The Impact of Historical Expectations on Women's Higher Education

By Eisenmann, Linda | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Historical Expectations on Women's Higher Education


Eisenmann, Linda, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


The Impact of Historical Expectations on Women's Higher Education

In any examination of the status of women's rights and leadership, the issue of education--particularly at the collegiate level--inevitably rises to the fore. Education often provides an important key to expanding women's opportunities, and women's accomplishments are frequently tied to their increased levels of schooling. As a historian of education, I would argue that any examination of current concerns must account for what we know historically; specifically here, ways in which early expectations about women's educational participation have impacted their opportunities and have influenced our ongoing interpretations about their performance.

The educational history of girls and women is one of continually trying to move from the margins to the mainstream. This long-term exclusion is most obvious on the advanced level, where, even though women always constituted a large part of the collegiate population, they were rarely viewed as central players. For younger girls, education in the basics was long valued, but its importance as preparation for girls' futures was much less potent.

This argument about indifference toward women in colleges and universities may seem surprising today, when women constitute 60% or more of students on most campuses. (1) In fact, this current participation rate is often cited as a problem, as if women's greater presence automatically disadvantages men or as if their predominance equates to men's exclusion. This paper will examine earlier eras when women's educational participation raised questions and when their curricular choices seemed to mean feminization at men's expense, suggesting that such viewpoints must be tempered with an understanding of their wider contexts.

I would argue that there have been many times in the past when, if women's performance defied expectations, people saw what they expected to see rather than analyzing what women actually did and what that behavior meant. The momentum of women's achievement in higher education continues to be affected even today by the influence of these past beliefs.

This paper will explain three longstanding expectations about girls, women, and their futures which, over the last two centuries in both the U.S. and Britain, created gendered approaches to their education. The first expectation, which predominated until the 1860s or so, was that women were not especially interested in education because there was so little opportunity for them to use anything beyond basic training. The second, which overlapped the earlier notion but lasted until the early 1900s, was that women were not capable of advanced education. A particular concern here was that the strains of collegiate schooling would harm women's health. The third expectation--which evolved only after their participation was assured--was that women were best treated in segregated settings and with specialized curricula. Although coeducation eventually dominated both the school and college landscapes, this notion of separate treatment has had a long effect on women's participation.

After discussing these expectations, this paper turns to three misinterpretations that have developed around women's educational history, generally as a result of these earlier understandings. These include, first, a longstanding belief--which we see in current worries that women constitute "too large" a percentage of the college population--that women "feminized" certain fields and institutions by choosing them in large numbers, thereby driving out the males. Second is the misconception that women have always lagged behind men in the pursuit of science, math, and technology, creating the current "achievement gap." Third is a belief that, since World War II, women have been only minor participants in both the workforce and higher education. The common image is "Rosie the Riveter," unfairly pushed out of the mainstream. …

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