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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 dramatically.
In Colonial America girls were taught to read and write, but could only obtain 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.
Coeducation was a controversial topic in the 1930s, and sex-segregated school systems protected “the virtue of female high school students.” Home economics and female industrial education were new elements of the high school curriculum designed for unmistakably female occupations. These classes taught women practical skills such as sewing, cooking, and using the new domestic inventions of the era; unfortunately, this “formal training offered women little advantage in the struggle for stable work at a liveable wage.”
The 1930s also saw tremendous changes in women’s education at the college level. In 1900, there were 85,338 female college students in the United States and 5,237 earned their bachelor’s degrees; by 1940, there were 600,953 female college students and 77,000 earned bachelor’s degrees. This increase was partially explained by the “contemporary discourse that reinforced the need for higher education for women in their positions as wives, mothers, citizens, and professionals.”
Because the proper role for a white, middle class woman in 1930s American society was that of wife and mother, arguments in favor of female education emphasized concepts of eugenics and citizenship. Education showed women how to exercise their civic responsibilities, and it showed them the importance of the vote. Participation in student government trained women “early to become leaders later.” One study showed that in 1935, 62 percent of women college graduates voted compared to only 50 percent of women who did not attend college.
The basic assumption in the 1930s was that women should marry. There was also the perception that college educated women were less likely to marry, either because they “waited too long” or because the college experience which broadened their minds deluded them into believing “marriage should be between equals.” Others argued college made women better wives and mothers because it “imparted practical skills.”
Teaching and nursing were the top two fields for women throughout the 1930s but home economics also experienced a great surge in popularity during the Depression. Home economics brought a scientific language to the traditional women’s sphere of the home and raised “homemaking to the status of a respectable--though definitely female--occupation.” Social work, child development, and nursery school educational programs were also popular. In addition to this strong vocational orientation in American education during the opening decades of the twentieth century, women began to make slow inroads into traditionally male dominated areas of education such as business, science, medicine, architecture, engineering, and law. Women were also able to gain positions of responsibility within the federal government because of the watershed events of the New Deal.
Founded in 1772, Salem College is the oldest female educational establishment that is still a women's college.
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.
In 1848 the Seneca Falls Convention was held in New York to gain support for education and suffrage 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.
In July 1975 “Title IX regulations became effective as law” (Margaret Fund of NWLC, 2012). The law provided one year for compliance to elementary schools and three years for compliance to high schools and post secondary institutions. Through the 1970s the law’s enactment, opposition towards the legislation, and initial compliance for the law were the focus. According to the Margaret Fund (2012), in 1982 a court case was won upholding the nondiscriminatory acts in employment, the case title is as follows, 1982 North Haven Bd. of Ed. v. Bell, 456 U.S. 512 (1982). In 1984, the case Grove City v. Bell, 465 U.S. 555 (1984) a, “U.S. Supreme Court decision held that federal spending clause statutes only apply to those programs or activities that receive direct federal financial assistance, effectively ending Title IX applicability to athletics” (Margaret Fund of NWLC). This decision is later remedied in the late 80’s by the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987. In 1988, this act was passed by Congress and reversed the damage from the Grove City v. Bell decision. The Margaret Fund (2012) states, “It over-rode the Grove City v. Bell decision by expanding the definition of program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance” (Margaret Fund of NWLC, para.5). During the 1990s three significant changes or continuations to the law were made in the course of the decade. First, a Supreme Court decision allowed an individual to sue for monetary retributions by citing the Title IX Act. Second, the disclosure act in 1994 stated that all institutions under Title IX were to report publically on their operations, with an effective implementation date set for 1996. Third, the ORC distributed requirements to institutions and schools which are explained and outlined more clearly the regulations for Title IX. The significant events in the 2000s allow schools to use e-mail surveys, and due to a Supreme Court case in 2009, lawsuits on the basis of sexual discrimination under Title IX can be brought by parents.
1639: The French colony of Acadia, which at the time included part of Maine, had an Ursuline boarding school by 1639 that was geared toward the education of young girls. The school was founded in Quebec City and is still in operation today, though this part of Canada no longer includes the part of Maine that it once did.
1674: In this year Bishop Calderon of Santiago wrote to Queen Mother Marie Anne of Spain concerning the Spanish efforts at colonizing Florida. In his letter he included some comments about the state of education and stated, "The children, both male and female, go to church on work days, to a religious school where they are taught by a teacher whom they call Athequi of the church; [a person] whom the priests have for this service." This description indicates that the colonies of New Spain had facilities for female education at least by the 1600s. It is not clear how far back this goes; the 1512 laws of Burgos, from over a hundred years earlier, did not specify whether instruction should be for males only: it uses the word hijos, which means sons, but can include daughters if they are mixed in with the boys.
1727: Founded in 1727 by the Sisters of the Order of Saint Ursula, Ursuline Academy, New Orleans, enjoys the distinction of being both the oldest continuously operating school for girls and the oldest Catholic school in the United States. The Ursuline Sisters founded this school out of the conviction that the education of women was essential to the development of a civilized, spiritual and just society, and has influenced culture and learning in New Orleans by providing an exceptional education for its women.
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.
1783: Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, appointed the first women instructors at any American college or university, Elizabeth Callister Peale and Sarah Callister – members of the famous Peale family of artists – taught painting and drawing.
1803: Bradford Academy in Bradford, Massachusetts was the first higher educational institution to admit women in Massachusetts. It was founded as a co-educational institution, but became exclusively for women in 1837.
1826: The first American public high schools for girls were opened in New York and Boston.
1837: Bradford Academy in Bradford, Massachusetts, due to declining enrollment, became a single-sexed institution for the education of women exclusively.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1892: Laura Eisenhuth became the first woman elected to state office as Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Late 1800s, exact date unknown: Anandibai Joshi from India, Keiko Okami from Japan, and Sabat Islambouli from Syria became the first women from their respective countries (and in Joshi's case the first Hindu woman) to get a degree in western medicine, which they each got from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP), where they were all students in 1885.
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.
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.
1931: Bradford Academy, in Bradford, Massachusetts, changed name to Bradford Junior College and offered two year degree for women.
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.
1937: Anna Johnson Julian became the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in sociology 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.
1942: Margurite Thomas became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in geology, which she earned from Catholic University.
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."
1971: Bradford Junior College in Bradford, Massachusetts changed to Bradford College and offered four year degrees for women.
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.
1972: Bradford College in Bradford, Massachusetts became a co-educational institution (again) after being founded in 1803 as co-educational and then serving exclusively as a female institution of higher learning from 1837 to 1972. Bradford College closed permanently in May, 2000. The Bradford Alumni Association continues today and is the third oldest continuing alumni association in the United States.
1975: In 1975, Lorene L. Rogers became the first woman named president of a major research university, the University of Texas.
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.
1979: Christine Economides became the first American woman to earn a PhD in petroleum engineering, which she earned from Stanford University.
1980: Women and men were enrolled in American colleges in equal numbers for the first time.
1996: Women first passed men in bachelor's degrees in America in 1996.
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.