:39:07 AM

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