"War Conditions Made It Impossible.": Historical Statistics and Women's Higher Education Enrollments, 1940-1952

By Dorn, Charles | Studies in the Humanities, December 2009 | Go to article overview

"War Conditions Made It Impossible.": Historical Statistics and Women's Higher Education Enrollments, 1940-1952


Dorn, Charles, Studies in the Humanities


In recent decades, scholars have increasingly informed their historical investigations through the use of statistical data. Social historians, in particular, have enriched their studies of marginalized groups through the incorporation of statistics recorded and reported by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau as well as data published by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. (2) While historians regularly interrogate qualitative archival sources for their legitimacy and validity, however, many fail to subject quantitative sources of evidence to an equal degree of scholarly scrutiny. Women's higher education enrollments between 1940 and 1952 serve as a particularly compelling demonstration of the importance of understanding statistical data as products of historical contingencies rather than objective sources of evidence.

In the United States, the absence of standardized data collection procedures prior to World War II consistently undermined federal officials' efforts to accurately record women's college and university enrollments. Following America's declaration of war in December 1941, home-front mobilization imposed restrictions that further limited the U.S. Office of Education's capacity to acquire reliable data from institutions of higher education. Officials responded by altering federal data collection methods in 1944 and again in 1946, complicating the data recording and reporting process. Moreover, many women who had postponed marriage and/ or motherhood because of economic insecurity resulting from the Great Depression began to wed and bear children at an increasing rate beginning in 1940. (3) Producing a demographic shift known as the "baby boom," this rush to the altar and the nursery most likely limited the growth of women's enrollment in higher education in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (4) Finally, reference resources, such as the U.S. Department of Education's 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait, fail to provide detailed explanations of the conditions under which much historical data was collected, leaving researchers generally uninformed as to the potential problems associated with using the statistics in their studies. In part as a result of these three factors, scholars' interpretations of the influence of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War on women's higher education aspirations and experiences have conflicted over time. (5) Historian Susan Hartmann, for instance, writes, "Women's educational patterns in the 1940s reinforced their inferior position in the economy" and that "beyond high school ... the educational aspirations and achievements of young women dropped below those of their male counterparts." (6) Conversely, Paula Fass claims that although the rhetoric of domesticity was popular during the post-World War II era, women consistently increased their rates of participation in both higher education and the paid workforce. "The direction of women's voices," Fass concludes, "has not always been the same as their feet." (7) Most recently, economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have conducted detailed analyses of birth cohort data and high school/college graduation rates, determining that the year 1947 represented both a "highpoint of gender imbalance" in college attendance and the beginning of the "homecoming of American college women." (8)

Illuminating the ways in which scholars' reliance upon historical statistics may have exacerbated rather than diminished historiographical disputes such as these, this study begins with a brief overview of higher education enrollments between 1940 and 1952. It then details modifications that federal officials made to war and postwar data collection methods before proceeding to describe how changes in the national birthrate during the 1930s further confound historians' efforts to understand women's college and university enrollments during the World War II and early Cold War eras. …

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