Separation, Coordination, and Coeducation: Southern Baptist Approaches to Women's Higher Education, 1880-1920

By Bateman, Lori Bland | Baptist History and Heritage, Summer-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Separation, Coordination, and Coeducation: Southern Baptist Approaches to Women's Higher Education, 1880-1920


Bateman, Lori Bland, Baptist History and Heritage


Even before the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1845, Baptists in the South played a significant role in American higher education.

Although originally suspicious of higher learning, Southern Baptists have demonstrated their dedication to college and university education through commitments of money, facilities, professors, and students. In fact, in the South, education was second only to missions as the major impetus for organizing Baptist state conventions.

Further, Baptists in the South have contributed much to the education of women. For varying reasons and by differing paths, Baptists in each southern state have sought to educate their daughters as well as their sons, first in grade-school academies and then in postsecondary institutions. This article examines the specific ways women gained access as students in Southern Baptist sponsored colleges during the years 1880-1920. During these decades, the standard mode of collegiate education in the United States, including Southern Baptist higher education, became the coeducational institution. Both separate colleges for women and coordinate colleges, however, served to establish access for women to higher education and prove their intellectual equality with men. (1)

Coeducation was practiced in only a half dozen American colleges before the Civil War, (2) but due to societal shifts and unique cultural characteristics in the western United States, the majority of colleges founded in this region after 1880 opened as coeducational. These institutions served as models for the eventual transforming of single-sex colleges in the East and South.

During the loosely defined period 1880-1920, three types of Southern Baptist higher educational institutions developed: coeducational, coordinated, and separate women's colleges. (3) The type of education offered women was determined by several factors: some societal, some practical, and some unique to Southern Baptist life. (4) By providing women increased access to and choice in postsecondary education, Southern Baptists maintained competitive colleges and universities that continue to contribute to society.

Early Efforts to Educate Women--Pre-Civil War

Within nineteenth-century Southern Baptist higher education, the issue of women as students emerged creating controversy in some circles and excitement in others. Prior to 1800, no postsecondary institution existed for women. (5) The colonial view held that women were intellectually inferior to men and educating them was not worthwhile. The Enlightenment, Romanticism, and necessity led to changing attitudes regarding the educability of women. (6)

Certain unique circumstances also existed in the pre-Civil War South regarding women in higher education. The prevailing attitude that opposed secular education and favored church schools led to denominational control of academies and postsecondary schools to a greater extent than in the North. (7) In general, southern schools tended to oppose coeducation, so separate women's academies and colleges were established. (8) By the Civil War, general consensus held that women were able to be educated up through secondary school. (9) Yet, concerns over the impact that educated women might have on society prevailed. The chief fear was that "women might forsake their infants for quadratic equations." (10)

The Woman's Education Movement Progresses Among Baptists--Post-Civil War

In the post-Civil War South, several factors, including the missions movement, provided significant motivation among Southern Baptists for educating women. According to Leon McBeth, no institution suffered more as the result of the Civil War than higher education. The dearth of students during the war coupled with the destruction in the South led many colleges to close their their doors permanently. (11) The Civil War also disrupted prevailing social values. Crossover in gender roles during the war allowed women to access careers not traditionally available to them. …

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Separation, Coordination, and Coeducation: Southern Baptist Approaches to Women's Higher Education, 1880-1920
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