United States: Higher Education of Women

by Harriett M. Hallyn - 1943

The problems concerned with the higher education of women in the United States are numerous and difficult to solve. There are many reasons for this, but the chief one is that the nation has no uniform idea of why women should receive a "higher education."


DIVERSITY OF AIMS.—The problems concerned with the higher education of women in the United States are numerous and difficult to solve. There are many reasons for this, but the chief one is that the nation has no uniform idea of why women should receive a "higher education." Could this problem of problems be solved the others would be comparatively simple. A casual search through the literature on education, through the newspapers and current magazines, an open ear to the conversations of every day, make it clear that the aims of women's education are a sort of pudding stone or conglomerate of many ideas, with a few outstanding components, held together by a general consensus of opinion that higher education is valuable for women as well as for men. Educated women are supposed to become the conservers of our heritage of knowledge, they are to be the morale builders in the time of stress, they are to lead their children in the ways of culture, they are to be prepared to enter into plans and activities for civic betterment, they are to become informed citizens, they are to lead richer and more satisfying lives because of their education, they are to be better prepared to earn a living. All these and many others are the reasons one finds.

In this article a few of the more common ideas will be brought out and traced to some of their sequelae in educational procedure and the results in post-collegiate life whether of the present-day or the post-war world. Education must be considered from the standpoint of its impact upon living, at least in this modern, very practical world.

For most women students of the present day, so far as I have been able to ascertain, marriage after college is the desired and expected thing. This has probably always been true of the majority, but for a few years when women were struggling more consciously than today for their right to a "place in the sun" politically and economically, there was great emphasis upon a Career (so important as to involve spelling with a capital). Then, when their mothers and aunts had to a certain extent achieved their desired recognition and opportunities, the next generation settled back more comfortably to an idea of self-development and marriage, with a career very decidedly secondary. Some of the more active personalities among them began to visualize the fact that home-making was in itself a career, but this emphasis was weak except where it was concerned with preparation for a salaried vocation. Instead, the idea of education for self-development held sway over thousands of students, administrators, and college faculty members.

EDUCATION AND LIFE.—To this era belongs particularly the idea that education (in itself) will save the world—that by some magic the mere possession of knowledge and the "ability to think" will result in strength of character, sense of responsibility, and ability to work anywhere and anyhow. That this idea was inadequate to real life is now painfully apparent. There are many indictments of women's education, one of the most sweeping being that in the book Women After College, a study by Robert G. Foster and Pauline Park Wilson. They say: "Those educators whose job it is to educate for life have seemed unwilling to tackle the job of real and vital education. . . . The findings of this study leave no doubt that education did little if anything to prepare . . . the women of the group to meet their actual life problems." Thomas Otto Walton, president of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, declares that "Higher Education has failed to meet the exigencies of the times," and that "We must recognize a lag between what colleges and universities are offering youth in the way of training and what this youth needs to fit him for a place in society."

In other words, there is fresh emphasis on the realization that we are to educate our sons and daughters not for themselves alone but for the society of which they will soon become the leaders. This has, of course, been the intent of education among primitive groups from prehistoric times to the present and has only been overlooked from time to time by the peoples or groups who considered themselves so highly cultivated, so powerful and so safe, that they could afford "culture for culture's sake." The new-old educational ideal of today has been tersely expressed by A. Carneiro Leão of Brazil: "Education, it is clear, must be organized to meet two important demands: (1) the needs, interests and potentialities of the individual, and (2) the needs, interests and potentialities of society." The second of these two demands has been somewhat neglected in the liberal arts college, at least, and has been glimpsed, in general, only in a narrow field, by the professional schools.

Furthermore, the self-development idea has not produced the desired results in the individual. Being ego-centric in its essence it has been ingrowing and warping, in that it has often omitted the idea of responsibility. Ralph Barton Perry calls to our attention the long-neglected fact that "If a society is to be democratic its members must be not only free and enlightened, but humane. . . . Their choice will then be a choice not in their own narrow behalf, but in behalf of the total group or of mankind to which they belong."


CONTRIBUTION OF WOMEN.—The war has brought out an emphasis on education for democratic ideals and everywhere through our educational institutions the call is for "education for democracy." That this is true for both men and women is self-evident, but the educators of women are beginning here and there to realize that it may be true for women in certain especially womanly ways. Woman, say many writers, is by nature more definitely interested in human relations than is man, and more powerfully activated by her sense of the personal. If this is true, to any extent, we should and can discover how this may be made useful to society and to the individual through education. Thus far it is an almost untrodden field of thought, except in certain details concerned with health, child-care, and home-making. These latter, of great importance as they are, by no means cover the whole problem of woman's possible contribution to human relations.

Most colleges and universities have apparently taken for granted that, women being human beings, as are men, they should be identically educated except for certain types of professional education. But here and there a voice has been raised in protest, as, for example, that of Eugene R. Smith of Beaver Country Day School, who says that such a belief has blocked progress in that it has been substituted for a scientific attempt to adapt higher education "to the general needs of women," and to those of particular "sub-groups and individuals." President Blunt of Connecticut College is another who is clear in her own mind that there should be "some slight difference between the higher education of women and that of men. Women need the same kind of general education as men because they are the same kind of human beings, but they do have certain differences of function . . ." President Park of Wheaton vigorously writes: "To be human does not mean to be identical. Until women recover from the desire to imitate men in all their ways, civilization will lag. How should education differ? That is a question which can only be answered as women find their place in the life of the world." Recognizing this principle of the great effect of "the life of the world" President MacCracken of Vassar believes that "The higher education of women will differ from the higher education of men to the degree that environment and heredity influence the choice of studies. ... It does not seem to me a question of fitness so much as the existence of certain opportunities and interest capacities among women." This, he makes note, refers to the general run of women students and does not refer to those "who will transcend the general environmental conditions and create their own conditions." Chancellor Wilbur of Stanford University expresses a similar viewpoint when he says: "In my opinion, higher education for women should be exactly of the same quality as that for men. I think, though, that it is bound to differ in some degree in the various fields of interest, since the lives to be followed by women and men after graduation often vary."

DIFFERENTIATION IN EDUCATION.—Many colleges make the whole matter of differentiation in education one of the individual, rather than one of sex. Goucher College goes about it in what might be called an experimental way. First postulating the question of "what a Goucher graduate should be and be able to do in terms of life activities" they set up eight general objectives, and the satisfying of these objectives is the criterion of success for each individual. Thus it comes about that each student may be educated in her own best way and there is no question of whether it be a man's way or a woman's way, for it is the individual's way. President Marvin of George Washington University states it thus: ". . . it depends upon the demands of life, the type of personality, and the backgrounds of any man or woman, as to what should be included in the curriculum."

Another angle of approach is expressed by President Eddy of Adelphi College—that any differentiation should be "largely a matter of emphasis and degree rather than in the nature or kind of education." President Warren of Sarah Lawrence gives as her main reason for believing in a separate college for women that "it is very important that in whatever course she takes she have an opportunity to bring to the point of discussion any implication which the material may have to her as a woman"—an opportunity which is seldom given in a coeducational classroom.

It seems probable that with the greater emphasis upon education for responsibility there will be a clearer insight into the needs of society which can be served by women, and the curricula or methods of our institutions of learning will show the effect.

The young women themselves take too little part in the policy formation of their education. They are considered too young and inexperienced, and it is certain that it would do little good to seek their opinions unless we were first to give them information on which to base those opinions. A little of this is being done in a few places, and those educators who are using the system consider it well worth while. President Warren says in her book, A New Design for Women's Education, that large numbers of college girls want "emphasis on family relationships and adjustments, on marriage, on human biology, housing, woman's part in the economic world, on understanding one's self, children and other people." I believe, furthermore, that a thorough study of the elections of courses by women in the liberal arts colleges would show a definite trend in their thinking, an increasing interest in psychology, in social studies such as economics, government, sociology, religion, and philosophy, as well as an increased interest at present in the sciences (due to their immediate usefulness).

PROFESSIONAL AND GRADUATE STUDIES.—That higher education is considered of value by young women is made clear by the greatly increasing numbers who go to college, university, or professional school. Until recently the general trend for both men and women was toward increase, but the proportion of women to men was rapidly moving upward. F. Lawrence Babcock in his book, The U. S. College Graduate, says that some forty years ago the proportion of men to women in higher education was more than four to one, but that it has gradually changed until within the last decade there have been more than two women to every three men. Moreover, the present crisis in which young men are being rapidly sifted out of the colleges for Selective Service or for other war activities is making the proportion of women still higher. Paul Hornbeck, Director of the School and College Advisory Center, has even predicted the largest enrollment of women in the history of American colleges, and President Raymond Walters of the University of Cincinnati considers that in most coeducational institutions women are a large factor in maintaining the total enrollment for 1942. Whether this trend will continue will depend in part upon the rapidity with which industry converts its manpower into womanpower, and in part upon the ability of the educational institutions to meet the realistic demands of the modern girl, for an education that is satisfying for the present and for the future.


ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS.—A comparison of the catalogs of 1913, 1930, and 1942 shows clearly that as far as admission to higher learning is concerned there have been certain marked and important changes in the direction of liberalization and modernization. There is now far more emphasis on sound health, somewhat more on psychological or so-called "intelligence and aptitude tests." There are fewer prescribed units and more willingness to consider unusual preparation. However, it is to be noted that comparatively few subjects are allowed to count for entrance other than strictly old-line academic ones. Music and art have edged in to a considerable extent, but vocational subjects are still much in the minority. Certain subjects, such as sociology, civics, economics, and "social studies" are taking the place of the large amount of Latin and mathematics that was formerly required. Colleges and universities make an attempt to show the student that there is a relation between subjects studied in secondary and higher education. Certain of the secondary schoolmasters declare that the colleges still hold too tight a checkrein on their rapidly-moving educational policies and plans, but the colleges give rope very slowly.

CURRICULA.—In the curricula everywhere year by year there has been appearing a much richer offering, far more subjects and far more courses in those subjects. Women now, whether in coeducational institutions or in women's colleges, have an opportunity to choose the sort of work they want and hence to indicate whether or not they want anything different from what their brothers elect. This has always been true as far as different professional schools were concerned, and one of the quickest ways to determine what sort of education women want (whether because of their tastes or their future possibilities), is to note the numbers who attend schools of nursing, home economics, and secretarial and library schools, as compared with the numbers who attend schools of law, medicine, divinity, and liberal arts. As an example take a single university, Syracuse University, which in September, 1942, had elections in home economics, nursing, education, fine arts, speech, secretarial science, and business education, nearly three times as great as those in liberal arts, medicine, and law combined. This is not true in all universities, but in the majority there is a similar trend. Even among those women who attend colleges of liberal arts there may be seen a differentiation in elections, in spite of the fact that tradition and educational policy in general lead in the direction of identity of elections between men and women. Here the elections of women tend toward the humanities and certain social studies, and of men toward the sciences, economics, and political science. (Sweeping generalizations can always be challenged; and the above statement is, of course, not true of some institutions.) As an example may be taken the University of Michigan, in which for the years 1939–1940 to 1941–1942 there appeared elections each year with a distinct "bias." The proportion of women to men is greater in English, fine arts, French, journalism, Latin, library science, psychology, social studies, social work, sociology, Spanish, and speech; and the proportion of men is greater in chemistry, economics, geography, geology, physics, political science, pre-business, pre-law, pre-medicine, and mathematics.

IMPACT OF THE WAR.—The impact of the events at Pearl Harbor and all that they signify has made a convulsive change in the curricula of the liberal arts colleges, and in the elections of students, both men and women. All over the country women students have been profoundly affected. There has been a sharp turn to the sciences, to government and politics, to history of the Western Hemisphere and the Far East, to a study of nutrition and health. Arts and letters have gone down in many places, and hundreds of women have found themselves quite unexpectedly and suddenly in courses on electronics, meteorology, navigation, cartography, statistics, remedial speech, psychology of propaganda, public health, economics of war, the democratic philosophy, Latin American studies, geography, foreign policies, defense of religion, and many others either strictly academic or partly so, but for which the colleges and universities are giving academic credit in their double-quick pace to make education count for war needs. A few colleges even have what are called "War Minors" for women majoring in other types of subjects.

The war is bringing one great benefit to women students, that is the greater opportunity for graduate work. So many young men have been drawn away from the graduate schools that new opportunities and new fellowships are now open to women. The paradox is that many of these women who ordinarily would be overjoyed by the prospect are now turning instead to salaried posts of one sort or another. Many, however, are already engaging in important pieces of research and great numbers of others are taking advantage of the unwonted opportunities to begin their graduate study.

One of the greatest changes of the immediate present is the emphasis upon the acceleration program whereby a student may obtain the degree in less than four years by means of summer study. Since most coeducational and coordinate institutions have stressed acceleration or made it possible, the opportunity has been open to thousands of women. Among the women's colleges only a few have made a point of an accelerated program. There has been a certain amount of controversy over the problem, contending views being expressed, but the majority take the middle ground that acceleration for women should be considered on the basis of the individual student. Throughout the colleges efforts were made to guide the students to sensible use of the summer, whether in study or work, war-time jobs or volunteer services.

In line with the acceleration program many campuses were kept open in the summer of 1942, and many projects other than the usual academic ones were actively functioning. As an example among the women's colleges may be cited Mount Hol-yoke, in which a summer school with the avowed purpose of acceleration was established, to which students came from many other colleges and universities. At the same time four other groups were working and studying there or making it their headquarters. The International Student Service had a group of whom half studied recreational leadership in the city of Holyoke and half worked on the farms. The National Youth Administration sent girls who worked in the Holyoke factories. A unit of Engineering, Science and Management Defense (later War) Training trained young women college graduates in methods of factory management. Toward the last of the summer the French University of New York (l'Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes) held a session at the College and many French scholars foregathered with Americans and other nationalities for study and discussion.

The great numbers of extra-curricular courses in which women engage, in addition to their studies, are of much educational value as well, for they also train in the mores of our society, they add to the powers of logical and quick thinking, they develop the character and give opportunity for self-development in control, in cooperation, in leadership, in human relations, and in many other ways. If, as Sir Elliott Smith, the English anthropologist, has said, the mind learns by the skills of the body, then also many of these extra-curricular activities have what may be called an intellectual value as well as practical usefulness. In the present day they have one added grace, that of satisfaction of the need of the individual for activity in service toward America's war aims. A list of those activities connected with the war would fill several pages and run all the way from Red Cross work to repairing trucks and helping on the farms.

Miss Marion G. Hermion, Director of Public Information of the College of St. Elizabeth in New Jersey, made a survey of the emergency programs of New Jersey women's colleges for the committee of the American College Publicity Association to cooperate with national defense. She lists the following: the training of women to replace men in industry, on the farm and in civilian defense; the alliance of college women with community agencies in civilian defense and auxiliary war activities; the emphasizing of physical education; the building of iron morale in the women citizens-to-be by a study of why the war is being fought; and the assumption by already heavily burdened faculty members of additional duties on and off the campus. Although this surveys only the women's colleges of one state, it is representative of the work of women in many parts of the country— possibly somewhat more in the East and West than in the center of the United States, thus far.

An increasing number of projects are undertaken in connection with the community in which the colleges are located, and many young women are gaining experience invaluable both to themselves and to the society of which they will later become active and trained citizens. Rockford College students made a practical survey of the city government which the city has published. Queens College helps in planning programs for study groups of all sorts. Pennsylvania State held a conference for housewives. The students of many colleges give radio broadcasts, go out as speakers, help in hospitals, settlements, and refugee and war-relief agencies, and other similar institutions. The whole matter gives concrete evidence of the fact that the American college woman is alert, and taking a lively advantage of her educational opportunities.

GUIDANCE.—One of the educational gains which is being made, perhaps more for women than for men, is in the field of guidance and personal counseling. All colleges are becoming increasingly conscious of the need that students have for the considerate counseling of older people. Progress is being made in methods. Many persons still think that all that are necessary as qualifications are interest and common sense. Certainly these two are a sine qua non for any success, but of course they are not enough. Given the initial character suitable for advising (and the possession of such a personality is not too common) the addition of training for the job makes a great improvement. This is true not only in the matter of personal understanding, gained from records, from tests and measurements, from conversations, etc., but equally so in the realm of vocational counseling, where the adviser must know not only the individual student but the vocational opportunities as well. Women make exceptionally good counselors, and this may be looked upon as potentially one of their special fields of work in the future. At the present time college personnel work, as it is often called, is of especial importance because everywhere is maladjustment and everywhere are arising determination, courage, and the spirit of service. Great and unaccustomed opportunities are open to young women, on which they need information and for which they do not know how to prepare. College appointment bureaus are over-taxed and personal counselors are finding their problems overwhelming. Some wag has said that "a counselor should be not only informed but experienced in poverty, riches, marriage and divorce, deeply religious, philosophical, and possessed of a sense of humor"!


ADAPTABILITY.—What college-trained young women do with their education after college is the examination question on which collegiate education may be said to "pass or to fail." Here there is great disagreement, and there is no possibility of weighing education in the balance and stating whether or not it is "found wanting." It is clear that it has not been of as vital service as it should have been, but certain facts can be presented which indicate that education really has passed muster for great numbers of its graduates. In the first place there is the fact that it has apparently made many of the college graduates both flexible and able, as is seen from the large number of married women holding positions during the depression years, and the number doing work of a somewhat unusual character. That they have been able to turn to various sorts of work, that they have shown initiative and originality, that they have had a sort of "practical sense" may be due to their native endowment, but when their record is compared with that of non-college women it would seem probable that their education added to their abilities along these lines and made their potential powers active. Babcock says that in 1940 many more women college graduates than non-college women were holding positions, and that "employment is an almost universal rule among college graduates" except for housewives (employed at home) and those beyond the work age limit.

Where there are so few statistical studies one looks for the straws in the wind and of this sort is the small but significant item that, in the objective tests given to both men and women by the National Committee on Teacher Examinations, college candidates had greater success than the others, in proportion to the number of years of higher study, from the Ph.D. down to no degree.

What college women are doing may be judged by the activities listed by the American Association of University Women. They are taking their place as substantial contributors to the work of the world both in paid posts and in volunteer work; in their homes, offices, libraries, schools, hospitals, factories, in business, and in the various other occupations.

They are to be found taking a large share in the work of philanthropic and religious organizations, civic betterment projects and welfare work, serving on school boards and occasionally entering the field of politics. All too few take an active and informed interest in politics and related subjects. Their education has quite evidently been at fault here. When war broke out in Europe it was found that there was the most pitiable lack of interest and knowledge on the part of American women (and men) students, but Japan's perfidy has done them an invaluable service, for now their knowledge and vital interest have massed up like a pyramid. One of the notable differences between this war and the last, says President Comstock of Radcliffe, is that there is a greater knowledge on the part of women and that they take a more professional attitude toward the war and toward war-services.

In the present emergency they are showing great elasticity in their ability to take on new types of work and modify accustomed patterns of living and of thought. Miss Margaret Hickey, member of the Missouri bar, says of women that "All the essential services and functions of our business, industrial and professional life will be looking for beginners and potential leaders with college background"—and that we who are their counselors are realizing that "the basic consideration is, 'not what I want to do,' but the very realistic and practical one, 'what needs to be done'." Thus we find the numbers of women already increasing in aeronautics, in engineering, in office management, in probation and parole work, in health and recreational programs, in the field of consumer relations, in radio, photography, and many other fields where formerly the numbers were very small, but where now the need is great.


EDUCATION AND SOCIETY.—What, then, is to be the future of women's education in the post-war period? Already some educators are beginning to glimpse the problem and to make very tentative suggestions. They refuse as yet "to enter the field of prophecy"; but one can find everywhere in the magazines, in newspapers, in lectures, in letters and conversations, the rising tide of belief that women's education in the future will be a more useful thing both for the individual and for society, that it will be more considered and essentially suitable, that it "will become a more genuine preparation for a useful and rich life" (Eugene R. Smith). Many are convinced, as is Dean Payne of New York University, that "Education will have to play a more significant part than it has in the past." I. L. Kandel wrote of public school education in 1938, "The task of modern education is to adapt instruction to the abilities and capacities of pupils, to build on the environment in which they live, and to extend and enrich that environment." If this be also true for college students, then the future education of women must take into account not only their intellectual abilities and tastes, but also their special aptitudes and personality, their attitudes and emotional adjustment, and the actual life they will lead after college. What they will do and what they will be, will be of as great importance to the educator as the matter of what they will know. Women students will not only be informed but active.

What are to be the specific changes by which this will be brought about is not yet certain, but it is very interesting to bring together the ideas of many educators as expressed thus far. It is taken for granted that scholarship is to be maintained, that there is great need of the true scholar, and that the coming education is to be thorough and firmly grounded. Beyond this there are certain general statements that appear again and again in different form. Health, physical hardness and endurance, with a special biological emphasis for women upon the race as well as the individual, stand in the forefront of the aims of the new education. Character education is mentioned as often, with all the attendant emphasis upon training in mature judgment, emotional stability, and sense of responsibility. A third component of the new education stressed again and again is work education. For women this means not only salaried vocations but also the myriad parts of home-making such as child-care, the creative arts, family economy, control of property, and disbursement of funds. The fourth, but by no means least important in the minds of the educators, is training for citizenship. Dean Gildersleeve of Barnard says, "We must give them, without being frightened off by charges of indoctrination, a more positive and constructive and dynamic conception of American institutions and the aims of our nation."

If these aims are indeed to take a place of front rank beside the older ones of development in the use of the intellect and information for culture's sake, then of a surety there will be sweeping changes in curriculum and method. Here, too, a few of our foremost educators have dared to postulate possibilities. To the end that character education shall be resurrected from the cupboard in which it has been stored since the earlier days of American colleges, there will be better programs of guidance carried out on a larger and more considered scale. Psychology and sociology, philosophy and religion will be taught in a way to give background for practical living. For health there will be more physical education definitely planned for that purpose, and in closer cooperation with the physicians and other counselors. There will be much more information concerning hygiene, both physical and mental, individual and social, and much in the way of biology. For work education there will be better vocational guidance and more actual teaching of career subjects, as well as the pointing up of other subjects toward their relation to a practical world. Finally, for citizenship, there will be far more emphasis on history and government, on international matters, and on American studies of every kind.

Will these prophecies take shape? No one knows, of course, but they express the line of thought of many of those who are writing and speaking of women's education in the midst of war.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 1 Number 1, 1943, p. 273-290
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15133, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 5:09:30 AM

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