The expectations held by a society define the roles of its members. While many factors influence the parts individuals play in their cultures and communities, education has always been the crucial element in the establishment of social roles. Education was the catalyst which changed women's roles in society from what they were in the late 1800s to what they are now.
In the latter years of the nineteenth century, women's roles in American society underwent gradual but definite growth, spurred on by a rapidly changing society. As the nation recovered from its Civil War and slavery faded away, a massive transformation of industrialization took place, and revolutionary scientific ideas, such as those presented in Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, and by Sigmund Freud, caused people to question and to rethink fundamental aspects of their lives, religion, and beliefs. Social reforms in the fields of health, labor, and education developed as the publication of books and periodicals revealed to the public the problems therein. At the turn of the century, women's roles were severely limited by society's concepts of male supremacy and female inferiority. Women were perceived as weak, a notion upheld by the "prevalence of invalidism among nineteenth century women". (Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth) Fashions of the times didn't help either. Voluminous, billowing skirts hampered movement, and corsets caused dizzy spells and fainting. A woman's priority in young adulthood was to find a husband, and after doing so, raise a family and run a well-kept household. Women were not expected to harbor aspirations other than "... the acquisition of a husband, a family, and a home....". (Cowen, Ruth Schwartz) The male-dominated social order dictated that women be meek and obedient "domestic creatures," for the most part confined to housewifery and raising of children, deferential to men, and financially dependent on the husband. These very definite ideas about a woman's part in the overall scheme of things were responsible for the restricted part women played in their world. "...[A]n exclusively nineteenth century phenomenon among women... developed as a result of the concept of the 'woman's sphere,' whereby the woman's role in life was strictly limited to home and family. 'Sorority' as a social phenomenon seems to have passed away in the twentieth century as women's opportunities and roles expanded". (Muhlenfeld)
As slaves were forbidden to learn to read, women were likewise kept in their place through lack of substantial and purposeful formal instruction. In the late 1800s, women began to go to college to pursue "learning for its own sake, detached from professional motives". (Solomon, Barbara) Higher education was not intended as job preparation. Women were expected to marry and not pursue a career, thus having no practical use for their educations aside from what they learned in home economics courses. In the south, token education, 'finishing school,' was commonly regarded as proper for young women as "femininity [was] more valuable than scholarship". (McCandless, Amy Thompson) Women's uncertain place in the development of liberal arts curriculum was yet another factor contributing to lesser scholarship.
Female students were not always taken seriously, and were frequently discriminated against, requested to withdraw from certain courses so that more men might enroll. Female faculties at Colleges were small and social constraints abounded, particularly in the Southern region of the country where the "cult of womanhood" was almost religiously upheld. Smoking, drinking, and dancing were prohibited, and chaperones were present at most functions. There was also the "unmarried academic woman" phenomenon where women were either married or educated; Sweet Briar's first four presidents are an example. In light of the sexism present at institutions of higher learning, schools for women were started. They served different purposes, some merely finishing schools. Other colleges, like Sweet Briar, were founded on "the highest college standards" with demanding entrance requirements. (McVea, Emilie Watts) The schools' aim of serving as a foundation from which women could move into professional work enabled them to leave college with "power and joy, and with courage to meet life's great adventure". (McVea) Women were urged to think about their role in the world, a world greater than just the confines of home. "The greatest advancements for women in the closing decades of the nineteenth century were in education". (Patterson, Cynthia M.) Oberlin College began admitting women in 1837, becoming the first coeducational college, and Mt. Holyoke became the first women's college that same year. Bryn Mawr, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley were all founded between 1861 and 1885. Many schools were founded with a purpose of "physical, moral, religious training, education and sound learning... [as befitted] useful members of society". (McVea) Higher education for women became normal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but often a college educated woman would retire to the home with a family and not pursue a career, especially in the South, where education was a social grace and not a practical necessity for Southern women. Many women, however, responded to their education by being eager to pursue a career. They were fascinated by the world opened up to them through education, new concepts such as Darwinism, and "intellectual experimenting". (Solomon)
Education did not guarantee pursuit of an occupation. Society's expectation that women care for home and family left little room for personal growth and professional development. Women who sought jobs or professional work were still rare. "...[W]omen who worked outside their homes did so only under duress or because they were 'odd'...". (Cowen) As things became more urbanized, the need for workers grew and thus the presence of women was required. But women were working in factories, as teachers, or in other womanly jobs only. "[A] woman's usefulness was not equated with professionalism". (Solomon) Women studied courses useful in their personal life such as home economics. There was no focus on practical courses that would lead them to jobs nor any definite purpose of developing 'critical minds.'
Mary Boykin Chesnut was an educated woman but despite this, she, like so many other women of the 1800s, was relegated to the home. Although she had had a thorough education which included extensive traveling and study of languages, literature, and history, her duties consisted solely of entertaining friends and her husband's colleagues. Childless and needing a challenge, she stood out as an exception to the rule, a woman who transcended the expectations of her society. She played an active though unofficial role in the day's political scene, and pursued personal interests by translating foreign works, teaching slaves to read, and writing. Foremost among her literary works is her Civil War journal, valued for her opinions and insights as well as historical value.
But once women began receiving higher education, there was no going back. Education changed women's role in society dramatically. Occupations were limited but women began to seep into the male-dominated world. After experiencing higher learning, aspirations changed and gradually society's expectations had to change as well. Education bred confidence and empowerment. With empowerment came the realization that women should not be considered lesser citizens than men and therefore should have the same rights enjoyed by men. Educated women were more apt to challenge men's role as the dominant figure and the flawed rationale for the denial of suffrage. Before this time, women were uneducated. How then were they capable of being voting citizens? Why should they be property owners? Without education nothing was expected of women. A narrowness of education resulted in narrowness of experience, outlook, and life. Once they began to go to college they began to challenge society's expectations as well as broaden their personal experiences.
Women became activists pushing for rights and eventually were successful. The gain of suffrage set the precedent for other future gains. "While acquisition of the vote for women may have signaled the end of the women's movement for millions of Americans, it represented a long-awaited opportunity to pursue previously slighted goals for a myriad of women activists". (Patterson) When women learned about social ills and had use of the vote, they fought for reform in factories and treatment of the insane, and worked against prostitution.
Callie Khouri's 1994 Sweet Briar College commencement speech is significant not only in the messages it contains but in the circumstance of its delivery. Presented to young women about to begin a new adventure in life, many of them expecting to attend graduate school and embark upon professional careers, Khouri's speech represents a great deal of change from Mary Chesnut's time period and the mindset of late nineteenth century society. The importance of self-sufficiency and self-esteem is emphasized. She urges women to have aspirations and encourages late marriage, a radical idea by 19th century standards.
In Mary Chesnut's era, no one was delivering commencement speeches about self-sufficiency to women; indeed, young women had just begun to attend college as a regular matter of course. What would Mary Chesnut have said to a graduating class of young women? Women of the previous century had no one to urge personal independence and goals. Khouri's advice to young women is different from advice Chesnut might have given a young woman of her era; Khouri urges self-sufficiency, whereas to Chesnut that was a somewhat foreign concept. Sexism was not yet identified as a social wrong.
For women of the late nineteenth century, higher education was an accepted innovation but not a necessity for daily living and for the future. Today, women study subjects of personal interest, pursuing degrees that match their talents, interests, and aspirations. Formal education beyond a four-year college is likewise common as women go on to earn their Master's degree and PhD. The goals of education today are very different from the purpose of women's education of yesteryear. Going to college was an accepted part of life for both generations, but with different rationales and post-graduate aspirations. In a rapidly changing and growing world, higher education is not a nicety but a necessity to survive. Self-sufficiency is critical.
As the number of educated women grows and as the level of education increases, the expectations become greater but at the same time more liberating. Frequently, nineteenth century expectations of women were restrictive and while today's standards may call for a more difficult "juggling act" of roles of wife, mother, and career person, the female experience is much broader overall. The family is an interest not the interest. Women today still face discrimination in the form of income disparity, the "glass ceiling," and the notion of female professionalism as being unwomanly, but education is now a means of self-sufficiency and an opportunity to be seized with purpose.
"When going to college became an accepted part of her life, a woman was empowered with [her] education and the self-confidence it engendered". (Patterson) The major catalyst of the women's movements was education, changing the role of women in society from a passive one to an active, vital force.
All references are from Sweet Briar College's 1996 Orientation Anthology, (Women's Place, Women's Choices: The Public Careers and Personal Experiences of American Women. Ed. Cynthia M. Patterson and Martha Woodroof, 1996.)
The following articles are cited:
Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography. (selection)
Cowen, Ruth Schwartz. "Two Washes in the Morning and a Bridge Party at Night: The American Housewife Between the Wars."
Solomon, Barbara. "In The Company of Educated Women, Women and the Modernizing of Liberal Education."
McCandless, Amy Thompson. "Preserving the Pedestal: Restrictions on Social Life at Southern Colleges for Women."
McVea, Emilie Watts. "Sweet Briar College: An Interpretation."
Patterson, Cynthia M. "From Sentiment to Social Reform."