Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sarah Smith: "Retaking the Register"

Smith's article tries to flip the view that women's higher education had its heyday in the late 19th century, instead arguing that that time period marked the end of many years of successful female education. This article would obviously fall under the category of "education", and also has some footing in the "employment and work" theme.
I found Smith's argument convincing for the most part. The basic premise that she builds her argument off of is that historians cannot measure higher education for the time period (apprx. 1790-1870) in terms of number of graduates. Graduation at that time did not hold significant value, and very few men, let alone women, actually "graduated" from universities. She instead places value on the availability and attendance of lectures.
The article basically consists of two case studies - one of the Andersonian lecture series (1796-97) and subsequent University, and the other of Glasgow's Queen's college. Smith outlines, especially with the Andersonian lectures, that women had access to and attended lectures that covered science and math as well as literature. The Andersonian lectures were specifically geared towards women, with a "double-ticket" (admit 2 ladies or 1 lady and 1 man) system that specifically encouraged women to attend. The main lecturer, Thomas Garnett, is quoted as having believed that women could enjoy and progress just as much as men in the field of education.
I was surprised at the early dates and the encouraging language regarding women's education that Smith brought to light. Smith cites the Enlightenment idea of "art for art's sake" as a key idea in the allowance of education for women in the late 1700s and early to mid 1800s. Women were allowed to enjoy education without the expectation of it's "usefulness" to their practical lives. This changed, according to Smith, when Victorian ideas about spheres of influence increasingly brought women into the private sphere, and demanded more "usefulness" for education. Another point that Smith made was that education for women was only reigned in when women began to seek employment in gendered-male employ.
...Which brings me to my favorite quote from this article. In response to women's desire to access the medical profession in the late 1800s:

"doctors began to warn of delirium and death among women students, asserting that their 'uteruses would atrophy and their brains would burst' if they indulged in higher learning.” (Smith 327-28).

The theme of employment and work can also be seen in the way that the emergence of women seeking gendered-male jobs negatively affected women's opportunities for higher education. The growth of the cult of domesticity also played a role in taking women out of higher education, as their valued "work" became fulfilling the role of the 'angel of the house', as Victorian ideals increasingly took hold. I feel that Smith supported her argument well, although at several points in her essay she notes that "more research will need to be done..." and she didn't even know what really came of the Queen's college. There is obviously more room for exploring this topic, but I think her re-working of the extent and value of women's education for the pre-1870s time period was valid.



  1. I'm a little concerned about the way this is worded... perhaps I've just missed something. Overall I feel like this has said that education for women that can be deemed more or less useless towards practical purposes is a marker for more women's rights? Whereas it used to be that education only had to be useful for a women's job. If that is not what was meant, then that's on me, but I feel like that argument is so totally refuted. We've talked about education for women in the past (the Victorian age in particular!) where education was desired because useless information would enlarge a woman's mind the right way to be a better mother and wife, but not because it taught her to be a better mother and wife. We see being learned and "accomplished", as Jane Austen so often put it, more as a marker for a LACK of women's rights as I see it. Literacy in Latin, painting or music seemed to set useless knowledge as women's knowledge, and more useful and important matters to the men's jurisdiction. In the Becoming Visible chapter on WWII, the author mentions the previous attitudes that separated the men's responsibility (managing the world) from the women's responsibility (buying the right washing machine). If all of this rant has been in error, forgive me, but I don't feel like I misunderstood...

  2. I don't know that the author was actually making claims on women's rights, but rather showing that the history of women's education has missed a big chunk by ignoring the fact that lectures open to women were around long before places like Oberlin College. I also feel like there is a difference between Victorian age "education" and having scientific lectures in Edinburgh in the 1700s open to women.