In the early years of American history women were discouraged from pursuing higher education because it was culturally considered unnatural for a woman to be educated. If a woman advanced her intellect, people thought she would be "unsexed". Those who did obtain higher education were instructed in traditional domestic skills such as sewing. Over the last few centuries women's positions and opportunities in the educational sphere have improved significantly.
General history of women's education in the United States
In Colonial America girls were taught to read and write, but could only obtain any higher education if there was room left in the schools for boys. Generally, that restricted them to being educated in the summer when boys were working.
Coinciding with the beginnings of the first wave of feminism in the 19th century came the attempt by women to gain equal rights to education in the United States. Women's rights organizations focused on adjusting and increasing women's place in the public arena by arguing that the only fundamental differences between women and men were socially created ones, and thus women should be offered the same extensive and practical education that was offered to men. After long battles against gender oppression women finally obtained the right to be educated through several government acts/conventions, the opening of facilities willing to educate them, and the opportunity to continue into higher education.
American women's colleges
In 1833 Oberlin College was founded, making it the first university in the nation to accept women and African Americans as students.
Prior to the American Civil War only five colleges admitted women, two of which had all-female student bodies: Antioch, and Hillsdale. With the start of the war many males were away serving in the armed forces, so more opportunities arose for females to fill the empty space in schools and the universities became more willing to admit the women. Slowly more educational institutions opened their doors to women; today, there are 60 women's colleges in the United States offering educational programs that parallel co-educational universities both in subject matter and in quality.
Political acts affecting education for women in America
In 1848 the Seneca Falls Convention was held in New York to gain support for education and suffrage [and was the first women's rights convention], but it had little immediate impact because at that time women were still considered the property of men rather than individuals in society. This convention is significant because it created a foundation for efforts toward equal education for women, even though it was not actually achieved until much later.
The Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862 founded universities to educate both men and women in practical fields of study, though women's courses were still centered around home economics. By 1870 30% of colleges were co-educational, later in the 1930s women-only colleges were established that expanded opportunities for courses of study to include more intellectual development as opposed to domestic instruction.
Timeline of women's education in America
- See also: Timeline of historically black women's colleges
- See also: Timeline of women's colleges in the United States
- See also: Women's colleges in the United States
1742: At only 16 years of age, Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf established the first all-girls boarding school in America, sponsored by her father Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf. Originally known as the Bethlehem Female Seminary upon its 1742 founding, it changed its name to Moravian Seminary and College for Women by 1913. 1863 proved the Germantown, Pennsylvania-based school’s most landmark year, however, when the state recognized it as a college and granted it permission to reward bachelor’s degrees. As a result, most tend to accept Moravian as the oldest—though not continuously operational because of its current co-ed status—specifically female institute of higher learning in the United States.
1826: The first American public high schools for girls were opened in New York and Boston.
1829: The first public examination of an American girl in geometry was held.
1841: The first American women to earn their Bachelor's degrees - Mary Hosford (later Fisher), Elizabeth Smith Prall (later Russell), and Mary Caroline Rudd (later Allen), did so this year, from Oberlin College. Oberlin College had become the first coeducational college in the United States in 1833.
1849: Elizabeth Blackwell, born in England, became the first woman to earn a medical degree from an American college, Geneva Medical College in New York.
1850: Lucy Sessions earned a literary degree from Oberlin College, becoming the first black woman in the United States to receive a college degree.
1858: Mary Fellows became the first woman west of the Mississippi River to receive a baccalaureate degree.
1862: Mary Jane Patterson became the first African-American woman to earn a BA in 1862. She earned her degree from Oberlin College.
1864: Rebecca Crumpler became the first African-American woman to graduate from a U.S. college with a medical degree and the first and only black woman to obtain the Doctress of Medicine degree from New England Female Medical College in Boston, MA.
1866: Lucy Hobbs Taylor became the first American woman to earn a dental degree, which she earned from the Ohio College of Dental Surgery.
1866: Sarah Jane Woodson Early became the first African-American woman to serve as a professor. Xenia, Ohio’s Wilberforce University hired her to teach Latin and English in 1866.
1869: Fanny Jackson Coppin was named principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, becoming the first black woman to head an institution for higher learning in the United States.
1870: Ada Kepley became the first American woman to earn a law degree, from Northwestern School of Law.
1871: Frances Elizabeth Willard became the first female college president in the United States, as president of Evanston College for Ladies in Illinois.
1871: Harriette Cooke became the first woman college professor in the United States appointed full professor with a salary equal to her male peers.
1873: Linda Richards became the first American woman to earn a degree in nursing.
1873: Ellen Swallow Richards became the first American woman to earn a degree in science (hers was in chemistry).
1877: Helen Magill became the first American woman to earn a Ph.D., which she earned at Boston University in the subject of Greek.
1878: Mary L. Page became the first American woman to earn a degree in architecture, which she earned from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
1879: Mary Eliza Mahoney became the first African-American in the U.S. to earn a diploma in nursing, which she earned from the School of Nursing, New England Hospital for Woman and Children in Boston.
1886: Winifred Edgerton Merrill became the first American woman to earn a PhD in mathematics, which she earned from Columbia University. 
1889: Maria Louise Baldwin became the first African-American female principal in Massachusetts and the Northeast, supervising white faculty and a predominantly white student body at the Agassiz Grammar School in Cambridge.
1890: Ida Gray became the first African-American woman to earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree, which she earned from the University of Michigan.
1892: Laura Eisenhuth became the first woman elected to state office as Superintendent of Public Instruction.
1894: Margaret Floy Washburn became the first woman to be officially awarded the PhD degree in psychology, which she earned at Cornell University under E. B. Titchener.
1900: Otelia Cromwell became the first black woman to graduate from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
1903: Mignon Nicholson became the first woman in North America to earn a veterinary degree, which she earned from McKillip Veterinary College in Chicago, Illinois.  
1904: Helen Keller graduated from Radcliffe, becoming the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
1905: Nora Stanton Blatch Barney, born in England, became the first woman to earn a degree in any type of engineering in the United States, which she earned from Cornell University. It was a degree in civil engineering.
1908: Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the first black Greek letter organization for woman, was founded at Howard University.
1909: Ella Flagg Young became the first female superintendent of a large city school system.
1915: Lillian Gilbreth earned a PhD in industrial psychology from Brown University, which was the first degree ever granted in industrial psychology. Her dissertation was titled "Some Aspects of Eliminating Waste in Teaching".
1921: The first black women to earn Ph.D. degrees in the United States earned them in 1921. They were: Georgiana Simpson, German, University of Chicago; Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, economics, University of Pennsylvania; and Eva Dykes, English philology, Radcliffe College.
1922: Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority was founded. It was the fourth black Greek letter organization for women, and the first black sorority established on a predominantly white campus, Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana.
1923: Virginia Proctor Powell Florence became the first African-American woman to earn a degree in library science. She earned the degree in 1923 from the Carnegie Library School, which later became part of the University of Pittsburgh.
1926: Dr. May Edward Chinn became the first African-American woman to graduate from the University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College.
1931: Jane Matilda Bolin was the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School.
1932: Dorothy B. Porter became the first African-American woman to earn an advanced degree in library science (MLS) from Columbia University.
1933: Inez Beverly Prosser became the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in psychology, which she earned from the University of Cincinnati.
1934: Ruth Winifred Howard became the second African-American woman in the United States to receive a Ph.D. in psychology, which she earned from the University of Minnesota.
1935: Jessie Jarue Mark became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in botany, which she earned at Iowa State University.
1936: Flemmie Kittrell became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in nutrition, which she earned at Cornell University.
1937: Anna Johnson Julian became the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania.
1940: Roger Arliner Young became the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in zoology, which she earned from the University of Pennsylvania.
1941: Ruth Lloyd became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in anatomy, which she earned from Western Reserve University.
1941: Merze Tate became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in government and international relations from Harvard University.
1942: Margurite Thomas became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in geology, which she earned from Catholic University.
1943: Euphemia Haynes became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics, which she earned from Catholic University.
1945: Zora Neale Hurston became the first African-American woman to be admitted to Barnard college.
1945: Harvard Medical School admitted women for the first time.
1947: Marie Maynard Daly became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry, which she earned from Columbia University.
1962: Martha Bernal, who was born in Texas, became the first Latina to earn a PhD in psychology, which she earned in clinical psychology from Indiana University Bloomington.
1963: Grace Lele Williams became the first Nigerian woman to earn any doctorate when she earned her Ph.D. in Mathematics Education from the University of Chicago.
1965: Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1914? - 1985) became the first American woman to earn a PhD in Computer Science, which she earned at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her thesis was titled "Inductive Inference on Computer Generated Patterns."
1969: In 1969, Lillian Lincoln Lambert became the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Business School with an MBA.
1972: Title IX was passed, making discrimination against any person based on their sex in any federally-funded educational program(s) in America illegal.
1972: Willie Hobbs Moore became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Physics, which she earned from the University of Michigan.
1975: In 1975, Lorene L. Rogers became the first woman named president of a major research university, the University of Texas.
1975: On July 1, 1975, Jeanne Sinkford became the first female dean of a dental school when she was appointed the dean of Howard University, School of Dentistry.
1976: U.S. service academies (US Military Academy, US Naval Academy, US Air Force Academy and the US Coast Guard Academy) first admitted women in 1976.
1977: The American Association of Dental Schools (founded in 1923 and renamed the American Dental Education Association in 2000) had Nancy Goorey as its first female president in 1977.
1979: Christine Economides became the first American woman to earn a PhD in petroleum engineering, which she earned from Stanford University.
1979: Jenny Patrick became the first black woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, which she earned from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
1980: Women and men were enrolled in American colleges in equal numbers for the first time.
1983: Christine Darden became the first black woman in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. degree in mechanical engineering, which she earned from George Washington University.
1987: Johnetta Cole became the first black president of Spelman College.
1996: Women first passed men in bachelor's degrees in America in 1996.
2001: Ruth Simmons became the eighteenth president of Brown University, which made her the first black woman to lead an Ivy League institution.
2008-2009: For the first time, women earned a majority of the doctoral degrees awarded in America.
2011: For the first time, American women passed men in gaining advanced college degrees as well as bachelor's degrees; as of 2011, among adults 25 and older, 10.6 million U.S. women have master's degrees or higher, compared to 10.5 million men. Measured by shares, about 10.2 percent of women have advanced degrees compared to 10.9 percent of men—a gap steadily narrowing in recent years. Women still trail men in professional subcategories such as business, science and engineering, but when it comes to finishing college, roughly 20.1 million women have bachelor's degrees, compared to nearly 18.7 million men—a gap of more than 1.4 million that has remained steady in recent years.
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