The Science Education of American Girls 1784-1932
This dissertation begins in 1784, with the appearance of the first American geography schoolbook. The author dedicated his text to ""the Masters and Misses of the United States,"" signaling its appropriateness for females. Like other late-eighteenth century American geography schoolbooks, Jedidiah Morse's book was a compendium of elementary scientific subjects, including geography,
natural history, natural philosophy (physics), and astronomy. As the following chapters will demonstrate, the texts of Morse and other geography others were only the first of many science texts to find their way into the hands of nineteenth-century American girls. Chapter One explores the social, cultural, and economic motives underlying this curricular development.
The second and third chapters undertake a comparative investigation of the scientific studies of girls and boys in
private secondary schools during the antebellum period. These schools educated the majority of the nation's secondary students before 1880, and many were single-sex rather than coeducational schools. Chapter Two analyzes the courses of study and examinations of boys' and girls' schools in order to evaluate the degree to which they emphasized scientific subjects. To compare the content and level of difficulty of the sciences available to girls with those offered boys, Chapter Three analyzes samples of textbooks used in male and female institutions.
Two long-standing assumptions about the science education of girls are challenged in Chapters Four and Five. First, it has been suggested that nineteenth-century American girls abandoned the study of the physical sciences because of their mathematical complexity. In order to test this theory, Chapter Four analyzes the evolving mathematics education of American girls from the antebellum period to the end of the nineteenth century and compares the curricula available to girls with that offered their male counterparts. Second, scholars have argued that growing numbers of young women took up the study of natural history in the nineteenth century largely because of cultural beliefs linking women to nature. Chapter Five tests this theory in light of the evidence provided in several overlooked contemporary sources.
The role of women in science education during the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries is the subject of the subsequent two chapters. The spotlight shifts from girls to women because during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the vast majority of females who studied science in secondary schools and higher institutions
did so in order to become teachers. Thus, negative developments affecting this career path would logically have had a direct impact on girls1 level of interest and enrollment in scientific subjects. Chapter Six analyzes women's growing participation and leadership in a form of natural-history education known as nature study. The reaction of the male education community against the increasing influence of women in the nature-study movement is the focus of Chapter Seven. This chapter also details the creation of institutional barriers to women's employment and advancement in science education, roadblocks erected by a number of newly-formed professional organizations in the science education community.
Chapter Eight analyzes additional social and curricular developments that contributed to the demise of science as a girls' subject. The first of these, which originated earlier in the nineteenth century, was the trend among elite girls' schools to emphasize the classics in their curricula as part of an effort to elevate the status of their institutions. The second, which gained momentum at the century's end, was a national movement to include vocational and commercial subjects in secondary schools as part of a larger effort to adjust schooling to the presumed future destinies of boys and girls, especially those of the
working classes. The chapter explores the probable effects of these two developments on the science enrollments of girls
in secondary schools.
In preceding efforts to recount the history of pre college science education in the United States, some historians have completely ignored developments in female education. This leaves their readers to conclude that the activities of girls and women had little bearing on the historical course of events.® In an attempt to redress such omissions, other scholars have erred by focusing on females to the exclusion of males. This strategy leaves unanswered a number of important questions about the extent to which the science education available to girls was comparable to that offered boys. The research undertaken for this study reveals that both of these limited approaches obscure an important interaction. As the following chapters will demonstrate, the form and content of precollege science education developed, in part, as a result of the greater social interaction and often the direct competition of the two sexes.
Type of Publication
Higgins Tolley, Kimberley F.
University of California, Berkeley
Number of Pages
Nation(s) of Study
United States of America