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Article 1: "A fair chance for the girls": discourse on women's health and higher education in late nineteenth century America.

Histories of education in America often discuss how concerns over women's health influenced public opinion on women's participation in higher education in the late nineteenth century. However, these histories almost exclusively focus on literature produced by the medical community--literature claiming that rigorous academic study was detrimental to women's health (Leavitt 1999; Rudolph 1990; Solomon, 1985; Thelin 2011). What is often missing is a comprehensive recounting of how women challenged the medical wisdom of the day by responding publicly to the assertions of the medical experts. These forms of resistance included responses in print media as well as female physicians who came forward publicly to reject the claims made by the male-dominated medical community (Russett 1989, 84; Smith-Rosenberg 1985, 262-263; Wells 2001, 172-173). An additional example is how the women of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (ACA) challenged the scientific expertise of physicians by conducting their own study to determine the validity of the claim that higher education was harmful to women's health (Zschoche 1984).

In order to investigate male physicians' assertions of the detrimental effects of education on women's health and in order to potentially challenge this assertion, the women of the ACA found it necessary to use the language of science in order to be taken seriously by the public and leaders in education. In short, they needed to utilize the scientific practices and principles of the day in order to make their case believable, respectable, and capable of changing public opinion and education policy. According to Sue Zschoche, only by wielding the authority of science could women "make their claim in a biologically-reductionist, social-Darwinist social and intellectual environment" (94).

I argue that by doing so, feminists, female physicians, and the ACA reasserted women's authority over their own bodies and also rejected male physicians' enforcing of social and moral discipline through their alleged expertise over women's bodies. Although Zschoche skillfully demonstrates how women shifted the argument in favor of women's higher education from one of religious and moral reasons to one with scientific support (77-98), there lacks a more in-depth analysis of how the textual and rhetorical representation of women's bodies became the battleground upon which the war over women's higher education was waged. (1)

By further exploring how feminists, female physicians, and the ACA adopted scientific language and principles in order to speak on women's health and higher education, this study contributes to feminist scholarship on women and education by highlighting a significant form of resistance against patriarchal medical authority (Morgan 2006, 4; Bennett 2006, 15; Pedersen 2000). This study also illustrates the relevance of the concept of the body in understanding the debate over women's higher education and the implications of authority over women's bodies. In particular, it highlights how women's bodies became a site of intervention and an inscriptive surface "on which laws, morality, values, [and] power [were] inscribed" (Grosz 1995, 33). Lastly, this study contributes to our understanding of the intersections of gender, medical science, and education reform.


In the decades after the Civil War, science, rather than religion, had become increasingly influential as the basis of social reform and an explanation for social phenomena. Spearheading this new "scientific sociology" was Herbert Spencer, whose theories attempted to "unite all the universe, from protozoa to politics, into one coherent system of thought" (Russett 1989, 84; Zschoche 1984, 50). Presented in the language of science and social progress, Spencer's scientific sociology seemed to provide answers to many pressing social issues, and in constructing an empirical sociology, Spencer attempted to demonstrate that the principles governing the natural world, including evolution, were identical to those governing human societies. Differences between men and women and the justification for their different roles in public and private life, for example, could be explained by their different evolutionary roles (Russett 1989, 84; Zschoche 1984, 52).

Drawing from Spencer's line of reasoning in regards to the evolution of human societies, medical sources from the late nineteenth century explained bodily ailments as a necessary by-product of modernity and the progress of human civilization. In 1889, Dr. H. C. Sawyer's Nerve Waste: Practical Information Concerning Nervous Impairment in Modern Life explained that modern life was to blame for much of society's illnesses:
   The 'railroad brain' and the 'railroad spine' are beginning to be
   talked of in medical meetings. The roar, the jar, the ceaseless eye
   and ear stimulation ... The possibilities of man in America are
   great and they excite ambition--to become rich, to rise in the
   social scale, to accomplish objects which involve struggle,
   sacrifice, and anxiety (6).

Clearly, Sawyer was referring to a modern illness that was not necessarily gendered, and if anything, seemed masculine, with references to "ambition" and "struggle."

Although medical experts agreed that both men and women were susceptible to illnesses brought on by modernity and social evolution, nervous weakness and bodily frailty were considered to be predominately female characteristics. Dr. Clifford Allbutt claimed that "the stir in neurotic circles first began with the womankind" (217). Dr. Samuel McComb claimed: "Like all nervous troubles, neurasthenia is more common among women than among men" (259). Neurasthenia, a popular medical term coined by Dr. George F. Beard, was used to describe a loss of "nerve energy" that could result in a host of symptoms including fatigue, vague bodily pains, melancholia, hysteria and even, as McComb asserted, a "lack of moral poise" (260). Neurasthenia was both loosely defined and loosely applied. In addition to having the above-mentioned symptoms, women plagued by neurasthenia exhibited an overall apathy towards life, malaise, and bodily weakness that was rarely alleviated by any amount of rest (Sawyer 1889, 23).

The general scientific wisdom of the day also maintained that while men were constantly evolving and advancing, women, from an evolutionary standpoint, remained fixed and "conservative." W. K. Brooks' The Law of Heredity, for instance, offered a hereditary explanation for men's superiority to women. In it, Brooks claimed that male "sex cells" (the knowledge of genes did not yet exist) developed "a peculiar power to gather and store up germs"--meaning that men were able to acquire and retain hereditary variations. Women, on the other hand, were the "perpetuating factor," passing on variations to male offspring while incapable of manifesting them. Genius, a product of rare, hereditary variation, was thus explained as a male characteristic, while mediocrity was female. In essence, "woman was underdeveloped man" (82).

By scientifically demonstrating the inherent, biological weaknesses of women and claiming expertise over women's bodies, the medical community was able to justify its influence over women's involvement in many aspects of public life. Doctors, for instance, commented on women's ability to hold public office, work in various professions, and even their ability to vote. Their influence over public opinion was facilitated not only by their scientific expertise, but also by producing literature that was widely read by the educated public (Ehrenreich 2005; Barker-Benfield 1976; Solomon 1985, 55-56). Drawing from social-Darwinist perspectives, doctors alleged: "Men lived at the cutting edge of the struggle for existence. Women, removed from that struggle, led lives so sheltered as to amount to life in a different environment altogether. The needs of the two sexes, and therefore their capacities, were not the same." Thus, doctors asserted, "nature," which had determined separate spheres for men and women, also endowed each sex with different capacities that were most fitting for their separate roles (Russett 1989, 84).


Perhaps the main reason male physicians were able to claim expertise over women's bodies was due to the professionalization of medicine in the mid and late nineteenth century. Prior to the nineteenth century, women's health, and indeed family health, was largely in the hands of women themselves as wives, mothers, and midwives. Women often relied upon other women for advice regarding childbirth, reproductive health, and most other aspects of general health. In fact, before industrialization in America, community forms of healthcare were often provided by skilled midwives and "doctoresses" who "learned their craft through years of observation and apprenticeship under other women" (Cott 1996, 44). Until men had successfully professionalized medicine, women's "medical services might include virtually everything offered by male physicians" (Cott 1996, 44). However, as gynecology and the treatment of female illnesses moved away from the realm of "women's work" and became professionalized, it grew in prestige, respect, and authority (Ehrenreich 2005; Barker-Benfield 1976).

Male physicians' scientific knowledge of women's bodies, as well as the growing respect for professionalized medicine, gave them the authority to speak on the topic of women's higher education. One of the most widely-read and discussed works on the subject was Edward Clarke's Sex in Education; Or, A Fair Chance for the Girls, published in 1873. Although the title may lead one to think that Clark was advocating for women's education, Clarke, an esteemed professor of medicine at Harvard University, argued that women should not be educated to the same extent that men were--the main reason being that education was detrimental to women's health. Clark claimed that the more serious or "mannish" the education, the more harm was done to women physically and mentally (35).

Clarke's work is divided into three sections: "Chiefly Physiological," "Chiefly Clinical," and "Co-Education," which create a three-pronged argument against the higher education of women. In his first discussion, Clarke used medical and biological arguments for why girls in late adolescence must conserve their health for maternity instead of squandering it on mental activity (31-61). Clarke's clinical argument was founded on case studies of young women who were supposedly in good or perfect health before entering college but completed their education or withdrew in a state of deteriorating health. Clarke was confident that higher education for young women was dangerous because it was "out of harmony with the rhythmical periodicity of the female organization" (79-84). In other words, education interfered with women's reproductive organs, which were viewed as the foundation of women's health.

Clarke's graphic bodily descriptions denote not only his expertise over women's bodies but his access to understanding and assessing women's bodies due to his role as a physician. As one who has supposedly seen the detrimental bodily effects of higher education, Clarke warns that "The results are monstrous brains and puny bodies; abnormally active cerebration, and abnormally weak digestion; flowing thoughts and constipated bowels; lofty aspirations and neuralgic sensations" (41). Clarke argues that as women engage in activities for which they are not naturally suited, such as rigorous mental exercise, they are destroying their bodies. It is precisely Clarke's vivid description of the bodily harm caused by higher education that makes his account more dramatic and alarming to audiences.

Later in his work, Clarke asserts that "identical education of the two sexes is a crime before God and humanity, that physiology protests against, and that experience weeps over" (41). Here, Clarke not only argues that women's higher education is detrimental to physical health but that it is also amoral. And as the expert on women's bodies, Clarke also claims his moral responsibility to prescribe a role for women that is socially, morally, and naturally fitting. Such an assumption on Clarke's part demonstrates, once again, how women's bodies were both a site of intervention and also an inscriptive surface "on which laws, morality, values, [and] power [were] inscribed" (Grosz 1995, 33).

Although Clarke's study only consisted of several cases, his work, as well as other studies published by his esteemed peers in the medical community, exerted a strong influence upon leaders in higher education (Smith-Rosenberg 1985, 259-260). Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, state legislators and institutional leaders debated over whether or not their institutions should offer unrestricted educational programs to women. For those institutions that did admit women, many restricted them to a reduced course load or barred them from entering into regular degree programs. In order to justify the restrictions placed on female students, the Regents of the University of Wisconsin explained that it was "better that the future mothers of the state should be robust, hearty, healthy women than that, by over study, they entail upon their descendants the germs of disease" (45). Here, concerns over women's bodies were of state-level importance and harm towards young women's bodies could threaten the future of a sparsely populated, fledgling state.

Regardless of the reliability of Clarke's work, the widespread popularity and acceptance of it demonstrates the effectiveness, at the time, of centering arguments against women's higher education on clinical expertise claiming women's poor health. Among the supporters of Clarke were physicians who agreed that too much schooling ruined potentially good mothers (Smith-Rosenberg 1985, 118-162, 258-259). Throughout Clarke's work, his detailed descriptions of female anatomy and physiology, replete with scientific jargon, lent an air of authority to his work even though his claims were only based on a handful of case studies.


Although Clarke's work gained widespread popularity with medical and educated public audiences, a number of female physicians and feminists came forward publicly to refute his claims. Rejecting Clarke's notion that higher education caused harm to women's bodily and reproductive health, they argued that on the contrary, higher education, exercise, and occupations would strengthen women physically and mentally. According to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, female physicians "failed to share the alarm with which their male colleagues contemplated the dangers of coeducation [and] emphatically repudiated male physicians' insistence on women's physiological fragility" (262).

Although Clarke's work was largely accepted, some physicians questioned the "extremely impressionistic cases offered in the book [and] its lack of sustained physiological argument" (Wells 2001, 172). Because Clarke's main concern over women's higher education was its supposed interference with women's menstruation, the Harvard medical faculty included among its 1874 Boylston Essay Prize topics the following question: "Do women require bodily and mental rest during Menstruation, and to what extent?" (Putnam Jacobi 1925, xxvii). Learning of the essay topic and seizing the opportunity to challenge Clarke, Cambridge feminists asked Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi if she would be willing to submit a research paper on the subject.

In "The Question of Rest for Women during Menstruation," which was the winner of the essay prize in an anonymous review, Putnam Jacobi explained that menstruation did not constitute a "female disease" and need not interfere greatly with women's day-to-day activities so long as proper diet and exercise were provided. In other words, menstruation did not constitute uterine "congestion," or "the expression of a morbid condition," but was rather a normal process of tissue production and degeneration. She provided evidence that nutrition and rest, and not the reproductive organs, were the foundation of women's health (Putnam Jacobi 1877).

By normalizing women's bodily processes and de-emphasizing physiological differences between the sexes, Putnam Jacobi was able to counter arguments that insisted on women's inherent biological inferiority and hence, unsuitability for higher education. In addition, Putnam Jacobi refuted the popular notion of a passive female mind and body and portrayed them as resilient and adaptive, given the proper environment. She also described women's reproductive cycles as a process of "forming provisions," or a process of gathering strength, which she called "force," rather than in the context of deficiency and illness (Putnam Jacobi 1877). Here we are able to see that the terms of the debate over women's higher education were guided by textual and rhetorical representations of the female body. Women's fitness for higher education was reliant upon whether they were deemed healthy or ill and whether menstruation was interpreted as an enfeebling or "natural" process.

Challenges to Clarke's claims came from other female physicians as well. In 1881, doctors Augusta Pope, Emily Pope, and Emma Call published a study in which they surveyed 430 women doctors and asked them about their physical health. They found that the majority of respondents were in excellent health and concluded in their report: "We do not think it would be easy to find a better record of health among an equal number of women, taken at random, from all over the country" (7).

In addition, prominent female leaders and feminists also countered Clarke in Sex and Education: A Reply to Dr. E. H. Clarke's "Sex in Education," edited by Julia Ward Howe. Articles were contributed by female leaders such as Mrs. Horace Mann, Reverend Olympia Brown, and Caroline H. Dall and included official endorsements of women's higher education from the University of Michigan and Vassar, Antioch, and Oberlin colleges (Howe 1874). Howe reasoned that women's higher education could not be the single root cause for women's poor health. In her review of Howe's Sex and Education, educator Anna Brackett reasoned in a similar fashion that there were likely other factors that have contributed to women's poor health and that it was not sufficient "to know simply that a [woman in poor health] attended school and studied and recited regularly." Environmental factors were also of concern:
   We want to know also the kind of food she eats, and how cooked, and
   the regularity of her meals. We want to know the state of
   ventilation of the school room and her home; we want to know how
   many hours of sleep she has, how many parties she has attended,
   what underclothing she wears [etc.]. We also want to know what
   proportion of cases come from pampered, half educated devotees of
   fashion, and what proportion from well-educated, hard working women

By pointing out the ways in which a woman's body may be affected by the environment--ways that Clarke had neglected to account for--Brackett undermined Clarke's argument and challenged his expertise over women's bodies. In doing so, Brackett also reclaimed women's authority over their own bodies. In addition, Brackett also recognized that Clarke's findings were inconclusive due to the unreliable nature of his sampling and states: "When we have all these statistics, and not till then, shall we be in a condition to attempt a rational solution of the question" (388).


In addition to stirring a public debate over the issue of higher education for women and provoking a variety of responses from female leaders, Clarke's work also prompted the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (ACA) to conduct their own study to test his assertions. Unconvinced that Clarke's work was a fair assessment of the health of college-educated women and that college education was to blame for the cases of poor or declining health, the ACA decided to conduct a study that would involve a national sample of college-educated women.

Founded in 1882 by Marion Talbot, a Boston University graduate of 1880, the ACA was the first major organization for female college graduates. Its aim was to provide support for women who had completed college, as well as to open doors for more women to enter into higher education. By 1885, the ACA had multiple branches and a membership of nearly thirteen hundred women who represented colleges and universities nationwide (Zschoche 1984, 91).

Although Clarke's work had significantly impacted the opinion of the medical community and the educated public, one vital flaw left his work susceptible to challenge. Because Clarke had relied upon a small number of case studies to come to his sweeping conclusions about the dangers of higher education, a more comprehensive study involving a nationally-representative sample of college-educated women could cast major doubt on Clarke's assertions. In fact, one physician who had made similar claims to Clarke against women's education admitted that his theories were drawn from strong suspicions and were "not founded on any basis of collated statistical facts," although he hoped that such statistical evidence would soon be produced by the medical community (Clouston 1883, 333-334). While female physicians such as Mary Putnam Jacobi had refuted some of Clarke's assertions, such as the dangers of mental stimulation during menstruation, none had provided evidence to counteract Clarke's general claim that higher education was detrimental to women's overall health.

After the publication and subsequent widespread popularity of Clarke's work, the ACA responded by creating a committee to investigate the validity of his claims (Talbot 1931, 3-15). Under the leadership of Annie Howes, a Vassar graduate of 1874, a committee of ACA members began to collect data on the health conditions of female college graduates. They created a forty-question survey that asked respondents about a variety of factors that could affect health, including hereditary predispositions, severity of workload, living habits, as well as stress levels. Unlike prior attempts to understand the effects of higher education on women's health, the study included questions about childhood living conditions, college environmental conditions, post-graduation circumstances, and individual health since graduation (ACA Health Committee Survey 1885). In total, 1,290 surveys were distributed to all members of the ACA and 705 were returned, which according to Talbot was "a proportion far above the average in similar attempts to secure information" (119). The ACA then partnered with Carroll D. Wright, chief of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics, in order to tabulate, analyze, and publish the results. Their findings, which were quite contrary to what Clarke and others had asserted, were published in 1885 in Health Statistics of Female College Graduates:

The facts which we have presented would seem to warrant the assertion [...] that the seeking of a college education on the part of women does not itself necessarily entail a loss of health or serious impairment of the vital forces. Indeed, the tables show this so conclusively that there is little need [...] for extended discussion of the subject (Wright 1885, 63).

The study, which was the most comprehensive to date on women's education and health, found that higher education did not have an adverse effect on women's short- or long-term health, since the respondents included recent graduates as well as those who had completed their college education more than ten years prior. In addition, data collected by the ACA constituted the physical histories of about one-half of all female college graduates in the country. Seventy-eight percent of the respondents reported themselves in good or excellent health after graduation and eighty-three percent in fair or better health. In fact, the data even suggested that higher education may have been beneficial to health as some respondents reported lower degrees of health when entering college and improvement of health at the end of college.

With a scientific study on their side, the ACA could confidently claim that higher education was not harmful to women's health. Although Caroline Dall, a prominent Boston feminist, had lamented some years earlier following the publication of Clarke's book that it would be impossible for women to sway public opinion due to their lack of scientific expertise and authority (Howe 1874, 89), the ACA demonstrated that they could make an impact as long as they adopted the language of science and social Darwinism. Howe's final paragraph of the report exemplifies the ACA's use of science and social Darwinism to substantiate their findings:

We have every reason to congratulate ourselves, that our willingness to search for the truth and to bear the responsibility of its verdict has led to so encouraging and satisfactory a revelation. We can feel confident that a higher education for women is in harmony with that vast law of the survival of the fittest which guides the activities of the dim future (Talbot 1931, 119).

More importantly, however, the ACA also carefully delineated the ways in which the their study was a direct refutation of Clarke's work and a reclaiming of female authority over their own bodies. Echoing Clarke's reference to the laws of nature and of morality, Howe indicated that the ACA study had determined that women's higher education did not violate "the universal physical and moral laws of Nature" and did not create the "evil results" that were so feared (Wright 1885, 5). In the introductory paragraph to the report, Howe also skillfully crafts an argument against the popular belief of women's inherent biological weakness. She explains that although many women in America suffer from poor health, one possible explanation is that the advances in modern medicine have allowed weaker women to survive to maturity--women who "in a former generation would have been blighted in early youth" (Wright 1885, 7). This, however, is not to be viewed as a deficit, as Howe claims that such "delicately organized women" often have "minds of unusual mental force" (Wright 1885, 7). Hence, Howe not only turns the argument of women's inherent biological inferiority on its head, but she also claims that rigorous mental activity is not a cause of poor health but rather can be achieved despite poor health.


Although the women of the ACA had organized "the most effective counterattack on the social-Darwinist theory of education," which John Dewey described as "exceedingly comprehensive," it did not quell all debate surrounding women's higher education (Zschoche 1984, 92-94). In the decades following the publication of Health Statistics, female physicians were still publishing studies countering claims that higher education was harmful towards women's health (Morantz-Sanchez 1985, 56). However, by the 1910s, Clarke's ideas had largely been refuted and higher education for women had generally become accepted. Writing in 1910, Talbot remarks that "the principle has been established and will never be sacrificed, that women shall have, if they wish it, the best intellectual training the world knows" (20). By then, the ranks of the ACA had grown to 4,377 members, 579 of whom had completed a master's degree and 144 of whom had completed a doctoral degree (Talbot 1910, 20).

In order to make a convincing argument in favor of women's higher education, feminists and female physicians utilized the language of science and social Darwinism in order to garner public support and credibility. By doing so, they also reasserted women's authority over their own bodies and rejected male physicians' enforcing of social and moral discipline through their alleged "expertise" over women's bodies. Women such as Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi and Julia Ward Howe countered Clarke's claims using the language of science and also laid the groundwork for a more comprehensive study to follow by the ACA.

While recounting women's responses to Clarke contributes to a feminist history of women and education, it also demonstrates how the debate over women's higher education centered on the rhetorical and textual representations of women's bodies. Indeed, this study illustrates the relevance of the concept of the body in understanding the debate over women's higher education and the implications of authority over women's bodies. It also highlights how women's bodies became a site of intervention and an inscriptive surface "on which laws, morality, values, [and] power [were] inscribed" (Grosz 1995, 33). Allowing women a "fair chance" to compete with men in higher education was more than just a question of women's health. It came down to who had the scientific expertise, and hence, authority to prescribe women's social role. In demonstrating through scientific methods that women were not harmed by higher education and in portraying women's bodies textually and rhetorically as resilient and adaptive, female leaders were able to reclaim authority over women's bodies and turn the tide of the debate in their favor.

Tiffany Lee Tsang

University of California, Los Angeles


(1.) For a discussion on the usefulness of the body as a method of analysis in gender history see Kathleen Canning, "The Body as Method?: Reflections on the Place of the Body in Gender History," in Gender History in Practice by Kathleen Canning (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 168-192


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Author:Tsang, Tiffany Lee
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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