Fortunately, some forward-thinking women decided a solid education wasn't just possible, but essential for all women.
The first formal educational institutions were founded for American women in the early 19th century. The Troy Female Seminary started by Emma Willard in 1821 in New York State is typical of this early era. Girls between the ages of 10 and 17 boarded at the seminary, attended a full day of schooling and received instruction in Latin, chemistry, natural philosophy (physics), moral philosophy, geometry, geography, writing, music, drawing and physical exercise.
Willard purposely omitted classes in needlework, preferring to offer a curriculum comparable to that typical of men's colleges of the time. Her students were the daughters of farmers, shopkeepers and the wealthy.
Finishing schools, a conservative response to institutions like Troy, emphasized etiquette rather than academics. With the founding of Vassar (1861), Wellesley (1870) and Smith (1870) colleges, the concept of the finishing school that ignored the academic and professional preparation of young women became much less prominent.
"The idea that each young woman could become whatever she desired to become was deeply instilled in us," recalls Marilyn Herring, a graduate of Ursuline Academy (UA) in Blue Ash in the 1960s. "It was expected that we use our voices and assume leadership responsibilities within our school and later within society. There was also a deep commitment to community service."
The expectation that women could and would offer society more than embroidered samplers was the foundation on which many of the first women's schools were built. Now a teacher at Ursuline, Herring still sees remarkable strides being made in how her alma mater prepares the next generation of women for their professional and personal lives.
"In the late '60s, sports were weak and competitive teams were just getting started," she says. "Science and math education today at Ursuline are much better, perhaps even outstanding."
Surprisingly, a remnant of the finishing school is reflected in Herring's high school experiences as both a student and a teacher.
"Since the first graduation in 1896, the ceremony at UA has exhibited the accouterments of a finishing school with each girl appearing in a long white dress, carrying a bouquet of red roses and bowing to the audience after her name has been called," she says.
But this tradition, Herring says, doesn't hinder Ursuline students in their quest for academic excellence.
Originally barred from attending existing institutions, which were built and maintained for men, women were forced by the gender-separated system of education to create, fund and operate their own schools. Their day-to-day experiences taught them what modern research has proven: Girls learn differently from boys.
Psychologists have discovered that differences in the way girls and boys learn are neurologically based. In girls, the areas of the brain that produce language develop before the areas necessary for special reasoning. In boys the opposite is true.
Furthermore, emotion is processed in girls in the same area of the brain where language is produced. In boys, the regions of the brain that produce speech are separate from the regions that produce emotions. These few physiological examples of gender differences suggest the profound impact teaching methodologies have on successful learning outcomes.
Alternative view of Pride and Prejudice
The period between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression afforded the most striking social and political advances for women. Achieving suffrage -- the statutory right or privilege granted to a person or group by a government such as voting -- gave women a new legal status.
Together with new laws concerning marriage, property ownership, inheritance and protection for workers, suffrage allowed American women to advance beyond their previous legal subordination to men.
By the late 19th century, the U.S. was becoming an urban nation at the same time coed public education gradually was becoming more available in cities. Educator and reformer Horace Mann spearheaded the public school movement -- there were 100 public high schools in the country in the 1880s, but 40 years later that number had increased to more than 14,000.
Parallel to the growth in public high schools was the rise of elite institutions of learning for girls. These were generally, but not always accurately, characterized as anti-Semitic, racist and exclusive of immigrants.
This negative profile of the private girls' school for wealthy Americans changed under the influence of the civil rights and women's movements of the 1960s. Girls' schools made a conscious effort to integrate and diversify their student bodies.
"The strength of an all-girls high school for me has been the focus on learning," says Alison Weber, a senior at Ursuline Academy. "We feel at home at Ursuline, we are deeply connected to one another and there is no group hostility."
But is a sex-segregated education a realistic way to successfully prepare young women for the world in which they'll live and work?
"A male perspective" is what Herring says is missing in an all-girls school. She suggests that reading novels such as Pride and Prejudice or Catch 22 with a boys' school English class and then meeting to discuss the material is one way to fill the void.
Weber views the situation differently.
"I really never have missed the male perspective," she says. "Many of my friends are boys, and we discuss academic matters on the weekend, so I can get their perspectives if I want them."
She also says she hasn't experienced daily problems with drugs, violence, bomb threats and police lockdowns, nor has she experienced discrimination because she's a girl. What Weber believes is missing from her educational experience is a larger view of life that includes more social, economic and cultural diversity.
"I am not aware, as I should be, of the challenges women and girls experience in other social classes and in the developing world," Weber says. "Perhaps this blindness could be remedied by teaching girls about the lives of women on a global scale."
Even though access has always been a key element in women's efforts to receive an education throughout U.S. history, the struggle of how best to provide the basics of education for all girls and women is still a challenge. Early institutions worked to support the career needs of women while simultaneously advancing social reform; modern institutions need to continue to do the same.
Weber feels that the future is open to her both personally and professionally. Even though some girls like her are well-educated compared to their ancestors, many girls in lower socio-economic groups and girls across the globe still aren't receiving the education they need.
To make that happen, successful women need to use their education to see to it that all girls have access to an excellent education in a safe and supportive environment. ©