College was never really a question for me. I was one of the “smart” kids, and my parents had gone to college. Somehow, it wasn’t until I got to college and was knee deep in a women’s history class that I realized that this whole higher education for women was all relatively recent.
Again, I can probably blame some of the books I read as a kid. Higher education was never really a question for Anne Shirley–after all, with the stigma of being an orphan, she had to have a way to make her way in the world just in case a husband wasn’t in her future. Though Laura Ingalls doesn’t head to college, her sister Mary does go away to school. And as a teacher, Laura certainly kept learning. And so many of the books I love end before the main characters are college-aged, so it just wasn’t an issue.
I didn’t discover Carney Sibley until I was an adult, but I instantly loved the depiction of college life in Carney’s House Party. Like the other “teenage and older,” Maud Hart Lovelace books, this one has also been reissued in a lovely package. It includes an introduction by Melissa Wiley, best known for her prequels to the Little House books. There are other reasons to love Carney–infinitely practical, she falls head over heels for a man that is wrong on paper but is totally right. More than anything, this book is a romance. But I’m not here to talk about romance.
Carney is an unusual girl for her time. Unlike her classmates from Deep Valley High, she goes away for college–all the way to New England and Vassar College. Among her classmates at Vassar, she’s unique in being “midwestern.” Not a lot of families were willing to invest that kind of money in their daughter’s education. Let’s give Carney a bit of context.
Oberlin College was basically the first college in the country to admit women–admitting 4 in 1837. Vassar itself was founded in 1861, the second of the Seven Sisters (first was Mount Holyoke also in 1837 and last was Barnard in 1889). But just because these colleges existed didn’t mean that the general public accepted higher education for women. . .
By the 1880s, more and more women were continuing with their education–and more and more women were struggling to figure out what to do with that knowledge. Jane Addams has a wonderful passage in her memoir, Twenty Years at Hull House, that describes her frustration at having nothing to do–which ultimately led her to found Hull House and offer careers in social work to other educated women.
Around the turn of the century, active efforts began to dissuade women from pursuing higher education, especially alongside men.. The following is taken from the National Women’s History Museum online exhibit, “The History of Women and Education,” which I highly recommend if you want to find out more about this topic. In the 19th century, many folks worried about the following:
- Women would suffer nervous breakdowns if they were to compete in a man’s world.
- They would be corrupted and lose their purity.
- Their reproductive systems may be harmed.
- A learned woman might be an unfit mother and wife.
- Education would masculinize women.
- If men and women associated together in college they may begin to find each other less attractive.
Dr. Edward Clarke stated, “A woman’s body could only handle a limited number of developmental tasks at one time – that girls who spent to much energy developing their minds during puberty would end up with undeveloped or diseased reproductive systems”
So where does Carney fit in all of this? Right smack dab in the middle! In the midst of the house party, with all of its fun, Betsy reads an article from the Ladies Home Journal, one of the leading women’s magazines of the era.
“Here’s just what we want, an article on women’s colleges.”
It was written by a parent, and he didn’t like women’s colleges any too well. “Our daughter has come back to us mentally broadened, but somehow we feel a loss in emotional qualities. The head of the girl has been trained without the heart.”
“What nonsense!” Carney interrupted. “You don’t go to college to get your heart trained.”
As she falls in love with Sam, it becomes clear that he wants her to continue school, because it will make her be a better wife and mother–another common belief at the time. And maybe it does. But at the same time, this modern feminist is a wee bit irked that Sam wants her to graduate, but there’s not much mention of Carney’s desires.
Right now, I’m reading Sister of the Bride by Beverly Cleary. Set in the early 1960s, there are moments where I feel like I’m back in the 1910s with Carney. Greg wants Rosemary to finish school. Greg wants Rosemary to get good grades. But what does Rosemary want?
For many of us, these kinds of thoughts and reactions and reasoning seems quaint and old-fashioned. Of course women can learn alongside men! Of course women should go to collge (in fact, for the first time, there are more women graduating from college than men). And yet, it’s still awfully complicated. How do you balance career and family? This isn’t something I’ve personally had to struggle with yet, but I do wonder how I’ll balance career and kids when the time comes.
So, the conversation they had on Carney’s porch really wasn’t that long ago. And in some ways, we’re still having that conversation. Here’s to Maud Hart Lovelace of reminding us where we fit in the scheme of things.